Drone Pilots Are Exhausted and Suffering From PTSD

Drone Pilots Are Exhausted and Suffering From PTSD

On Tuesday, The New York Times published the latest look at drone pilots. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operators are suffering such a high rate of exhaustion and stress that the US Air Force has been forced to cut drone missions down from a high of about 65 a week. They also currently have about 500 fewer pilots than they need.

Though they get to fight their wars in safety, and see their families every night, these new type of soldiers suffer from a surprisingly high burnout rate, and equivalent levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to fighter pilots. And though when that news first broke two years ago, the temptation to be withering and unsympathetic was strong (okay, maybe that was just me), perhaps that kind of a mental reaction says something vital about the dangers of war to the human soul. Even people who aren’t themselves in danger suffer when they’re killing innocent people.

dronePart of the stress comes from the fact that these 1200 pilots are not in a battlefield setting. Strangely, but logically, controlling a surveillance and/or killing machine from thousands of miles away, concern about backing up manned personal, or more likely, worrying whether you’re hitting a would-be terrorist or some innocent civilians is stressful, no matter if you are safe in some bunker in Nevada. Seeing your spouse and kids a few hours later heightens the alienation inherent in such a job. You’re on duty, but you’re at home. It has to be disconcerting. After all, PTSD doesn’t tend to be about cracking up on the battlefield. It’s about dealing with a banal job or life after you’ve been trained to be on edge all the time. These pilots have to do that daily in a manner which must feel like psychological whiplash.

Additionally, there aren’t really “enough” drone pilots, so the ones who are there are drained and exhausted. Why, though? In a 2013 New York Times piece, one of the co-authors of a Defense Department study offered this explanation, “Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days. They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.” That makes sense. For the 100 years that airplanes have been dropping death from above, the policy tends to be do your thing and then get home as fast as possible. Drones and the eyes of their operators just linger indefinitely.

The constant presence of drones adds to the psychological torment of the people who live under their invisible shadow. It makes sense that it would be more stressful for the would-be killers as well.

A piece reposted at Salon back in March reports that drone pilots fly more than three times as many man hours as other pilots. The latter tend to look down on the former as well, implying that they’re just nerdy gamers playing, not real pilots. And even for the antiwar person, there is a temptation to look especially disdainfully at the chickenhawk. Even a bomber pilot is risking their own life when they go out on a mission. Drone pilots go home at night every night. Poor babies, right? Just stop.

And more and more people wish they would do just that. In April, the website knowdrones.org aired 15 second TV spots that urged drone operators to quit. Now, the group – which includes ex-military people – has put together a letter that urges the same thing. The letter says that drone attacks are against the law, and the 6,000 casualties are “undermining principles of international law and human rights.”

It’s terrific to see this effort going forward, but it’s impossible to feel optimistic about being able to reverse the progress of military drones. They are a cheap, easy way to keep literally a constant presence in countries with which the US isn’t even at war. Someday a terrorist may well use drones in their own form of blowback, but not even then is the US likely to reconsider their new toys. If they literally had nobody left to fly the drones, however, that would stop them from murdering.

It is murder. And that has to be part of why the operators feel so beaten down. One has to hope they know what they are doing and it has an effect on their psyches. In combat, the eventual suffer of PTSD is in peril. Perhaps they are worried about their fellow soldiers and being able to have their backs if necessary. The latter issue may come into play for drone pilots, but the former never does. And pictures clear enough to see the pink mist that was once a human – perhaps a nameless one, tracked from cell phone signal or suspicious patterns that might mean a terrorist gathering or a wedding is coming together – seem to be enough to damage the person who did the deed from thousands of miles away.

As I wrote last year, as much as it is unfortunate to have more people in mental distress, it does bode well for humanity that war hurts them. Not the “goodness” of World War II, nor the safety of drone war today will stop a soldier from feeling something if they take a life.

Pentagon Courts Contractors For ISIS Ground War

Companies Excited by ISIS ‘Marketplace’

US military contractors are champing at the bit to be included in a potential US ground war against ISIS, with analysts saying many of the companies see the ISIS “marketplace” as a potential gold mine.

Mideast Syria Rebel AttritionOfficials say that using contractors as the “boots on the ground” in Iraq would be a political boon for President Obama, who could sort of avoid going back on his promise not to get US troops into combat roles.

Nominally, the contractors aren’t supposed to engage in combat either, but analysts say that they are allowed to “provide security,” which in this case is a distinction without a difference.

During the last US occupation of Iraq, there were at times over 180,000 private contractors on the ground in the country. With the US hoping to do the next war with fewer US ground troops, the percentage of contractors are likely to be much larger.

by Jason Ditz

11 Years After US Invasion, Iraq Is a Wreck

On Anniversary, War Is Largely Forgotten

An anniversary not likely to be acknowledged heavily (if at all) by US officials, Monday marks the 11-year anniversary of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq, starting a protracted occupation the left huge numbers of Iraqi civilians dead.

iraq-mapSpun as a victory and a war that “ended” with the US pullout, Iraq saw a brief decline in violence after the US finally left, but a big escalation over the past year that has seen al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group in large part created to resist the US occupation, seizing significant portions of the Anbar Province.

And while US involvement doesn’t include boots on the ground, the US isn’t exactly “out” of Iraq, pumping large amounts of weapons into the country today as part of a promise to help them fight AQI.

Between the weapons shipments and constant calls from hawks to return to a direct military role inside Iraq, the US seems less “out” of Iraq than any time since they physically withdrew, and are looking forward to years of intervention in various forms.

by Jason Ditz

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Horrific Legacy of the Invasion of Iraq

This Monday marks the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq—a solemn punctuation mark to the steadily increasing violence that has gripped that country over the past two years. Sectarian violence claimed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013 alone, and this year’s toll has already surpassed 2,000. Iraq today is a broken and failing state: the war that many would prefer to believe ended in 2011 continues unabated, with Iraqis continuing to suffer, as much as ever, the fallout from this country’s callous lies and avoidable mistakes. Despite Colin Powell’s sanctimonious “Pottery Barn rule,” John Feffer wrote on his Foreign Policy in Focus blog at TheNation.com last month, the United States has made no effort to “own up to our responsibility for breaking the country.”

To a regrettably unsurprising extent, the issue of The Nation that went to press just as American tanks crossed over the border from Kuwait accurately predicted what would happen in the wake of an invasion. Our lead editorial in that issue began:

The Bush Administration has launched a war against Iraq, a war that is unnecessary, unwise and illegal. By attacking a nation that has not attacked us and that does not pose an immediate threat to international peace and security, the Administration has violated the United Nations Charter and opened a new and shameful chapter in US history. Moreover, by abandoning a UN inspection and disarmament process that was working, it has chosen a path that is an affront not only to America’s most cherished values but to the world community. The UN did not fail; rather, Washington sought a UN imprimatur for a war it had already decided to wage and scorned it when the Administration couldn’t get its way.

iraq-mapJonathan Schell, in an article in the same issue titled “American Tragedy,” described the wider implication of the Bush administration’s action: an existential threat to the separation of powers, the protection of civil liberties, the commitment to the international and domestic rule of law.

The decision to go to war to overthrow the government of Iraq will bring unreckonable death and suffering to that country, the surrounding region and, possibly, the United States. It also marks a culmination in the rise within the United States of an immense concentration of unaccountable power that poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional system since the Watergate crisis. This transformation, in turn, threatens to push the world into a new era of rivalry, confrontation and war. The location of the new power is of course the presidency (whose Augustan proportions make the “imperial” presidency of the cold war look like a mere practice run). Its sinews are the awesome might of the American military machine, which, since Congress’s serial surrender of the constitutional power to declare war, has passed wholly into the President’s hands. Its main political instrument is the Republican Party. Its financial wherewithal is the corporate money that inundates the political realm. Its strategy at home is restriction of civil liberties, deep secrecy, a makeover in its image of the judiciary, subservience to corporate interests across the board and transfer of personal wealth on a colossal scale from the average person to its wealthy supporters. Its popular support stems from fear engendered by the attacks of September 11—fear that has been manipulated to extend far beyond its proper objects. Its overriding goal, barely concealed behind the banner of the war on terrorism, is the accumulation of ever more power, whose supreme expression is its naked ambition to establish hegemony over the earth.…

The tragedy of America in the post-cold war era is that we have proved unequal to the responsibility that our own power placed upon us. Some of us became intoxicated with it, imagining that we could rule the world. Others of us—the Democratic Party, Congress, the judiciary, the news media—abdicated our obligation to challenge, to check and to oppose, letting the power-hungry have their way. The government of the United States went into opposition against its own founding principles, leaving it to the rest of the world to take up our cause. The French have been better Americans than we have. Because the Constitution, though battered, is still intact, we may still have time and opportunity to recoup. But for now, we will have to pay the price of our weakness. The costs will be heavy, first of all for the people of Iraq but also for others, including ourselves. The international order on which the common welfare, including its ecological and economic welfare, depends has sustained severe damage. The fight for “freedom” abroad is crippling freedom at home. The war to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has provoked that very proliferation in North Korea and Iran. More ground has already been lost in the field of proliferation than can be gained even by the most delirious victory in Baghdad. Former friends of America have been turned into rivals or foes. The United States may be about to win Iraq. It has already lost the world.

In her column, “War: What Is It Good For?The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote about the consequences of the US invasion at home and abroad:

Whatever the immediate results—this many dead children versus that much freedom from repression—the fundamental issue has to be the perils of “pre-emptive war” in volatile times. However it works out for the Iraqis, invading their country will be bad for the rest of the world. It will aid terrorist recruitment, it will license other countries—India and Pakistan, for example—to wage pre-emptive wars of their own, it may even consolidate Islamic fundamentalism as the only alternative to American power in the Middle East. Those are the fears not just of the American antiwar movement but of the majority of people around the world, even in the nations whose leaders have joined with ours.

But who cares about the majority of the world’s people? We’ll go to war unilaterally, with our pathetic collection of allies (Britain, OK. But Spain? Italy? Latvia?), while the rest of the world stands by appalled. We’ll boycott the Dixie Chicks, eat our freedom fries and even, as documented in the New York Times, pour Dom Perignon by the gallon down the toilet (“I’ll bet it was just water,” said the manager of my local liquor store. “Nobody would waste great champagne like that!”). People will be called traitors if they wear peace T-shirts, fail to salute the flag or dare to suggest that anyone in the Administration has lower motives than the selfless salvation of humanity. Journalists “embedded,” as the odd phrase goes, in military units will send back an endless stream of heartwarmers that will reinforce the confusion of “support the troops” with “support the war.” If, in the end, the Iraqis turn out to hate and resent the nation that bombed them into freedom, we’ll shake our heads in angry bewilderment: After all we did for you, this is the thanks we get!

The issue raised by the invasion of Iraq is American imperialism. That won’t go away, no matter how this particular adventure turns out. See you at the demonstration.

IRAQI

Finally, the issue carried a report from “Inside Baghdad” by Jeremy Scahill, whom The Nation nurtured as a journalist, publishing his dispatches from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and ensuring that they became the bestselling books, Blackwater and Dirty Wars. On the eve of the Iraq War, Scahill wrote of the hopes and fears of the Iraqi people, as one horrific chapter of their nation’s history was about to end and another to begin:

Perhaps it’s twenty years of unending war and sanctions; perhaps it’s the tremendous repression; likely, it’s everything together, but Iraqis want it all to end. They are exhausted and, most of them, miserable. In the early stages of the imposition of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US officials made clear that Iraqis would be made to suffer until Saddam Hussein was no longer in power. The last decade has represented one of the most brutal campaigns of targeting innocent civilians to achieve Washington’s policy aims. The constant bombing, the massive shortages of medicine, the rapid decimation of a once-proud middle class, the tens of thousands of innocent children withering away in filthy hospital beds, the unclean drinking water, the total dependence on the government for food, have all made ordinary Iraqis pay an incredible price for a government over which they have no control.…

There is no question that hatred of the US government is strong in Iraq, regardless of what people think of Saddam. And few accept that America has any right to overthrow the Iraqi government. Iraqis have seen what occupation looks like, both through British colonization of Iraq and through the lens of the Palestinians. “We don’t want Saddam, but that doesn’t mean we want America, either,” said Mazen, an unemployed engineer. He said his father’s name is Jihad. The name, Mazen said, was given because his grandfather fought against the British colonialists in the 1920s. “It’s in my family blood. We will not accept a foreign invader or occupier, even if it damns us to more years under an Iraqi dictator. At least he is one of us…

But even those people who would welcome a US victory over Saddam are concerned about what might come after. People across the map say they fear a civil war that would pit the surviving Baathists and loyalist forces of the regime against masses of angry civilians and disaffected army deserters. Some Christians say they also fear that Islamic fundamentalists will attack them. Over the past twelve years, Iraq has seen a rapid desecularization of its society, and Islamic groups hope to replace the Baathist government with an Islamic state. “You know why we Christians want Saddam to stay in power?” asks a restaurant owner in Baghdad. “Because he is protecting us from radical Muslims. He always has done this, and if he goes, we are afraid what will happen to us.”

Scahill also interviewed Iraqis who looked forward to the Hussein regime’s downfall, even at the price of a US invasion. But that didn’t change the fact that even if that happened quickly and relatively smoothly, the violence would be by no means at an end:

Even if some Iraqis celebrate in the streets if Saddam’s government is brought down, it will reflect no success of US policy. It will simply represent a violent end to a horrifying chapter in the vast, unfinished book of Iraq. It will be the fruits of a merciless economic and military war waged against the innocent for twelve years. Regardless of what happens, it is the ordinary Iraqis—the doctors, the engineers turned taxi drivers, the shoeshine boys, the mothers and fathers—who should be praised for having found the will to live and the will to survive a heartless war waged against them by a superpower and a tyrant.

Though both are now gone, their entwined legacies remain disastrously oppressive to the Iraqi people.

New Study on Iraq Death Count 50 Times Higher Than Americans Think

Part of American Exceptionalism is never having to admit when your government kills hundreds of thousands of people.

A new study says the U.S. invasion and subsequent war in Iraq killed an estimated 460,800, higher than most of the estimates frequently cited in the mainstream media, but lower than the controversial 2006 Lancet study that estimated between 400,000 and 655,000 excess deaths.

The authors of the study, which was published in PLOS Medicine, detail a more rigorous methodology than has ever been employed for previous Iraq War mortality estimates.

iraq-mapBut even this may be an undercount. John Tirman, Executive Director at the MIT Center for International Studies and author of The Deaths of Otherstold me in an email that the new study’s estimate of deaths of displaced people, approximately 56,000, is “likely to be more like 100,000 or even greater, but it’s almost impossible to say without more research—i.e., a survey among the displaced.”

Whatever the exact number, what’s certain is that it continues to grow. According to the International Crisis Group, the violence in Iraq is “as acute and explosive as ever.” And as Antiwar.com’s own Kelley Vlahos wrote recently, Iraqis are dying in “numbers not seen since the bloody days of 2008.”

Unfortunately, Americans dramatically under-estimate how many Iraqis died as a result of their former president’s war of choice.

“While even the most conservative estimates of mortality in Iraq,” Al Jazeera America reports, “have reached six figures, polling in the U.S. (PDF) and U.K. (PDF) have shown public perception to be that the civilian death toll from the war is in the neighborhood of 10,000.”

That is an embarrassment of enormous magnitude. But one is careful not to be surprised. Back in 2011, a University of Maryland poll found that 38 percent of Americans still believe the U.S. had “found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.”

So not only do Americans refuse to accept the reality of why the U.S. attacked Iraq, but they resist the facts about the consequences of the war. The notion that we went to war on false pretenses and that it directly led to the deaths of about 500,000 people is too much to bear for flag-waving Americans.

If their ignorance weren’t so offensive, it might be excusable. The reality is that a group of people that the American electorate twice empowered at the voting booths made decisions to act criminally and killed hundreds of thousands of people needlessly by attacking and occupying a country that posed no threat to us.  They get away with this mass murder, in part, because of the mass ignorance of Americans.

A death count statistic can never truly depict the unimaginable suffering caused by the U.S. in Iraq. But the 10,000 civilians America believes were killed by the war is not an acceptable representation of the ~500,000 Iraqis that actually died and the millions that had their lives torn apart.

I shudder to think how many Americans know that more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in 2013, two years after the U.S. withdrawal.

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