“It’s not Science Fiction”: Hidden Labor, and Trauma, of USAF Drone Pilots


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Ex-Air Force drone pilots, now whistleblowers, appear on Democracy Now!

On Friday of last week, Democracy Now! devoted its program to interviews with four whistle-blowing ex-Air Force personnel who were charged with piloting drones and unleashing bombs on people under the auspices the U.S.’s policy of “targeted killing.” The interviews coincide with the release of a documentary film, Drone, making its North American début this weekend.

The former drone pilots, both interviewed on the program and in the film, described the process of going from horror to a state of being numb to the screen-mediated violence and death they were causing. As I have discovered with CCM workers I’ve interviewed, becoming inured to screen-mediated video violence becomes a precondition of survival in workplaces that demand such viewing as a primary function of employment. And, like the CCM workers, all of their ability to discuss, deal with or receive support for the work they did was curtailed by non-disclosure regimes that precluded them from talking with anyone about the nature of their work.

In the case of the drone pilots, of course the relationship to the violence was heightened, in the sense that it was they who pulled the trigger, despite being located halfway around the world from their targets. This relationship between the immediacy of the interconnected, “flattened” world of the network society, coupled with the geospatial removal and constant screen- and physically-mediated distancing of the violence, is paradoxical and incongruous, and workers are finding themselves located directly at the nexus of the tension between the two.

“There’s always been a connection between the world of war and the world of entertainment,” says author P.W. Singer, as quoted in the film’s compelling segment on the way in which the military is using video games as recruitment tools while making the interfaces for unmanned aircraft (i.e., drones) resemble those of video games, and the skills needed to pilot them – manual dexterity and joystick control, facility with HUD, the ability to process massive amounts of information quickly – those familiar to and honed by video game players.

In 2010, I wrote a brief entry on this site, tying contemporary digital technologies and their operators, such as drone pilots, to their roots in the Cold War. At the same time, I collected a number of screenshots from an Air Force recruiting website that clearly demonstrated their desire to capitalize on the video game fantasy that war is mediated, technological and, ultimately, without human consequences. Might as well be a video game.

The screenshots are posted below.