Angry Eyes (2)

MAP isaf-rc-south

This is the second installment of my analysis of an air strike orchestrated by a Predator in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan on 21 February 2010; the first installment is here.

(4) Command and control?

What was happening in and around Khod was being followed not only by flight crews and image analysts in the continental United States but also by several Special Forces command posts or Operations Centers in Afghanistan.  In ascending order these were:

(1) the base from which ODA 3124 had set out at Firebase Tinsley (formerly known as Cobra);

(2) Special Operations Task Force-12 (SOTF-12), based at Kandahar;

(3) Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) based at Bagram.

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Once the ODA 3124 left the wire, command and support passed to SOTF-12; the OD-B at Tinsley had limited resources and limited (and as it happens intermittent) communications access and could only monitor what was happening.

That was normal, but in fact both higher commands did more or less the same: and the investigating team was clearly appalled.  At SOTF-12 all senior (field grade) officers were asleep during the period of ‘highest density of risk and threatening kinetic activity’ (although they had established ‘wake-up criteria’ for emergency situations).  The Night Battle Captain had been in post for just three weeks and had been given little training in his role; he received a stream of SALT reports from the Ground Force Commander of ODA 3124 (which detailed Size of enemy force, Activity of enemy force, Location and Time of observation) but simply monitored the developing situation – what one investigating officer characterised as ‘a pretty passive kind of watching’.

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The same was true at CJSOTF-A (the staff there monitored 15-25 missions a day, but this was the only active operation that had declared a potential Troops in Contact).

When the more experienced Day Battle Captain entered the Joint Operations Center at Kandahar and was briefed by the Night Battle Captain he was sufficiently concerned to send a runner to ask the Judge Advocate, a military lawyer, to come to the JOC.  He believed the occupants of the vehicles were hostile but was not convinced that they posed an immediate threat to troops on the ground:  ‘I wanted to hear someone who was extremely smart with the tactical directive and use of CAS [Close Air Support] in a situation I hadn’t seen before’.

This was a smart call for many reasons; the commander of US Special Forces, Brigadier General Edward Reeder, told the inquiry: ‘Honestly I don’t take a shit without one [a JAG], especially in this business’.  Significantly, the Safety Observer at Creech testified that there was no ‘operational law attorney’ available onsite for aircrews conducting remote operations; conversely, JAGs were on the operations floor of CENTCOM’s Combined Air and Space Operations Centre at Ul Udeid Air Base and, as this case shows, they were available at operations centers established by subordinate commands in-theatre.

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The JAG at Kandahar was not routinely called in for ‘Troops in Contact’ but on this occasion he was told ‘my Legal Opinion [was] needed at the OPCENT and that it wasn’t imminent but they wanted me to rush over there right away…’

Meanwhile up at Bagram Colonel Gus Benton, the commanding officer of CJSOTF-A, was being briefed by his second-in-command who understood that the Ground Force Commander’s intention was to allow the three vehicles to move closer to his position at Khod.  He thought that made sound tactical sense.

‘I said that … is what we did, we let them come to us so we can get eyes on them. During my time I never let my guys engage with CAS if they couldn’t see it. I said that is great and COL [Benton] said “that is not fucking great” and left the room.’

At 0820, ten minutes after the JAG entered the JOC at Kandahar, while he was watching the Predator feed, the phone rang: it was Benton.  He demanded Lt Colonel Brian Petit, the SOTF-12 commander, be woken up and brought to the phone:

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He spectacularly mis-read the situation (not least because he mis-read the Predator feed).  It was true that the vehicles were in open country, and not near any compounds or villages; but Benton consistently claimed that the vehicles were ‘travelling towards our objective’ whereas – as MG McHale’s investigating team pointed out to him – they were in fact moving away from Khod.

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There had also been some, inconclusive discussion of a possible ‘High Value Target’ when the vehicles were first tracked, but the presence of a pre-approved target on the Joint Prioritised Effects List (Benton’s ‘JPEL moving along this road’) had never been confirmed and the Ground Force Commander had effectively discarded it (‘above my authority’, he said).

Certainly, the JAG at Kandahar read the situation differently:

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When Benton rang off, the JAG went over to the Day Battle Captain and Lt Col Petit and recommended an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction (AVI) team be called in for a show of force to stop the vehicles without engaging the occupants in offensive action.

They agreed; in fact another Task Force also watching the Predator feed called to make the same suggestion, and the Fires Officer set about arranging to use their Apache helicopters to conduct an AVI:

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The Fires Officer had been responsible for setting up the Restricted Operating Zone for aircraft supporting the ODA – de-conflicting the airspace and establishing what aircraft would be available – but its management was de-centralised:

‘I establish the ROZ, give the initial layout of what assets are going on, and then I pass that to the JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller with the Ground Force Commander at Khod].  I pass the frequencies to the assets and the JTAC controls them from there.’

At 0630, long before all this frantic activity at Kandahar, the two OH-58s had arrived at a short hold location beyond the ‘range of enemy visual and audio detection’, and at 0730 they had left to refuel at Tarin Kowt.  The Day Battle Captain and the Fires Officer both thought they were still off station.  In fact, the helicopters had returned to hold at Tinsley/Cobra at 0810 and flat pitched to conserve fuel (which means they landed and left the rotor blades spinning but with no lift); thirty minutes later the JTAC called them forward and the Predator began to talk them on to the target.

The Day Battle Captain had another reason for thinking he and his colleagues in the JOC had more time.  He maintained that the helicopters had been brought in not to engage the three vehicles but to provide air support if and when the ‘convoy’ reached Khod and the precautionary ‘AirTic’ turned into a real TIC or Troops in Contact:

‘… the CAS brought on station for his [the Ground Force Commander’s] use was not for the vehicles but for what we thought was going to be a large TIC on the objective. The weapons team that was pushed forward to his location was not for the vehicles, it was for the possibility of a large TIC on the objective based on the ICOM chatter that we had.’

That chimes with Benton’s second-in-command at Bagram, who also thought the Ground Force Commander was waiting for the ‘convoy’ to reach Khod, but neither witness explained the basis for their belief.  It was presumably a string of transmissions from the JTAC to the Predator crew: at 0538 he told them the Ground Force Commander wanted to ‘keep tracking them and bring them in as close as we can until we have CCA up’ (referring to the Close Combat Attack helicopters, the OH-58s); shortly before 0630 he confirmed that the Ground Force Commander’s intent was to ‘permit the enemy to close, and we’ll engage them closer when they’re all consolidated’; and at 0818 he was still talking about allowing the vehicles to ‘close distance.’

Yet this does not account for the evident urgency with which the Day Battle Captain and the JAG were concerned to establish ‘hostile intent’ and ‘immediate threat’.  When the vehicles were first spotted they were 5 km from Khod, and when they were attacked they were 12 km away across broken and difficult terrain: so what was the rush if the Ground Force Commander was continuing to exercise what the Army calls ‘tactical patience’ and wait for the vehicles to reach him and his force?

In fact, the messages from the Ground Force Commander had been mixed; throughout the night the JTAC had also repeatedly made it clear that the ODA commander’s intent was ‘to destroy the vehicles and the personnel’.  The Ground Force Commander insisted that ‘sometime between 0820 and 0830’ he sent a SALT report to SOTF-12 to say that he was going to engage the target.  Unfortunately there is no way to confirm this, because SOTF’s text records of the verbal SALT reports stopped at 0630 for reasons that were never disclosed (or perhaps never pursued), but it would explain why the JTAC’s log apparently showed the JAG contacting him at 0829 to confirm there were no women and children on the target.  It would also account for testimony by one of the screeners, who realised that the helicopters were cleared to engage at 0835, ten minutes before the strike, when the NCO responsible for monitoring the Predator feed at SOTF-12 ‘dropped’ into the ‘ISR’ (I presume the relevant chat room window), and in response:

‘The MC [Mission Intelligence Co-ordinator at Creech] passed that the OH58 were cleared to engage the vehicles. We were all caught off guard… It seemed strange because we had called out that these vehicles were going west. I don’t know how they determined these vehicles to be hostile… I brought up a whisper [private chat] with the MC, I said are you sure, what are the time frames when they will be coming in, and the MC responded saying we don’t know their ETA and at that moment the first vehicle blew up…’

Should those watching the events unfold have been taken aback when the vehicles were attacked?  According to the pilot of the Predator, he and his crew were surprised at the rapid escalation of events:

‘The strike ultimately came a little quicker than we expected…. we believed we were going to continue to follow, continue to pass up feeds… When he decided to engage with the helos when they did, it happened very quickly from our standpoint. I don’t have a lot of info or situational awareness of why the JTAC decided to use them when they did. When they actually came up … the JTAC switched me on frequencies. So we weren’t talking on the frequency I was talking to him on a different frequency to coordinate with the helos.

But their surprise was as nothing compared to the reaction of most observers when the first vehicle exploded.  The officer in charge of the screeners and imagery analysts who had been scrutinising the Predator feed at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida couldn’t believe it:

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The Day Battle Captain testified:

‘I did not feel that the ground force commander would use any kind of close air support whatsoever to engage those vehicles… Based on the information that I had and looking at the vehicles move away it did not appear that they were moving towards the ground forces…

… as we were watching the Predator feed the first vehicles exploded. And everyone in the OPSCEN was immediately shocked… The amount of time from when that course of action approved by the SOTF commander to when we actually saw the strike occur there was no time, there was not adequate time to inform the ground commander that that was the course of action decided by the CJSOTF commander… I have phones ringing left and right, talking to people, trying to explain things, you know we look up on the screen and it happened…’

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The Fires Officer:

‘I don’t think at any time anyone communicated to the GFC [Ground Force Commander] not to strike these vehicles because it is not something that we normally do. We feel that if he is in contact with the Predator and the OH-58s that we sent out to screen which we were not aware of and he is on the ground he generally has a pretty good picture of what is going on. He might be more privy to some conversation that he had with the OH-58 than what we know about. We normally give the GFC pretty big leeway on how they operate and the same with the JTAC because he has control of the assets and I am not going to try to take his assets away.’

In short, the investigation concluded that the Ground Force Commander never knew that an Aerial Vehicle Interdiction was being arranged, and neither of his higher commands were aware that he had cleared the helicopters to attack the three vehicles.

But, as I will show next, what lay behind these failures of communication was a de-centralised, distributed and dispersed geography of militarised vision whose fields of view expanded, contracted and even closed at different locations engaged in the administration of military violence.  Far from being a concerted performance of Donna Haraway‘s ‘God-trick’ – the ability to see everything from nowhere – this version of networked war was one in which nobody had a clear and full view of what was happening.

Part of this can be attributed to technical issues – the different fields of view available on different platforms, the low resolution of infra-red imagery (which Andrew Cockburn claims registers a visual acuity of 20/200, ‘the legal definition of blindness in the United States’), transmission interruptions, and the compression of full-colour imagery to accommodate bandwidth pressure.  So for example:

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But it is also a matter of different interpretive fields.  Peter Asaro cautions:

‘The fact that the members of this team all have access to high-resolution imagery of the same situation does not mean that they all ‘‘see’’ the same thing. The visual content and interpretation of the visual scene is the product of analysis and negotiation among the team, as well as the context given by the situational awareness, which is itself constructed.’

The point is a sharp one: different visualities jostle and collide, and in the transactions between the observers the possibility of any synoptic ‘God-trick’ disappears.  But it needs to be sharpened, because different people have differential access to the distributed stream of visual feeds, mIRC and radio communications.  Here the disposition of bodies combines with the techno-cultural capacity to make sense of what was happening to fracture any ‘common operating picture’.   As one officer at Kandahar put it:

‘We didn’t have eyes on, minus ISR platform, that we can all see, who watches what? All the discrepancies between who watches what. What I see may be different from what someone else might interpret on the ISR… ISR is not reliable; it is simply a video platform.’

He was talking specifically about the multiple lines of communication (and hence bases for interpretation) within his Operations Center: now multiply that across sites scattered across Afghanistan and the continental United States and it becomes clear that the contemporary ‘fog of war’ may be as much the result of too much information as too little.

To be continued.

Theory of the drone 9: Psychopathologies of the drone

This is the ninth in a series of extended posts on Grégoire Chamayou‘s Théorie du drone and covers the fourth chapter in Part II, Ethos and psyche.

4 Psychopathologies of the drone

One of the most common media tropes in discussing ‘a day in the life’ of drone operators is their vulnerability to stress and, in particular, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Chamayou traces this to an Associated Press report by Scott Lindlaw in August 2008, which claimed that the crews who ‘operate Predator drones over Iraq via remote control, launching deadly missile attacks from the safety of Southern California 7,000 miles away, are suffering some of the same psychological stresses as their comrades on the battlefield.’  Similar stories have circulated in other media reports.  The root claim is that, unlike pilots of conventional strike aircraft, drone crews see the results of their actions in close-up detail through their Full-Motion Video feeds and that they are required to remain on station to carry out a Battle Damage Assessment that often involves an inventory of body parts.

One recent study, ‘Killing in High Definition‘ by Scott Fitzsimmons and Karina Singha, presented at the International Studies Association in San Francisco earlier this year, makes the truly eye-popping suggestion that:

‘To reduce RPA operators’ exposure to the stress-inducing traumatic imagery associated with conducting airstrikes against human targets, the USAF should integrate graphical overlays into the visual sensor displays in the operators’ virtual cockpits. These overlays would, in real-time, mask the on-screen human victims of RPA airstrikes from the operators who carry them out with sprites or other simple graphics designed to dehumanize the victims’ appearance and, therefore, prevent the operators from seeing and developing haunting visual memories of the effects of their weapons.’

But in his original report Lindlaw admitted that ‘in interviews with five of the dozens of pilots and sensor operators at the various bases, none said they had been particularly troubled by their mission’, and Chamayou contends that the same discursive strategy – a bold claim discretely followed by denials – is common to most media reports of the stresses supposedly suffered by drone crews.  More: he juxtaposes the crews’ own denial of anything out of the ordinary with the scorn displayed towards their remote missions by pilots of conventional strike aircraft who, in online chatrooms and message boards, regard the very idea as an insult to those who daily risk their lives in combat.

The argument Chamayou develops closely follows William Saletan‘s commentary in Slate:

[The AP story] shows that operating a real hunter, killer, or spy aircraft from the faraway safety of a game-style console affects some operators in a way that video games don’t. But it doesn’t show that firing a missile from a console feels like being there — or that it haunts the triggerman the same way. Indeed, the paucity of evidence — despite the brutal work shifts, the superior video quality, and the additional burden of watching the target take the hit — suggests that it feels quite different.

Chamayou’s reading is more aggressive.  In his eyes, the repeated claim of vulnerability to stress emerged as a concerted response to criticisms of the supposed ‘Playstation mentality’ that attends remote killing and its reduction of war to a videogame.  He insists that it’s little more than an attempt to apply ‘a veneer of humanity to an instrument of mechanical murder’ – ‘crying crocodile tears’ before devouring the prey – and that it rests on absolutely no empirical foundation. This raises the stakes, of course, and it’s only fair to note that Lindlaw’s interviews with drone crews did not talk up combat-related stress and in fact a USAF white paper dismissed as ‘sensational’ the claim that PTSD rates among RPA crews were higher than those suffered by their forward-deployed counterparts.

Indeed, Chamayou himself relies on a public lecture given by Colonel Hernando Ortega, a senior medical officer attached to the USAF Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency in February 2012.  Ortega reported USAF research that showed – conclusively – that drone crews are subject to often extraordinary stress.  But this is primarily a matter of their conditions of work – the demands of paying close attention to a screen hour after hour – and the rapid shift alternations between work and home (‘telecommuting to the war zone’) that allow little or no time or space for decompression.  Ortega explained that the symptoms rarely rise to the level of PTSD and are primarily the product of ‘operational stress’ rather than the result of combat-induced exposure to violence.

‘They don’t say [they are stressed] because we had to blow up a building. They don’t say because we saw people get blown up. That’s not what causes their stress — at least subjectively to them. It’s all the other quality of life things that everybody else would complain about too.’

Ortega could think of only one sensor operator who had been diagnosed with PTSD – a study by Wayne Chapelle, Amber Salinas and Lt Col Kent McDonald from the Department of Neurosurgery at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine reported that 4 per cent of active duty RPA pilots and sensor operators were at ‘high risk for PTSD’ – but Ortega’s research questionnaires often revealed a sort of self-doubt over whether drone crews had made the right call when coming to the aid of troops in conflict rather than a direct response to a ‘physical threat event’:

‘Now it’s not to say that they don’t really feel about the physical threat to their brothers who are on the ground up there.  The band of brothers … is not just in the unit. I believe it’s on the network, and I believe the communication tools that are out there has extended the band of brothers mentality to these crews who are in contact with guys on the ground. They know each other from the chat rooms. They know each other from the whatever, however they communicate. They do it every day, same thing all the time…. So that piece of the stress, I think, when something bad happens, that really is out there…’

This sounds to me like the situation I described in ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab): the networked nature of remote operations draws operators into the conflict (which is why they so often insist that they are only 18″ from the battlefield, the distance from eye to screen) but on highly unequal, techno-culturally mediated terms that predispose them to identify with troops on the ground rather than with any others (or Others) in the immediate vicinity.  What Chamayou takes from all this is Ortega’s conclusion:

‘The major findings of the work so far has been that the popularized idea of watching the combat was really not what was producing the most just day to day stress for these guys. Now there are individual cases — like I said, particularly with, for instance, when something goes wrong — a friendly fire incident or other things like that. Those things produce a lot of stress and … more of an existential kind of guilt… could I have done better? Did I make the right choices? What could I have done more?’

DSM -5In fact for Chamayou the very idea of drone crews experiencing PTSD is an absurdity.  According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM -5, 2013; revised from the previous version cited by Chamayou, this incorporates major changes from DSM-IV, but these do not materially alter his main point), PTSD is a trauma and stressor-related disorder brought about by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.   The American Psychiatric Association explains:

The exposure must result from one or more of the following scenarios, in which the individual:

• directly experiences the traumatic event;

• witnesses the traumatic event in person;

• learns that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend (with the actual or threatened death being either violent or accidental); or

• experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (not through media, pictures, television or movies unless work-related).

Drone crews do not ‘directly experience’ any traumatic event, Chamayou insists, and far from being ‘witnesses’  they are the perpetrators of trauma.  Those last three words in the extract I’ve just quoted do open up a third scenario – which would leave open the possibility of being affected by high-definition exposure through the FMV feeds and the Battle Damage Assessments performed by drone crews – but Chamayou hones the role of the perpetrator to explore a different though not unrelated scenario.

He takes his cue from Karl Abraham‘s discussion of neuroses in the First World War:

‘It is not only demanded of these men in the field that they must tolerate dangerous situations — a purely “passive performance — but there is a second demand which has been much too little considered, I allude to the aggressive acts for which the soldier must be hourly prepared, for besides the readiness to die, the readiness to kill is demanded of him…. [In our patients the anxiety as regards killing is of a similar significance to that of dying.’

51nCFmy0gdLChamayou is most interested in the development of this line of thought by psychologist/sociologist Rachel MacNair, who widens the field of PTSD to incorporate what she calls Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS): you can find a quick summary here.  (McNair is a long-time peace activist and in accordance with the ‘consistent life ethic’ she has used her work on PITS to intervene in what she calls ‘the abortion wars’; she is also associated with the Center for Global Nonkilling: see here).

Her book was written too early to address the use of drones for remote killing, but Chamayou suggests that this would be an appropriate means of putting their ‘psychopathologies’ to the test.  He thinks that individual operators lie somewhere between two poles: either they are indifferent to killing at a distance (the screen as barrier) or they feel culpable for the violence they have inflicted (the screen forcing them to confront the consequences of their actions).  It is, he concludes, an open question: though his next chapter on ‘Killing at a distance’ proposes a series of answers.

In fact, the USAF recognises the distinct possibility of PITS affecting drone crews, as this slide from a presentation by Chappelle and McDonald shows:


This year MacNair became President of Division 48 (Peace Psychology) of the American Psychological Association and instituted three Presidential Task Forces, the first of which specifically addresses drones.  She writes:

‘Task Force 1 is examining “The Psychological Issues of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Weaponized drones).” This will focus on the flying robots that kill, not the ones doing surveillance, nor the consumer drones that loom on the horizon. this is a very new field, with very little literature. We’ll look at what the psychological impact is on operators of the systems, the bureaucracy, surviving victims, and special therapeutic needs. The task force email for any feed-back or good literature citations or to request the full list of questions is dronetF@’

The newsletter also includes a short statement from the next President of the Division, Brad Olson, setting out ‘Some thoughts for the Drone Task Force’ and an article by Marc Pilisuk on ‘The new face of war’.

Peace Psychology

Let me add three other comments.

(1) To limit the discussion to PTSD is to set the bar very high indeed, and the evidence of lower-level combat-induced stress on drone crews is less straightforward than Chamayou makes out.  In March 2013 Jean Otto and Bryant Webber reported the results of a study of ‘mental health outcomes’ covering the period 1 October 2003 to 31 December 2011 for 709 drone (RPA) pilots and 5, 526 pilots of manned aircraft (MA); they found that the crude incidence of adjustment, anxiety, depressive and other disorders among RPA pilots was considerably higher than for MA pilots, but once the samples were adjusted for age, number of deployments and other factors the ‘incidence rates among the cohorts did not significantly differ’ (my emphasis).

MH outcomes USAF

The study was experimental in all sorts of ways and it does not – could not – provide a fine-grained analysis of the nature of the pilots’ exposure to violence.  We should bear in mind, too, that the study was inevitably limited by inhibitions, both formal and informal, on admitting to any form of stress within the military.  But the report does suggest that it is a mistake to separate drone crews from the wider matrix of military violence and its effects in which they are embedded.

brandon-bryant-e1369021667128(2) If Chamayou is right in his suspicion that all this talk of drone crews being affected by what they see on their screens was a concerted strategy designed to disarm claims that remote operations reduce war to a videogame – in which case, not everybody in the Air Force was singing the same tune – the fact that most of them turn out to conduct their missions with equanimity does not prove the critics right: it does not follow that they take their responsibilities less seriously or more casually than the pilots of conventional strike aircraft.  Pilots and sensor operators undoubtedly have recourse to gallows humour (Chamayou would no doubt say that this befits their role as ‘executioners’), and there are too many reported instances of language that I too find repugnant, though I see no reason not to expect the same amongst military personnel of all stripes.  But there is also anecdotal evidence of situations in which pilots and their crews have been deeply affected by what they saw (and, yes, did).  The testimony of at least one former operator, Brandon Bryant (above, left), who has been diagnosed with PTSD, suggests that those involved probably move between these extremes – between the two poles proposed by Chamayou – dis/connecting as their actions and reactions entangle with events on the screen/ground.

(3) The most careful review I know of what is a complicated and contentious field is Peter Asaro, ‘The labor of surveillance and bureaucratized killing: new subjectivities of military drone operators, Social semiotics 23 (2) (2013) 196-22.  This combines medico-military studies, media reports and an artful reading of Omer Fast‘s film, 5,000 Feet is the Best.  as Peter says, there are many jobs that involve surveillance and many jobs that involve killing, but

‘What makes drone operators particularly interesting as subjects is not only that their work combines surveillance and killing, but also that it sits at an intersection of multiple networks of power and technology and visibility and invisibility, and their work is a focal point for debates about the ethics of killing, the effectiveness of military strategies for achieving political goals, the cultural and political significance of lethal robotics, and public concerns over the further automation of surveillance and killing.’

It’s a tour de force that navigates a careful passage between the ‘heroic’ and ‘anti-heroic’ myth of drones.  Here is what I take to be the key passage from his conclusion:

‘On the one hand, drone operators do not treat their job in the cavalier manner of a video game, but they do recognize the strong resemblance between the two. Many drone operators are often also videogame players in their free time, and readily acknowledge certain similarities in the technological interfaces of each. Yet the drone operators are very much aware of the reality of their actions, and the consequences it has on the lives and deaths of the people they watch via video streams from half a world away, as they bear witness to the violence of their own lethal decisions. What they are less aware of … is that their work involves the active construction of interpretations. The bodies and actions in the video streams are not simply ‘‘given’’ as soldiers, civilians, and possible insurgents – they are actively constructed as such. And in the process of this construction the technology plays both an enabling and mediating role. I use the term ‘‘mediating’’ here to indicate that it is a role of translation, not of truth or falsity directly, but of transformation and filtering. On the one hand there is the thermal imaging that provides a view into a mysterious and hidden world of relative temperatures. And thus these drone technologies offer a vision that contains more than the human alone could ever see. On the other hand we can see that the lived world of human experience, material practices, social interactions, and cultural meanings that they are observing are difficult to properly interpret and fully understand, and that even the highest resolution camera cannot resolve the uncertainties and misinterpretations. There is a limit to the fidelity that mediation itself can provide, insofar as it cannot provide genuine social participation and direct engagement. This applies not only to both surveillance and visuality, which is necessarily incomplete, but also to the limited forms of action and engagement that mediating technologies permit. While a soldier on the ground can use his or her hands to administer medical aid, or push a stalled car, as easily as they can hold a weapon, the drone operator can only observe and choose to kill or not to kill. Within this limited range of action, meaningful social interaction is fundamentally reduced to sorting the world into friends, enemies, and potential enemies, as no other categories can be meaningfully acted upon.’

There’s a discussion of these various issues, including many of the people mentioned in this post, at HuffPost Live here.