We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
-- Shakespeare, Henry V (IV, iii)
What must it be like, for your job, to watch and potentially kill people via video screen for hours on end? To enact choices that will affect lives 7,000 miles away from you while you sit in a trailer in the desert? And then, at the end of the day, to return to the normal rhythms of family and home life?
This past weekend, 60 Minutes did a story on the U.S. Air Force's unmanned aerial vehicles and the pilots who fly them. The UAVs provide "eyes in the sky" and occasional firepower for troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are controlled by pilot and camera teams at Creech Air Force base in the desert just north of Las Vegas. One of the most poignant parts of the story for me was the description by a Lt. Col. of the disconnect between his days as a UAV pilot and his life at home. He told 60 Minutes:
"To go and work and do bad things to bad people ... and then when I go home and I go to church and try to be a productive member of society, those don't necessarily mesh well."
In this new kind of warfare, it seems that the idea of a "band of brothers" is completely redefined. Although drone pilots at Creech suit up in flight gear and are part of a traditional Air Force squadron, their experience of war must differ enormously from troops on the ground. Without physical immersion in the intimacy and camaraderie of the battlefield, these pilots gain the clarity of distance and stay out of harm's way, but can they also be insulated from the risk of mental injury?
I dug around to find out more, and it appears that remote war may indeed be taking its own psychological toll. Last fall, reports hit the news of possible PTSD cases among drone pilots. There have been no definitive studies to date, but as our use of drones in both Afghanistan and Pakistan continues, I wonder if incidence of post traumatic stress will increase apace.
The spiritual and emotional costs of war remain hard to ignore. The 60 Minutes story reminds us that, no matter the improvements in our technology, the reverberations from the battlefield still echo 7,000 miles away.
Photo credit: CC Lafrancevi/Flickr