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Ethics and morality, Violence and trauma

‘There is a spectrum of responses to killing far-off enemies’

Professor Peter Lee talks to Annie Brookman-Byrne about the experiences of armed drone pilots.

08 January 2020

Peter Lee, Professor of Applied Ethics, appeared in The Psychologist's pages in 2017, highlighting the moral engagement of drone pilots in remote warfare, encouraging us to go beyond the knee-jerk reaction of assuming drone pilots dehumanise their targets from behind a screen. In his letter, Lee referred to the field research he has conducted with British drone crews. This is now incorporated into Lee's book, Reaper Force – The Inside Story of Britain's Drone Wars, which includes interviews with drone crews from operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Lee's book offers a unique insight into what it's really like to conduct lethal drone strikes against members of Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (better known as ISIS) and the Taliban.  

Let's start with an overview. What is your background, and why did you decide to carry out this in-depth research? 

The pivotal event in my personal and professional life was the 2003 Iraq War. At the time I was serving as a chaplain in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and at the outbreak of war I was sent to a British military hospital in Cyprus. For five months I spent 8 to 16 hours a day at the bedsides of grievously wounded and injured military personnel – mainly young soldiers – who had been airlifted from Iraq or Afghanistan. Every day variations on the same questions arose. 'Should we be at war?' 'Should I have done what I did?' 'Will my wife/partner still love me now that I have lost an arm?' 'What do I do with my life now?'

The experience changed me and set the path that would eventually lead to my research with RAF Reaper drone crews. I became interested in the ethics of war and in the way that war affects the people who fight them. Intellectually, I went on to undertake a PhD on the ethics of war. Emotionally, my combination of high empathy and squeamishness took its toll. And spiritually, something broke. In 2008 I left RAF chaplaincy and started my first lectureship teaching the ethics of war – ironically, mainly to trainee air force officers. 

A combination of fortunate events over several years brought me into contact with a few Reaper crew members: pilots who fly the aircraft-sized drones and fire the 100lb missiles and 500lb bombs they carry, sensor operators who direct the weapons onto targets and control the surveillance sensors, and mission intelligence controllers who make sure they watch or hit the correct people or objects. I was granted official access to the RAF Reaper squadrons in 2014 for a qualitative questionnaire study to understand the role of personal ethics in the experiences of operators. When 25 respondents provided me with 40,000 words of feedback I realised that a much bigger project – a book-sized project – would be needed to even begin to understand the complexity of that world. The ethical aspects of drone operations could not be separated from the operational, social and psychological aspects of conducting war – watching and killing, to be blunt – from distant continents. 

Tell us about the fieldwork. 

I had a bit of a track record by 2015 and my personal position on military drones was – and remains – that of a cautious advocate. 'As long as they are used within legal and ethical constraints', summarises my position. Research ethics approvals from the RAF, Ministry of Defence and my university took until mid-2016 when I started my field research. I adopted a qualitative, ethnographic approach that sought to understand the breadth of operator experiences in the context of their military operations. 

In July and August 2016 I spent several weeks embedded with both 39 Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and with XIII Squadron at RAF Waddington in the UK. On my first day with 39 Squadron I was provided with a key card and pin number that got me in everywhere. Unsupervised! Within minutes I was sitting in a Ground Control Station (GCS) with a crew for a 10-hour mission flying a Reaper over Iraq and watching ISIS fighters and mobile weapons. On my second day I watched over the shoulders of a pilot and sensor operator as they conducted two lethal strikes, killing one and six people respectively. What became immediately clear was the intense visual, emotional and psychological intimacy of what they were doing. 

In my book I take the reader into the GCS and try to capture the immersive intensity the crews face on every shift. When I was not sitting in with the crews watching them at work I was carrying out interviews. By the time I submitted my book manuscript I had interviewed 45 active crew members, 21 former crew members, and 24 spouses and partners. 

Despite concerns that armed drones enable moral disengagement from killing, it is clear from the interviews that the crews are acutely aware of the implications of their actions. 

The US started using the Predator drone in the early 2000s and the US and UK later acquired the larger Reaper drone. In those first few years the common assumption from onlookers – myself included – was that the operators had to be morally disengaged from the act of killing. It stood to reason. Throughout history, technology has enabled combatants to attack their enemies from greater and greater distance as the sword gave way, in turn, to the spear, bow and arrow, rifles, artillery, bomber aircraft, torpedoes and long range missiles. As the physical distance from targets increased so did the psychological distance. Dave Grossman provides a compelling case for this phenomenon in his book, On Killing.

What has not been widely understood is that the close-up views of the people they observe, and sometimes kill, place military drone operators in a distance paradox. They are physically far away but visually, emotionally and psychologically intimate. Increasingly high definition live video imagery – say, of a prisoner being beheaded – magnifies this intimacy. The impact of the powerlessness to intervene or help in those situations is profound.

Few would dispute that police online child sex crime investigators can be psychologically harmed by viewing traumatic images on a screen. Facebook content moderators are reportedly harmed by viewing extreme videos and images. Yet that same logic has not been widely extended to military drone crews.  

In the book, you say that some crew members have changed as a result of what they have seen and done. In what ways?

The almost universal view amongst those I interviewed is that Reaper drone operators are affected by what they do. Only a handful have claimed to be unaffected, and two of those claims were laughed at by their spouses. Rory made the point quite forcefully: 

'I have been on the Reaper for a long time and it has changed me… Little things that might seem petty – even to me – set me off. Sometimes I just can't stop myself. I can feel it almost welling up inside me: this frustration. Not necessarily anger, just frustration. I don't know where it comes from, and I don't know why… If anybody on the Reaper fleet says it doesn't affect them, then they're lying. It does. It has to.' 

One of the factors that intrigues me is the differing extent to which the people involved are affected. At one end of the spectrum are individuals who have done this work continuously for five or more years and seem fairly well adjusted, content at work and minimally affected. At the other end, some are almost burned out after one or two years and need to go off and do something else. I compiled a 'Reaper Operator Resilience Matrix' of 30+ factors that either positively or negatively contributed to individual resilience.

It is almost inevitable that people will be affected psychologically by doing this job at the extreme of human behaviour – killing in war. The armed forces have a responsibility to adequately mentally prepare their people for the challenges they face, support them during the process, and provide appropriate aftercare where necessary. I have learned from the Reaper Force personnel that people will willingly endure significant mental trauma and fatigue over an extended period if they feel that they are making a positive difference in the world. 

The testimonies you present in the book show that there is no single response to engaging in remote warfare. Do you think that armed drones do normalise killing for some? And do they differ from other types of warfare in that regard?

Yes, there is no standard or simple answer. There is a spectrum of responses to killing far-off enemies. Nige reported that it did become 'very, very normal' over time, yet that very normalisation is something he critically reflected on afterwards. Nige went on to say: 'When you're on the Reaper Force, what is "normal" is not normal. But you think it is.' I write about another sensor operator, Jake, who hated the idea of killing and could not conduct lethal strikes again after his first shot left a Taliban fighter maimed with his lower leg blown off. Others find it harder and harder to shoot as time passes and the lethal strikes mount up. Another chapter is devoted to Jamie, who recounts in very personal detail his involvement in the unintentional killing of four civilians in Afghanistan in 2011 – what happened, and how it affected him. He is still on the Reaper Force but killing has never been normalised for him. 

Interestingly, not a single person said to me that they regretted or would 'take back' a particular bomb or missile strike. Perhaps that is influenced by the rules which give the crews, the pilot in particular, the ability to refuse to take a particular shot. I recount several examples. They also have the ability and authority to abort a strike even while the bomb or missile is in the air if, for example, a civilian wanders or drives into the impending blast zone. 

I am sure that there is a degree of normalisation – perhaps routinisation is a better descriptor – and I think there are clear differences from other types of warfare. While crews are immersed for the duration of a single shift they go back to their homes, families, friends and communities afterwards. Or speak to them by phone during breaks from flying. They have constant reminders of what 'normal' looks like for most other people, even if their lived normality is different. Soldiers, sailors or conventional aircrew deployed on military operations are immersed in that environment for many months. When I was a military chaplain years ago I both observed and experienced how prolonged exposure to death and killing can have a normalising effect that, for some, is profoundly difficult to readapt from. 

Did you gain any insight into the mental health services available for drone crews, if any?

The first line of support is a system called TRiM – Trauma Risk Management. It is a peer-support system for people who have experienced or witnessed a potentially traumatising incident. Every crew is asked at the end of every shift if they have witnessed any such events and offered support. After I witnessed my first lethal strike alongside the crew who conducted it I was also asked the same question. It is generally seen as a good system but it is voluntary and some operators – I couldn't say exactly how many – see it as being
'for other people'. Beyond TRiM there is access to military mental health services. I have advocated elsewhere for a mandatory system where Reaper operators would routinely see a psychologist once or twice a year. I know that this is being actively explored.

Some people are open about seeking treatment for PTSD or other mental trauma, and the culture is shifting in that direction. In my 'Insights' chapter, one mission intelligence coordinator describes being involved in the killing of two ISIS fighters, driving home shortly afterwards in 38 minutes, and then being handed his baby. He also talks about the mental health treatment he has received through the military system. Despite how he has been affected he says he has no regrets. He would, if asked, use weapons tomorrow to kill a distant enemy if that would support his troops or 'friendlies' on the ground, protect civilians, or remove the attempted Islamic State caliphate and all it stood for. 

Albert Bandura, in his article in The Psychologist (February 2017) which precipitated your letter, described the language used by drone crews as euphemistic, sanitised, and playful. Was that your experience?

I did come across some euphemistic language but it is not unique to drone crews. They can spend all day every day interacting with different parts of the armed forces and with coalition partners from multiple countries. The most common term I came across was 'badness' – a catch-all expression that covered anything and everything an enemy could do. This would extend from planting roadside bombs to ambushes, beheadings or ISIS exerting control over a particular town. There was definitely some moral assessment going on alongside the conducting of operations. 

Other terms were more technical than name-calling: 'pax' for people; 'HVT' for High Value Target. The term 'Bugsplat', for example, never became part of RAF Reaper culture. Each country and military has a distinct culture and the RAF's Reaper drone personnel reflect the wider air force, army, navy and Marine Corps they came from. Most common is the restrained stereotype that has developed around British aircrew since the First World War. Cheering or high-fiving would be frowned upon; a quiet 'good shot', or quick thumbs up would be acceptable. 

Did conducting these interviews and observing lethal strikes as they happened have any psychological impact on you?  

My response to watching those first two lethal strikes in real time was visceral, gut-wrenching. As the clouds of blast dust cleared and what remained of the mangled bodies of the ISIS fighters emerged on the screen, I could smell – truly smell – a powerful, pungent yet familiar odour that nobody else could detect. It took a few hours before I realised that it was a combination of burnt flesh and surgical chemicals that I had first encountered on day one in the military hospital in Cyprus at the start of the Iraq War thirteen years previously. It was only through a chance conversation some months later with a university psychology colleague that I learned about olfactory hallucinations. 

My 2003 wartime experiences came back with a vengeance, brought on by the extreme nature of the images I was seeing. Combined with the intensity of many of my 90 research interviews the effects were profound; it was like someone turned up the amplifier on my emotions. I would not have missed a minute of these research experiences but for any future project I will ensure that robust personal support mechanisms are in place before I start.

Where do you see your research going next?

I have identified a range of issues and potential research questions around the work of Reaper drone crews that are ripe for further exploration. These include operator resilience, cognitive dissonance at different points in the mission cycle, dynamic ethical decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, the impact of previous trauma, levels of personal empathy, and the effects of fatigue. My immediate focus is a spin-off pilot project on screen-mediated moral injury as a form of psychological trauma. With all the usual researcher caveats around time, opportunity and resources, I think there is enough to keep me busy for many years.