If you’ve read Karl Marx’s ‘theory of alienation’ you’d understand his view that from the first moment that mankind placed a piece of machinery between itself and the end product of a task we have become an increasingly disconnected, disillusioned and desensitised species (Marx, 1964). Fast forward a hundred years or so and we can see that the recent explosion of technological advancements has led to some contemporary examples of what this not-so-merry looking Santa doppelganger was talking about –Barack Obama, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and David Cameron pausing to take a somewhat disrespectful selfie during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela (Soal, 2013); a 14 year old Florida school girl boasting online “Yes ik (I know) I bullied REBECCA nd (and) she killed her self but IDGAF (I don’t give a fuck)” after her relentless cyberbullying lead 12 year old Rebecca Sedwick to take her own life (Sherwell, 2013); or scores of young males throwing away their savings with the touch of a screen whilst using online gambling services with faster turnarounds, minimal spending limits, and a layout that blurs the line between reality and gameplay (Redondo, 2015, pp. 584-596).
One of the most recent and harmful developments, however, is Microsoft’s partnerships with the US and British militaries. This unprecedented deal has resulted in modern military personnel using video game technology, namely an Xbox controller, to control various unmanned vehicles and weapons, including a High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, which is essentially a giant laser cannon, UAV reconnaissance and weaponised drones, and various unmanned ground vehicles (Maunders, 2008). Now, obviously this may develop into a highly effective and efficient military program, but at present there are three major issues with this program that are having disastrous effects amongst those piloting these devices.
- The initial desensitisation
The chronologically first issue facing combatant pilots within this program is that they often feel somewhat desensitised to the impact of their initial operations because of a combination of the geographic distance between themselves and the war zone, and the likeness of their work to video gaming. This is particularly the case as a result of highly popular military games such as the Call of Duty series (2003-Present) being able to accurately replicate deadly strike missions without any real-life consequences, which can result in the pilots of these unmanned vehicles and weapons to be “massively disassociated from reality” when conducting their earliest missions (Brignull, 2010).
- The diffusion of culpability
The next issue is the diffusion of culpability for the deaths caused by drones, paired with the increased safety of those within the “kill chain” (Beauchamp, 2016). The vast majority of the logistical, maintenance and other technical bureaucratic work that allows combatant pilots to pull the trigger is done by civilian contract pilots. These contract pilots will never directly engage in anything more than “reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering”, which they will do from the comfort of an office they commute to each morning, however, they will facilitate the killing of potentially hundreds or thousands of enemy personnel (Beauchamp, 2016).
- The psychological trauma
Modern warfare has produced a number of mental illnesses, so it makes sense that this next stage of warfare has produced a variety of new issues for those involved. Firstly, a combination of lower-status and a lack of respect within the military (Marwick, 2013, pp. 83-86), three to six times more logged piloting hours annually than regular Air Force pilots, and a close-up, high definition view of the violent and bloody horrors of war, where, unlike any film or video game, the real-time kills and the devastation are all very real (Chatterjee, 2015; Watson, 2014), has resulted in the outbreak of an unprecedented, long-distance version of post-traumatic stress disorder amongst drone pilots who often see more sides of war than the soldiers on the front line (Chatterjee, 2015). And secondly, because the morality of war and being a soldier is predicated on the reciprocal right for enemies to kill each other – in order for a soldier to kill, they must also place themselves in a situation where they might be killed first (Pfaff, 2003, p. 9) – these Xbox drone pilots have also been found to struggle with a brand new, as yet unlabelled form of psychological strain emerging from a sense of dishonour and cowardice for fighting from behind a screen, thousands of miles from harm’s way (Chatterjee, 2015).
If you listen to anything that the US or British governments have said about drone warfare you’d believe the appeal in this sleek, new, no-casualty form of battle being used in the war on terror. However, after taking a closer look it is quite clear that, just like every new form of war before it, this remote controlled warfare has a whole list of severe problems and repercussions for those involved. The only question remaining, then, is what governments will do in the future to address the psychological issues brought on by technology’s increased involvement in war.
Beauchamp, S 2016, ‘Can Drone Pilots Be Heroes?’, The Atlantic, 23 January, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/can-drone-pilots-be-heroes/424830/.
Brignull, H 2010, ‘Xbox controllers used in the military – life mimicking art?’, 90 Percent of Everything, 21 January, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.90percentofeverything.com/2010/01/21/xbox-controllers-used-in-the-millitary-life-mimicking-art/.
Call of Duty 2003-Present, video game, Activision.
Chatterjee, P 2015, ‘Drone Pilots Are Quitting In Record Numbers’, Mother Jones, 5 March, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/03/drone-pilots-are-quitting-record-numbers.
Marwick, A 2013, ‘Leaders and Followers: Status in the Tech Scene’, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity , & Branding in the Social Media Age’, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 83-86.
Marx, K 1964, ‘Notes on James Mill’, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, International Publishers, New York City.
Maunders, P 2008, ‘Army fly UAV Spy Plane with Xbox 360 Controller’, Pyrosoft, 29 April, viewed 12 March 2016, http://www.pyrosoft.co.uk/blog/2007/11/04/army-fly-uav-spy-plane-with-xbox-360-controller/.
Pfaff, W 2003, ‘The soldier is both executioner and victim’, The Register-Guard, 23 March, p. 9.
Redondo, I 2015, ‘Assessing the risks associated with online lottery and casino gambling: A comparative analysis of players’ individual characteristics and types of gambling’, International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 584-596.
Sherwell, P 2013, ‘Teenager who killed herself over cyberbullying sparks soul searching in US’, The Telegraph, 16 October, viewed 11 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10383635/Teenager-who-killed-herself-over-cyberbullying-sparks-soul-searching-in-US.html.
Soal, J 2013, ‘Barack Obama and David Cameron pose for selfie with Danish PM’, The Guardian, 11 December, viewed 11 March 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/10/nelson-mandela-world-leaders-selfie.
Watson, J 2014, ‘Military Drone Operators Can Feel Emotional Strains Of War’, Huffington Post, 29 September, viewed 13 March 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/29/military-drone-operators_n_5899478.html.