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Are drone pilots warriors?

Are drone pilots warriors?
Published 26 Nov 2015 

Is the drone pilot a warrior? It's a crucial question surrounding the place of the drone pilot within the military ethos – and one Adam Henschke points to in a recent entry in this series of posts of the future of drones on The Interpreter.

It's a good and important question, not only for the reasons Henschke identifies. Whether or not drones are seen as cowardly and therefore offend or embolden the enemy, the lack of clarity regarding the position of the drone pilot is concerning. 

Shannon E French argues being identified as a warrior situates a person within the 'warrior ethos' – including an informal code of conduct. 'The warrior code', as French calls it, is an honour system that regulates behaviour based on an agreed-upon sense of 'what it means to be a warrior'.

But unless drone pilots are actually able to live up to the normative demands the warrior code represents, they risk being seen as dishonourable not by enemies but by fellow military personnel. Worse, some may come to see themselves as shameful.

There are good reasons for thinking drone pilots are not warriors. Drone pilots experience no real risk in carrying out their wars, and are thus distanced in several ways from the realities of combat. Some, like Mark Coeckelbergh suggest 'there seems to be something cowardly and unfair about remote killing'. [fold]

Others, like Christian Enemark are more circumspect. Enemark argues drone pilots 'challenge traditional notions… of what it means to be a combatant or "warrior" within the military profession'. 

Enemark describes drone pilots as 'disembodied warriors'. Disembodiment means drone pilots face no fear for their personal safety. Thus, there is an inability to practise what Enemark describes as 'physical courage' (courage when one's life is at risk). Arguably, such a virtue is part of what defines someone as a warrior — and therefore as worthy of honour by their warrior peers.

Warriors make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield. Disembodied warriors usually don't. Given their targets are vetted in advance and their superior officers able to directly monitor missions, there is very little opportunity for drone pilots to exercise any autonomy at all. They are, to return to St Augustine of Hippo's fourth century notion, 'an instrument, a sword in the user's hand'. 

Although they are treated as such, drone pilots are not merely instruments in the hands of their superiors. They are people. As such, the moral gravity of killing bears on their consciences, they feel acutely the seriousness of what it is that they are doing. 

Here, however, the problem of risk-free warfare returns. Drone pilots can't justify the killing they do in the same way other warriors can.

Regardless of the justice of the mission or war, warriors who are physically on the battlefield can justify their killing through the framework of self-defence. Drone pilots are not defending themselves; there is no 'me or them' logic to fall back on.

Enemark says, 'war necessarily involves some kind of contest... opposing combatants' equal right to kill in war is founded on the assumption of mutual risk'. In this sense, drone pilots will not feel like warriors — their killing is no contest at all. 

Without a coherent moral framework for justifying their killing, drone operation is morally fraught. It is unsurprising then that, despite undertaking no risk, drone pilots report the same rates of PTSD as pilots of manned aircraft. This is even less surprising when one considers the growing literature on moral injury:  which is trauma that emerges as a product of transgressing against deeply held moral beliefs

Drone pilots not only kill their targets, but they observe them for weeks beforehand, coming to know their habits, families and communities. That is, they are able to see their targets as persons. As Coeckelbergh notes, 'pilots may recall images of the people they killed... of the person who first played with his children and was then killed'.

Based on the trauma they experience, many drone pilots appear to consider themselves in some sense morally responsible for those who they kill. Despite effectively being an instrument in the hands of superiors, it is the pilot who does the killing.

If drone-based killing is to be justified, drone pilots need to be made aware that the justifications for it are manifestly different to those available to front-line soldiers. Just because drone pilots serve the military does not make them warriors, and does not avail them to the kind of justifications for killing that soldiers possess.

A new moral framework is necessary to explain how (if at all) unmanned, risk-free killing can be justifiable, lest more drone pilots become wracked with the guilt of what the warrior code holds to be unjustified killings.

Better would be the emergence of a new honour code available to 'disembodied warriors' (like drone pilots and cyberwarriors) which emphasises moral virtues other than courage. It should also explain how their killings can be justified. If this cannot be done, perhaps the practice of armed drones should either be made fully autonomous (which is itself, as James Brown argues, likely to be unethical) or abandoned altogether.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Airman Magazine.

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