For Drone Pilots and Journalists, How Much Vicarious War Is Too Much?
Movement grows to help viewers of graphic footage cope with trauma — but some combat veterans say calling it PTSD cheapens the term
When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced drone operators would receive new Distinguished Warfare Medals he couldn’t have predicted the backlash. The reviled “Nintendo medal” was designed to honor drone operators, who — despite being far removed from the physical risks of war — were nonetheless directly involved in combat.
The Nintendo medal drew ire from all corners, with veterans appalled that the award ranked higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart — honors given to men and women who carry out heroic acts, and sustain injuries or are killed, in the line of fire.
Veterans and combatants argued that drone operators, while actively involved in combat, were not exposed to the same risk as troops deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq. They claimed heroism without risk was no heroism at all. In April 2013, the Pentagon canceled plans for the new medal.
But recent studies suggest that while drone pilots do not experience physical trauma, operating a drone from thousands of kilometers away comes with its own risks. Journalists exposed to a daily drip of war footage may also develop symptoms of trauma.
Research carried out by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found drone pilots experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder at around the same rate as fighter pilots. The study, spurred on by a high burnout rate among drone pilots, bumped the “joystick fighters’” trauma stats up to the same level of their peers engaged in combat overseas.
One man who is unconvinced of the impact of the disorder on drone operators is former Marine and war correspondent David Morris, whose book The Evil Hours focuses on PTSD.
“PTSD is a powerful concept that has saved a lot of lives,” Morris said. “I think we run the risk of diluting the diagnoses if we try to connect the experience of a rape survivor with, say, someone who watched a lot of graphic YouTube videos.”
“The body of research on this is so slim, and what has been done has been paid for by the U.S. military. Do we need another entry is the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] for drone operators? Personally I feel a line has to be drawn somewhere, and right now I’m comfortable drawing it between a rape survivor and a drone operator.”
Above — a U.S. drone crew during a simulated RQ-9 Reaper training mission. U.S. Air Force photo. At top — Surian Soosay/Flickr illustration
Morris’ assessment is backed up by the DSM, which describes PTSD as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence” suggesting the condition cannot exist without a very real and physical threat to personal safety. Although fledgling, research on whether we can absorb trauma through computer screens continues to expand.
Sam Dubberly, a former news editor and co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub is part of a movement studying the effect of what he calls “vicarious trauma” on newsroom journalists constantly exposed to graphic images of war and combat.
“It’s important to make a distinction between PTSD and vicarious trauma,” Dubberly said. “Vicarious trauma can lead to PTSD but there are variables, the frequency of exposure, the person’s background so on. But there is an issue here. Staff are looking horrific content every day, now more than ever, and organizations need to be set up in a way where they understand that and treat it differently to a physical wound.”
Ben, a 24-year-old social media journalist based in Germany, said dealing with graphic images has taken a toll on his mental health.
“Initially I was just glad to get the job and to move overseas,” he said. “It didn’t hit me for a few months. It was kind of like watching action films all day but then the discord hit in, an explosion here, shooting there, a soldier beating a child. I came home from work one day and just cried. I had been partying a lot up to that point and burying it. You think you’ve seen all the fucked up shit out there but no one is immune to it. I think if I was out covering this it wouldn’t be so bad, but then I don’t know. I get anxious for no reason now, I never had that before.”
For Dubbery, Ben is working on what he describes as the “digital front line,” where the trauma of war is experienced thousands of miles away from the bombardment.
“These young social media producers are seeing horrors from all corners of the world, from natural disasters in Asia, to the atrocities in Syria. We need to accept that the front line has grown. It’s not just where the action happens, it’s also in offices in Dublin, in New York, in Paris.”
But how traumatized can we be by events we don’t witness personally — and that have little effect on our day to day lives? Morris claims using the term “front line” to describe an office in Europe or North America cheapens the real risks soldiers undertake daily in deadly situations.
“I would like to take someone who claims to be on the digital front line and bring them to Afghanistan. I wonder would then still use the term after that? As emotionally rich and evocative as technology can be, there’s still a world of a difference between playing a computer game and actually shooting and killing another human being.”
For those working in the gray space between technology and war, the future is an uncertain gauntlet. Whether PTSD can be experienced by those in comfortable environments thousands of kilometers away from conflict remains to be seen. But as drone pilots leave en masse and young journalists walk out of work they’re specifically trained to do, questions need to be asked on what support is available to those experiencing mental health issues directly linked to their job.
Dubberly believes addressing the potential trauma from day one can help organizations retain highly skilled members and lead to better coping mechanisms.
“It’s about organizations admitting from day one ‘this could be distressing’ and ‘it’s OK to be distressed.’ It’s also about talking through coping mechanisms, be it looking at Taylor Swift’s Instagram or having beers with friends. Whatever works for people. It’s about making sure they have support from the beginning.”
Morris, who experienced PTSD after covering the war in Iraq, is less sympathetic.
“I think common sense could sort a lot of this out,” Morris said.
“These people are not in the middle of a war in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he added. “These people are safe in their homes. A friend of mine was embedded with a group of U.S. Marines in Helmand province when they announced that the Air Force was going to begin giving combat action ribbons to drone operators. All the Marines started laughing. I’m not going to say someone’s symptoms are complete bullshit, but I think it’s foolish to buy into this idea of a digital front line.”