War Stories

The video from our War Stories event in Vancouver last month – including Farah Nosh‘s narration of her wonderful photographs, a superb capsule genealogy of PTSD from Ann Jones, my discussion of casualty evacuation over the last hundred years, a drama staged by veterans from Afghanistan and directed by George Belliveau, Contact! Unload!, and a lively Q&A with the audience moderated by Peter Klein is now available here.


My lecture, Precarious journeys, has also been carved out for the Peter Wall Institute website here. The idea behind the event was, in large measure, to think through the multiple ways in which modern war is narrated, which is why we had such a rich and diverse portfolio of performers and why I take the turns I do…  Regular readers will probably recognize that the arc of my presentation draws on my current research on evacuation from the Western Front in the First World War, on evacuation from Afghanistan today, and on my admiration for Harry Parker‘s Anatomy of a Soldier (see my ‘Object lessons’ here and the slides available under the DOWNLOADS tab).

More in an interview with Charlie Smith from the Georgia Straight here.

‘Our daily threat’

41Oi3YngcQL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_For the longest time the only victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the wars in Afghanistan who were accorded any media attention in Europe and North America were ground troops,  drone pilots and on occasion foreign civilians who worked in the combat zone. And much of that discussion focussed on the ways in which, as  Sebastian Junger put it, the effects of PTSD ripple far beyond the battlefield:

[Veterans] return from wars that are safer than those their fathers and grandfathers fought, and yet far greater numbers of them wind up alienated and depressed. This is true even for people who didn’t experience combat. In other words, the problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society.

But what about those denied re-entry into ‘normal’ society, those for whom war long ago became the ‘new normal’?  Apart from the odd glance at other combatants – ‘Do the Taliban get PTSD?Newsweek once asked – the plight of local people trapped in the battlefield, living and dying every day in the shadows of military and paramilitary violence, has been largely ignored.

There have been exceptions, like Anna Badkhen‘s report for the Pulitzer Center on Afghanistan as ‘PDSTland’ that also offered a more general commentary:

Psychological impact of war trauma on civiiliansCompared with research into the effects of conflict on U.S. war veterans, studies of combat trauma among civilians are few. But there is a growing understanding among medical scientists and conflict experts that the emotional toll of war on noncombatants is more significant than had been assumed. During World War I, when military physicians described soldiers’ traumatic reactions to war as “shell shock,” about nine out of 10 war casualties were fighters. But after nearly 50 years of the Cold War and more than 10 years of the war on terror, the way we wage war is more personal. Terrorism battlefields recognize no front lines. Vicious sectarian rampages pit neighbor against neighbor. Victims of genocidal campaigns often know their attackers by name. In the most current conflicts, at least nine out of 10 war casualties are believed to be civilians, writes psychologist Stanley Krippner in his book The Psychological Impact of War Trauma on Civilians [This is a collection of essays Krippner co-edited with Maria McIntyre]. In Iraq, where as many as 1 million people may have died since 2003, the rate might be even higher. No one kept track of civilian casualties in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2007, and estimates vary widely; given the United Nations’ tally of almost 12,000 civilian deaths since the beginning of 2007, a rough guess of between 20,000 and 30,000 civilian casualties since 2001 seems reasonable.

Communal psychological wounds – what medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman has called “social suffering” – permeate the lives of survivors scraping by in unimaginable poverty amid collapsed infrastructure, the common afterbirth of modern combat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 30 and 70 percent of people who have lived in war zones bear the scars of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Over the years I’ve read endless reports about the ways in which the US military in particular is exploring new therapies for PTSD – including experiments in Virtual Reality as a way of helping victims re-live and ultimately come to terms with trauma, like Virtually Better‘s Bravemind staged in ‘Virtual Afghanistan’ (see below; also here, here, here and here).


This doesn’t mean that progress is rapid or solutions straightforward, and David Morris‘s The Evil Hours ought to banish any such complacency.  Here is Tom Ricks:

From battlefields and cultural responses to traumatized warriors throughout world history to the internecine corridors of the San Diego V.A. hospital and the modern psychology establishment, Morris gives sight to the blind examining the PTSD elephant, offering up a clear understanding of what the beast is as well as the path it’s traveled across the landscape of warfare. He draws from a seemingly inexhaustible well of experience. Herding a cast that includes Hemingway, Klosterman, Sassoon, a host of anthropologists and neurologists, and the soldiers and veterans he met throughout his own odyssey, Morris accomplishes the necessary work of identifying all the necessary aspects of PTSD and still finds a way to magnify the nuances of how it affects individuals and societies.

Evil Hours Cover Final-1The “out-of-body” experience and the recurring memory of traumatic events are familiar to those afflicted by PTSD. Many describe it as watching a movie on repeat from every possible angle. It’s the mind’s vain attempt to challenge trauma like a call in a football game, gathering the referees around a screen to watch the replay over and over until the past can be rewritten in favor of justice. Others who have attempted books about PTSD have floundered in this conceit. Morris avoids that and maintains his place at the commentators’ desk — close enough to call the play-by-play, but far enough away to keep perspective. Instead of raging at length about the process of enrolling in the V.A. care system (whose bureaucracy he declares forces veterans to run “a patience marathon”), he reflects on its problematic advocacy of “large, scalable, Evidence-Supported Treatments.” Morris unearths troubling aspects in the character of these treatments as he traces the history of PTSD therapy. He finds that they are highly impersonal … and make the afflicted feel more like they’re being treated as lab rats than patients. He observes that these methods are a profound departure from the type of treatments discovered and evolved by W.H.R. Rivers during WWI and, later, Vietnam veterans groups during the 1970s. Though Morris’s own experience with prolonged exposure treatment met with poor results and he expresses misgivings about similar therapeutic methods, he remains objective about their efficacy. Rather, he takes a more important and less scrutinized view of how treatments are vetted in the first place. Questioning the practice of excluding patients who drop out of test programs from data sets instead of listing them as showing no signs of improvement, Morris asks if reports inaccurately portray success rates. This leaves the V.A.’s dogmatic insistence on evidence-based methods particularly vulnerable to skewed numbers…  His exploration of the pharmaceutical approach to PTSD reaches similar conclusions. As Morris writes, “‘Evidence-supported’ and ‘evidence-based’ mostly means that a lot of doctors happen to like it, oftentimes for reasons that have less to do with the actual value of a therapeutic protocol than with trendiness.”

So PTSD has become a medical-psychological-psychiatric and even -technological minefield, and the figure of what Roy Scranton calls ‘the trauma hero‘ still casts a long shadow over its deformations (and even contributes to them).

But when you compare these avowedly fraught therapeutic interventions with the often forcible recourse of many Afghan victims of PTSD to shrines, a radically divergent medical geography comes into view (much as it does when you compare the differential treatment for catastrophic injury: see my commentary on ‘The prosthetics of military violence’ here).  Anna writes:

Most Afghans turn for comfort to religious shrines – small mausoleums or simply fenced, coffin-sized ziggurats, painted green and laced with shreds of shiny cloth that sparkle along country roads and hillsides like jewels. Pilgrims come to kneel or lie prostrate next to the metal palisades, seeking delivery from the djinns that possess them – evil spirits that trigger sudden violent outbursts and long bouts of melancholia, that bedevil their sleepless nights with nightmares and turn their days into lethargic slogs.

This doubly dreadful world is portrayed in a new film by Jamie Doran and Najibullah Quraishi for Al Jazeera, Living beneath the drones (which you can also access on YouTube if the embedded video fails).

This is not the first time that the trauma of living beneath the ‘persistent presence’ of Predators and Reapers has been brought to critical attention, most vividly in the NYU/Stanford study Living Under Drones: Death, injury and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan (2012).  But this is the first time I’ve seen such a detailed investigation of the impact of military violence on the people of Afghanistan.  As I’ve noted before, it’s taken a remarkably long time for investigators to examine the role of remote warfare in Afghanistan  – ‘remote’ in more ways than one – and Living beneath the Drones includes the standard interviews with David Deptula and Peter Singer who offer their usual contrasting views about its effects.

Afghanistan drone bombings BOIJ.001

But for me this is the least important contribution of the film; it’s the intimate exposure of the treatment meted out to traumatised victims of military and paramilitary violence that is most unsettling.  In fact, it’s not easy to disentangle the impact of Predators and Reapers from the larger matrix of violence in which they are enmeshed.  True, many of those interviewed describe how their lives are haunted by the drones, but this is a country where the dogs of war have prowled for four generations or more and trauma has never been rationed.  As Kevin Sieff’s report for the Washington Post in October 2012 showed, it’s usually impossible to fasten on a single incident or even to get an adequate history:

No one here knows the man whose left leg is shackled to the wall of cell No. 5. Last week, he finished tearing his mattress to shreds and then moved onto his clothes, ripping his shirt and pants off before falling asleep naked…

The man’s brothers drove him here from southern Kandahar province two weeks ago, drawn by the same belief that has attracted families from across Afghanistan for more than two centuries. Legend has it that those with mental disorders will be healed after spending 40 days in one of the shrine’s 16 tiny concrete cells. They live on a subsistence diet of bread, water and black pepper near the grave of a famous pir, or spiritual leader, named Mia Ali Sahib.

Every year, hundreds of Afghans bring mentally ill relatives here rather than to hospitals, rejecting a clinical approach to what many here see as a spiritual deficiency. The treatment meted out at the shrine and a handful of others like it nationwide might be archaic, but the symptoms are often a response to 21st-century warfare: 11 years of night-time raids, assassinations and suicide bombings.

For over a decade, Western donors have helped train Afghan psychiatrists, who diagnose many of their patients as having an ailment with a distinctly modern acronym: PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health departments in Afghanistan are plastered with posters detailing the disorder’s symptoms. Pharmacies are stocked with antipsychotic drugs.

But many of those suffering from the disorder never see doctors or pharmacists. Instead, they are taken on the long, unmarked dirt road, through a village of mud huts, that leads to an L-shaped agglomeration of cells.

The brothers of the man in cell No. 5 drove back to Kandahar, more than 400 miles away, once the shackles were in place. They left an indecipherable phone number on a scrap of paper. They paid $20 for the treatment, as all patients must. If they told anyone the name of the man, no one remembers.

“What will I do with this man?” asked Shafiq, the shrine’s director and a descendant of Sahib. “Who is this man?”

Shafiq wondered: Was the man’s mental state a product of war? Was he a former soldier? A civilian who had seen too much horror?

Afghan shrine:Mikhail Galustov

And so here is Emma Reynolds on what I take to be the central message of Living beneath the drones:

When a Western soldier suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, there are doctors and organisations who can help them recover from the heartbreaking legacy of war.

When it is someone from Afghanistan, where bombings regularly wreak devastation and tear families apart, you are unlikely to find any assistance, since there is little understanding of mental illness in the country.

“The most common treatment is to take your loved one to a religious shrine where they are chained to walls or trees for up to 40 days, fed stale bread, water and ground pepper, and read dubious lines from the Qur’an by individuals with no medical or, for that matter, religious training,” documentary-makers Jamie Doran and Najibullah Quraishi [said]…

Many of the shrines are nothing more than money-making enterprises run by con artists with little or no religious training…

You might have thought that civilians and soldiers living in war zones would become hardened to this life, and find it almost normal. In fact, the pervasive atmosphere of violence and fear takes a bitter toll, and this terrible truth can be seen most clearly in Afghanistan, the site of the longest war ever for Australia and the US. “When you talk to them, there is little joy in their words any more,” said UK-based director Doran…  “Anyone with a family, children, someone you love, is forever in fear of losing them. You can see it in their worn faces.”

Hope and confidence in the future had steadily dissolved, with millions now thought to be suffering from PTSD, with little hope of treatment. Only one hospital in the entire country is dedicated to mental health, despite official estimates indicating that 60 to 70 per cent of the country’s population now suffer from some mental health problem. Unofficial estimates go as high as 95 per cent. This is the real human impact of living with the daily threat of death.


I’ve been working my way through the proofs of ‘The natures of war’, in which (among other things) I try to show that soldiers are not only vectors of military violence but also victims of it.  My analysis fastens on the Western Front in the First World War, Northern Africa in the Second World War, and Vietnam – the final draft is under the DOWNLOADS tab and the published version should be up on the Antipode website later this month – but I hope it will be clear to readers that the implications of this claim , and the others in the essay, extend into our own present.  They also intersect with my current research on casualty evacuation from war zones, 1914-2014.

So I’ve been interested in three recent contributions that detail the aftermath of war for those who fight them.

First, Veterans for Peace UK have worked with Darren Cullen to produce a short film, Action Man: Battlefield Casualties [see the clip above] in an attempt, as Charlie Gilmour explains over at Vice,

‘to show the shit beneath the shine of polished army propaganda. Featuring PTSD Action Man (“with thousand-yard stare action”), Paralysed Action Man (“legs really don’t work”) and Dead Action Man (“coffin sold separately”)…’ [see also my post on ‘The prosthetics of military violence‘]


In keeping with the project’s authors, Charlie insists – I think properly – that many of those who were sent to Afghanistan from the UK were child soldiers (and here I also recommend Owen Sheers‘ brilliant Pink Mist for an unforgettable portrayal of what happens when boys who grow up ‘playing war’ end up fighting it: see also here and here).  As the project’s web site notes:

The UK is one of only nineteen countries worldwide, and the only EU member, that still recruits 16 year olds into its armed forces, (other nations include Iran and North Korea). The vast majority of countries only recruit adults aged 18 and above, but British children, with the consent of their parents, can begin the application process to join the army aged just 15…

It is the poorest regions of Britain that supply large numbers of these child recruits. The army has said that it looks to the youngest recruits to make up shortfalls in the infantry, by far the most dangerous part of the military. The infantry’s fatality rate in Afghanistan has been seven times that of the rest of the armed forces.

Forces Watch JPEG

Child Soldiers International JPEG

A study by human rights groups ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International in 2013 found that soldiers who enlisted at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 or above, even though younger recruits are, for the most part, not sent to war until they are 18.

You can find another thoughtful reflection on child soldiers by Malcolm Harris over at the indispensable Aeon here. He doesn’t include the British Army in his discussion, but once you do you can see that the implications of this passage extend beyond its ostensible locus (Nigeria):

But can a child truly volunteer to join an army? Even when they enlist by choice, child soldiers do so under a set of constraining circumstances. UNICEF makes the choices sound easy: war or dancing, war or games, war or be a doctor. No rational child would pick the former for themselves, and that’s posed as evidence that their freedom has been taken from them. But when the choice is ‘soldier or victim’, voluntarism takes on a different meaning.

FINKEL Thank you for your service

Second, moving across the Atlantic and providing an extended riff on the ‘thank you for your service’ gesture, the latest issue of New Left Review includes an essay by Joan Wypijewski, ‘Home Alone‘, that describes the journey home faced by many US veterans.  She begins by putting David Finkel‘s compelling book in context:

The term ‘Thank You for Your Service’ developed early on in the long wars. Like ‘Support the Troops’, it was a way for a sheltered people to perform unity. In towns across America yellow ribbons, yellow lawn signs, balloons and car decals sprouted like team colours on game day. War would be a sport, the people spectators, and ‘Thank you for your service’ the high-five to combatants after quick and decisive victory. When that proved a vain hope, team spirit settled into the rhythms of commerce. ‘Support the Troops’ appeared the way ‘Buy American’ once had—a slogan on shop windows, billboards, bumper stickers. War was an enterprise, security its product, the people consumers, the soldiers trained workers and ‘Thank you for your service’ a kind of tip. As the enterprise (though hardly the business) failed, the signs faded, sometimes replaced by an image of folded hands, ‘Pray for Our Troops’. War had become a problem, the soldiers exhausted, the people clueless and ‘Thank you for your service’ a bit of empty etiquette, or a penance. By the time Finkel was writing [his book was published in October 2013], what remained among civilians was a desire to move on, and among soldiers, bitterness. ‘They wouldn’t be fucking thanking me if they knew what I did’, many would say, in almost exactly the same words.

Joan works her way through Finkel’s account, and then turns to Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, a documentary film – five years in the making, and the second instalment in a trilogy devoted to a ‘genealogy of wrath‘ – of Trauma Group sessions at a treatment centre in the Napa Valley:

‘What we have is embarrassing as shit’, a thick, tight young white man says in the Trauma Group. ‘You feel small—you feel defective.’ And so it goes, and so men trained for toughness talk of being weak and scared and monstrous, or just diligent. Of working in Mortuary Affairs: ‘breaking the rigour down’ to get the corpse of a 19-year-old who killed himself flat enough for a body bag, or untangling the remains of a group of faceless soldiers burned in a truck who are fused ‘like a bunch of rope’. They talk of their dreams, of their frightened wives. Maybe she moved out and got a restraining order before he came home, or maybe she has the divorce papers but is holding back as long as he’s getting help. ‘I have no clue what it’s like to be a woman married to a man twice your size and that’s lethal, in the military, and takes his rage out on you—someone that’s supposed to love you’, a former medic says. He is slim, white, deer-like. You don’t know his war story yet, and you don’t know when you’ll find out, if you’ll find out, but you listen as he and one after another after another deals with a world of pain. And maybe men balk, and maybe they storm out of the room, and maybe Gusman, whom you’ve also never really met but who is always there, has to remind them that ‘being a hostage to the war zone is not a life’. You follow them out of the room, taking smokes, meditating, visiting their wives or parents, calling on locals, trying to be well or pass for well, knowing they’re not. You watch their children doing typical childlike things, running, laughing in a high-pitched scream, and you feel anxious for everyone in the room. You itch to get back to the Trauma Group and, amazingly, don’t feel like a voyeur, because this isn’t war porn; this is the shit, as they say.

It isn’t beautiful or horrible, it just is. And you don’t like all of these people, but that isn’t the point. They are all struggling to be human again, and you have to ask yourself if you know what that means.

Not so much dressing but ‘addressing their wounds is a revolution’, Bécue-Renard insists, and you can see – literally so – what he means.  Joan’s commentary ends with other, perhaps also revolutionary reflections.  In America, she argues,

… there has been no serious debate on, let alone demand for, a universal draft as a democratic check against offensive war. We talk against empire, but are beneficiaries of the imperial state’s professional and technological adjustments to the anti-war movement’s past victories. We talk about the invisible draft but, perhaps encouraged by the bravery of Iraq Veterans Against the War, still hope that soldiers whose food, clothing, shelter, families and identity depend on the job of war-fighting will mutiny en masse. We talk, from time to time, about the culture of abuse in basic training and on military posts, but are silent on the regimens of discipline that are being hyper-enforced in anticipation of downsizing, in other words layoffs. And for the one thing the military, however twistedly, provides—belonging, solidarity, a sense of honour and family-feeling as against loneliness—we have no alternatives at all.

Finally, Duke University Press has announced that Zoe Wool‘s book, After War: the weight of life at Walter Reed, will be out soon:

In After War Zoë H. Wool explores how the American soldiers most severely injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars struggle to build some kind of ordinary life while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from grievous injuries like lost limbs and traumatic brain injury. Between 2007 and 2008, Wool spent time with many of these mostly male soldiers and their families and loved ones in an effort to understand what it’s like to be blown up and then pulled toward an ideal and ordinary civilian life in a place where the possibilities of such a life are called into question. Contextualizing these soldiers within a broader political and moral framework, Wool considers the soldier body as a historically, politically, and morally laden national icon of normative masculinity. She shows how injury, disability, and the reality of soldiers’ experiences and lives unsettle this icon and disrupt the all-too-common narrative of the heroic wounded veteran as the embodiment of patriotic self-sacrifice. For these soldiers, the uncanny ordinariness of seemingly extraordinary everyday circumstances and practices at Walter Reed create a reality that will never be normal.


Here are two of the endorsements:

“Hollywood films and literary memoirs tend to transform wounded veterans into tragic heroes or cybernetic supercrips. Zoë H. Wool knows better. In her beautifully written and deeply empathic study of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed, Wool shows us the long slow burn of convalescence and how the ordinary textures of domestic life unfold in real time. An important and timely intervention.” — David Serlin, author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America.

“This brilliant and absorbing ethnography reveals how the violence of war is rendered simultaneously enduring and ephemeral for wounded American soldiers. Zoë H. Wool accounts for the frankness of embodiment and the unstable yet ceaseless processes through which the ordinary work of living is accomplished in the aftermath of serious injury. After War is a work of tremendous clarity and depth opening new sightlines in disability and the critical politics of the human body.” — Julie Livingston, author of Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic.

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@ peacepsych.org.’

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.