Drone crews and moral engagement

Dr Peter Lee (University of Portsmouth) responds to Professor Albert Bandura's article in our February issue.

Professor Albert Bandura (‘Disengaging morality from robotic war’, February 2017) offers crucial and provocative insights into the mechanisms of moral disengagement, most notably the psychology of euphemistic language, advantageous comparison, and displacement and diffusion of responsibility. However, he assumes a narrow and illegitimate application of lethal force by American Reaper and Predator drones. There are drone crews in other countries who operate in recognised areas of armed conflict under international humanitarian law, using the same conventional rules of engagement as piloted aircraft, and for whom the high-definition video images involved increase rather than decrease their mental and emotional immersion in events.

I have conducted field research with British Reaper drone crews during ongoing operations against ISIS over the past eight months, observing lethal missile strikes first-hand and in real time, and interviewing 72 members of that community. Initial observations have identified layers of moral and psychological complexity that have yet to be analysed and understood.

UK Reaper pilots, sensor operators and mission intelligence coordinators (the three-person crew) have operated within a ‘zero civcas’ (zero civilian casualties) imperative for several years. This is morally, physically and psychologically significant. Positively, crews can – and regularly have – refused shots where civilian deaths could occur. Negatively, in so doing they have sometimes had to leave ‘friendly’ soldiers on the ground under sniper or other attack while they keep watching, powerless to intervene. In situations like this, deleterious mental, emotional and moral effects come not from moral disengagement, but from ongoing and active moral engagement. Furthermore, some advantageous moral comparisons can be entirely legitimate. One Reaper sensor operator (who guides the missile onto the target) describes Islamic State jihadists as ‘the easiest enemy I will ever fight against’ because actions like executing gay men for being gay and the raping and enslavement of Yazidi women and girls are so heinous.

Operational and legal authorisation must be granted before every Reaper drone missile or bomb strike. But the pilot is ultimately responsible for the final decision to shoot and kill. The words of one British pilot capture the moral complexity and emotional engagement involved:

‘We may watch “target A” for weeks, building up a pattern of life for the individual, know exactly what time he eats his meals, drives to the Mosque, uses the ablutions (outdoor of course!). What we also see is the individual interacting with his family – playing with his kids and helping his wife around the compound. When a strike goes in we stay on station and see the reactions of the wife and kids when the body is brought to them. You see someone fall to the floor and sob so hard their body is convulsing.’

The emergence of mental trauma, including PTSD, among drone operators suggests moral and psychological engagement, rather than disengagement. The next challenge is to engage with different types of lethal military drone operations, going beyond the ‘dehumanisation’ paradigm set out by Professor Bandura to appreciate the moral and psychological implications of highly personalised, mentally engaged and emotionally immersive remote warfare.

Dr Peter Lee
Reader in Politics and Ethics, University of Portsmouth

Image: Tim Sanders

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