Best Defense

The Future of War essays: It’s back to the beginning, or, ‘The nearness of you’

By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist Technology is quickly reversing a psychological trend that has existed since cavemen first threw rocks at each other many tens of thousands of years ago. The French strategist Ardant du Picq wrote: “To fight from a distance is instinctive in man. From the ...


By Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Technology is quickly reversing a psychological trend that has existed since cavemen first threw rocks at each other many tens of thousands of years ago.

The French strategist Ardant du Picq wrote: “To fight from a distance is instinctive in man. From the first day he has worked to this end, and he continues to do so.” Distance not only provides warriors with a sense of safety, but it reduces their psychological resistance to killing other human beings.

However, today, while many of America’s drone operators sit physically safe in trailers in Nevada, their human targets on the other side of the planet appear no further away than if these operators were watching them through the sights of an M16 rifle. Although the physical distance between warrior and target has reached its physical limit (on this planet anyway), the subjective distance between the two is rapidly closing. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, as sensors rapidly improve in response to the need to limit noncombatant casualties — a need that is a condition of military success for a mature democracy like the United States in a world increasingly “flattened” by another growth industry, information technology.

It is not hard to imagine someday drones that are the size of a bullet, that transmit both color video and audio feeds, and that hover just feet away from human targets before entering their bodies. When this happens, there may be little to subjectively distinguish the combat experience of a drone operator and that, say, of a G.I. during World War II who stuck his bayonet in the guts of an enemy soldier.

In his 1995 book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, psychologist and former infantry officer David Grossman postulated that the physically closer a warrior is to the person they are killing, the greater their natural resistance to killing, and thus the greater their risk of psychological injury should they kill. In a graph, Grossman depicted warriors’ resistance to killing increasing the closer they come to their human targets. The least resistance is felt within those warriors who kill at maximum range (bombers and artillery). Inner resistance steadily increases from there to those who kill with long-range weapons (sniper, missiles), then mid-range weapons (rifles), then hand-grenades, then close-range weapons (pistols), and, finally, those who kill in hand-to-hand combat.

Grossman’s hypothesis is but a general rule. The small percentage of warriors who are psychopaths are obvious exceptions to this rule. Different levels of resilience among individuals account for other exceptions.

To illustrate the latter, in his 2005 book, War and Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychologist Dr. Edward Tick gave the examples of a World War II bomber pilot and a nuclear weapons aircraft inspector, who both suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The pilot told Tick that he had refused to open his aircraft’s bay doors and drop bombs on a German city. With his crew chief screaming at him, he finally did it. Afterwards, he was haunted by his belief that he was a “mass murderer.” The inspector had examined nuclear bombs onboard B-52s, a “maximum range” weapon. He had not killed anyone, but he could not shake the judgment that he had conspired “to threaten the world.”

Such anecdotes can be contrasted with stories of warriors who killed in close-quarters combat without incurring psychological injury. Nonetheless, despite many exceptions, the weight of evidence strongly supports the general validity of Grossman’s theory.

During the current global conflict that, for one side anyway, is increasingly remote-controlled, a revision of Grossman’s hypothesis is in order: It is not the actual physical distance, but rather the subjective distance between normal human beings that determines their inner resistance to killing each other.

This suggested revision does not mean that a drone operator and an infantryman experience the exact same thing when they kill a human target of similar shape, size, and resolution. The drone operator’s adrenaline levels are unlikely to be as high, since he is not himself in any physical danger. His senses are not as immersed in the graphic sights and sounds of battle. And he just does not “feel” as close to the enemy through his other senses. His experience is diluted. He is, in effect, sipping reality through a straw. Thus, “subjective” distance is related to, but not entirely the same thing as, “apparent” or “visible” distance.

Most people would agree that reality as we experience it is fundamentally subjective, making this revision both obvious and intuitively true. The scanty evidence published thus far on the negative mental outcomes associated with drone operations very roughly corroborates this revision, too.

There are, for example, numerous anecdotal accounts of drone operators suffering from such negative psychological outcomes as PTSD and depression despite their physical distance from the battlefield. Brandon Bryant, for example, worked as a drone operator at a Nevada Air Force base. When he left his squadron, he was presented a certificate in which his squadron claimed 1,626 kills over a period of several years. Bryant has since been diagnosed with PTSD. In an interview, he described seeing three men hit with a missile and being able to see one guy running forward, bleeding out, while missing his right leg. “People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,” he said. “Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”

A staff sergeant supervising support to drone crews and mission planners was one of the many military servicemembers Peter Singer interviewed for Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. “What angers me is that as a service,” she said, “we are not doing a good job on PTSD [among drone pilots and operators]. People are watching horrible scenes. It’s affecting people. Yet we have no systematic process on how we take care of our people.”

The U.S. Air Force has released some quantitative data on these negative psychological outcomes. For example, the service reported in December 2011 that, of 900 drone pilots and operators surveyed, 4 percent were at high risk of developing PTSD. It also stated that 25 percent of Global Hawk operators and 17 percent of Predator and Reaper pilots suffer from clinical distress, which is “defined as anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect an operator’s job performance or family life.” It also reported that 65-70 percent of those with signs of mental illness are not seeking treatment for their condition.

However, compare the low percentage of drone operators at high risk of PTSD to the 12-17 percent of soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who, based on their responses to post-deployment questionnaires, fell into the same high-risk group. There is clearly a qualitative psychological difference between the experiences of drone operators and ground troops (such as the latter’s greater subjective closeness to their targets and their experiencing other potential sources of trauma like roadside bombs and being shot at).

Consider also the study that the U.S. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center published earlier this year titled, “Mental health diagnoses and counseling among pilots of remotely piloted aircraft in the United States Air Force.” This study reported that, between October 2003 and December 2011, USAF personnel operating drones in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered negative mental outcomes at rates comparable to pilots of manned aircraft in these two countries — pilots who predominantly flew missions like close-air support, casualty evacuation, and reconnaissance missions.

You would expect, according to Grossman’s theorem, that the pilots of manned aircraft suffer adverse psychological outcomes as a group less than ground troops due to their greater physical distance from the enemy. And, according to my revision, you would expect manned-aircraft pilots to suffer worse outcomes than drone operators due to their increased subjective proximity to the battlefield.

A drone mission, though, lasts much longer than a manned-aircraft mission, and drone operators more routinely inflict death, either via missiles or by cueing the actions of ground troops. They also more frequently observe potentially troubling events. For every potential source of trauma that a manned-aircraft pilot experiences, a drone operator probably experiences two or three such events. Thus, in this case, quantity counterbalances quality (the subjective intensity of the experience).

I know this analysis is less than foolproof. Yes, it is self-evident that ground troops are, as a rule, physically and subjectively closer to human targets than manned aircraft pilots who, in turn, are subjectively closer to their targets than drone operators. However, what percentage of the servicemembers in the above surveys actually killed someone? Of these, what percentage suffered which negative psychological consequences at what distances from the person they killed?

These data just have not yet been published. As data slowly comes to light, though, I’m confident that it will show that this proposed revision — like Grossman’s original theory — holds generally true.

Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer is a U.S. Army intelligence officer who has won a number of military writing awards and held command and staff posi­tions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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