Digital Technology, International Affairs

Buzz Kill: The psychological impact of living under drones

Imagine that you are living somewhere in Pakistan, Yemen, or Gaza where the U.S. suspects a terrorist presence.  Day and night, you hear a constant buzzing in the sky.  Like a lawnmower.  You know that this flying robot is watching everything you do.  You can always hear it.  Sometimes, it fires missiles into your village.  You are told the robot is targeting extremists, but its missiles have killed family, friends, and neighbors.  So, your behavior changes: you stop going out, you stop congregating in public, and you likely start hating the country that controls the flying robot.  And you probably start to sympathize a bit more with the people these robots, called drones, are monitoring.

As reports of the Obama administration’s policy on the use of drones to target American citizens trickle out, infuriating libertarians and flummoxing liberals, their global use continues unabated.

The drone program is now one of the signature foreign policy initiatives of the Obama Administration, and its scale is significant: since 9/11, over 4,000 drones have been employed in surveillance, reconnaissance, and lethal attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the Defense Department will spend about $36.9 billion across its different branches on 730 new medium-sized and large drones through 2020.  This does not include the wide range of experimental research into such technologies as swarm drones, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  These small bird or insect sizes drones, capable of flying in coordinated masses, will challenge current conceptions of weaponry, and push the bounds of ubiquity in modern warfare.

The reports of the numbers of people killed by American drones vary.  Senator Lindsey Graham recently remarked, “We’ve killed 4,700 … Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.” Much of the conversation about the impact of these strikes has rightly focused on the moral and legal costs of these civilian casualties, but it is a mistake to judge the impact of the U.S. drone program only by the number of sorties or kills. When this is the sole basis for evaluation, it is easy to argue that there is nothing particularly unique about this form of warfare – that these people would have been targeted and killed by U.S. Special Forces or manned aircrafts had the drone program not been in place. But this type of analysis misses a defining characteristic of the drone program that makes it qualitatively different from the less sophisticated weaponry that it is replacing: ubiquitous drone use blurs the line between citizen and militants.

The psychological impact of drone surveillance, when combined with the civilian casualties we already know occur during strikes, leads to significant negative strategic costs that need to be incorporated into our assessment of the drone program.

Drones don’t enter into a battlefield like a strike fighter or Special Forces team, quickly taking out the target, and then leaving.  Drones are omnipresent.  They hover over villages and cities, watching, then killing, then watching again. Like Big Brother. What are the human and strategic costs of this uninterrupted drone presence?

This infringement of basic privacy, combined with potential lethality, has a profound psychological effect on those living with drones overhead.  There have been a wide range of studies investigating this phenomenon (see list at bottom of the post); Living Under Dronesa study conducted in the northern tribal region of Waziristan, is by far one of the most comprehensive ones. Taken up at the request of the U.K.-based non-profit Reprieve, this study was conducted by lawyers and researchers at Stanford University (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, IHRCRC) and New York University (Global Justice Clinic), with help from a local Pakistani non-profit, Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR).

The findings of this study are striking and, more importantly, truly disturbing.  For instance, a vast majority of people reported being perpetually scared of drone strikes, day and night.  Just the constant noise above makes people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety. And these symptoms are more widespread than previously thought – there are reports of men, women, and children too terrified to sleep at night. Medical practitioners have asserted that these anxiety-related disorders amongst the people of Waziristan often manifest themselves in the form of physical illness, ranging from headaches to heart attacks, even suicides.

Drone-induced anxieties are profoundly impacting the way these people live their lives.  For example, most kids in Waziristan no longer attend school. People avoid daily activities such as grocery shopping, farming, and driving for fear of drone strikes. One psychiatrist argues that this behaviour is symptomatic of “anticipatory anxiety” – a psychological phenomenon that causes people to constantly worry about their immediate future (this is very common in conflict zones). People experiencing anticipatory anxiety report having emotional breakdowns, running indoors for safety, hiding during the day, having nightmares, and other anxiety-related problems which dramatically affect their ability to live their lives.

A striking account of this effect comes from a New York Times journalist who was kidnapped by the Taliban. From Living Under Drones:

In his account, David Rohde described both the fear the drones inspired among his captors, as well as among ordinary civilians: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.

Similar examples of psychological trauma exist in Gaza, where people report that drones disrupt their daily activities, making them feel powerless and unsafe. The emotional trigger/stressor identified by most Palestinians is the buzzing sound of the drones. Again, they report avoidance of social activities and tribal rituals, including weddings, funerals, and burial processes, and consequent disengagement from their communities.

Scientifically and medically speaking, this phenomenon can be explained as an outcome of unpredictability and uncontrollability. It is very akin to reactions to torture. In particular, some have argued that living under drones leads to psychological trauma based on the learning theory formulation of torturewhich states that exposure to inescapable and uncontrollable stressor events “that threaten physical and/or psychological well-being” lead to “a state of total helplessness.”

The broader impacts of drone use are revealing. They expose the false dichotomy between civilians and militants that underlies both the tactical decision-making process and much of the public debate about that process.  Drones do not only affect their intended “kills” – they affect the civilians literally caught in their kill zones, and those living under them in fear day and night.

There is a clear and undeniable moral dimension of this form of warfare.  But there are also real strategic costs.  What do the people living under drones, let alone those who have had family and friends killed, think about the countries operating them?   As one mental health professional remarked to a Living Under Drones researcher, “People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, a desire for revenge … So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.”

As Ben Kiernan and I noted in an article that draws parallels between the use of airpower in Afghanistan to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, when U.S. bombs hit a civilian warehouse in Afghanistan in late 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded: “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.” There was laughter in the press gallery.

We continued:

The January 13, 2006 aerial strike by a U.S. predator drone on a village in Pakistan that killed women and children and inflamed local anti-U.S. political passions is a pertinent example of what continues to occur in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “collateral damage” that occurred in this case even undermined the positive sentiments previously created by billions of dollars of U.S. post-earthquake aid to that part of Pakistan. Aside from the killing of innocent civilians, how many new enemies does U.S. bombing create?

Drones may ultimately prove strategically beneficial.  They may even prove more palatable, in a human rights sense, than the alternatives.  But when we calculate their utility in war, we need to include a full accounting of the strategic costs, including the long-term implications of widespread psychological warfare.

Some important studies/sources and their findings/arguments:

  1. Living Under the Drones (Stanford Law and NYU Law)
  2. The Civilian Impact of Drones (Columbia Law School)
  3. Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2013 (Long War Journal)
  4. Drones and Physical and Psychological Implications of Global Theatre of War (Medact)
  5. Year of the Drones (New America Foundation)
  6. Predator Drones, Empathy, and the President (Psychology Today)
  7. Drone Strikes or Mass Torture – A Learning Theory Analysis (Metin Basoglu)
  8. The Drone Wars: 9/11-Inspired Combat Leans Heavily on Robot Aircraft (Scientific American)
  9. Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

This article is cross-posted on opencanada.org