Mark Mazzetti is a fine reporter at the New York Times and I follow his work closely on the front pages, but reading his new piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine this week, “The Drone Zone,” it seems to me he was straining – hard – to find something to justify the expense report for his trip to Holloman Air Force Base, on the edge of White Sands in New Mexico. He went to see the ways in which drones are transforming the Air Force, particularly from the standpoint of training and the composition of the future USAF. The news, I guess, is that drones are the new normal, and that there will be lots of them in all shapes, sizes, configurations, and missions – and pilots to match. We are told that drone pilots train to do surveillance by focusing in on civilian cars on a local highway; apparently that is intended to convey a frisson of civil liberties and privacy violations, though it’s hard to say because the story promptly drops it.
The most interesting part of the story is precisely there is very little story. The Air Force will soon be graduating more drone pilots than regular ones, and they no longer have to train as pilots on manned aircraft first. They have trouble landing Predators and Reapers; this has been a long-standing technical issue. The Air Force will have lots of drones – we should add that, over time, civilian aviation will, too. By far the largest use of drones today is for surveillance; targeted killing or any use of weaponry by drones is important today, but from the standpoint of the utilization of the technology, a relatively small part of drone activity. The article delves into the question of whether drone pilots are “real” pilots, subject to combat stress and the like, when it is possible to do the job on an 8 hour shift and then go home.
The article raises the apparently obligatory moral press trope that there is something wrong with going to war without risking one’s forces – a faintly clucking disapproval about a “lifestyle that permits them to fight a war without going to war.” Quite apart from the dangling implication that fighting a war for the United States is somehow merely a “lifestyle” unless one takes personal risk or else, as military and political leaders, those risks are unnecessarily imposed on American soldiers attacking lawful targets, one might have hoped that this would have disappeared as an issue,. Or, at least, disappeared after thinking about all the other jobs in the US military that kill – directly target and kill – the enemy but leave the warfighter hundreds or thousands of miles away in perfect safety.
In focusing the comparison on drone versus manned aircraft pilots, in other words, Mazzetti invites comparisons around bravery and risks, but in fact it he practically guarantees an apples-to-oranges comparison. Drone pilots are much closer to the folks who operate on a naval vessel, engaged in all sorts of crucial combat functions a very far distance from the “battlefield” – they too frequently operate on regular shifts. There are lots of crucial combat functions in the US military where one “fights” by day and goes home by night. Drone aircraft pilots are comparable to those positions; the comparison to manned aircraft pilots in combat missions misses the point. They also serve who sit and and watch and wait, in cubicles at a far distance.
It is remarkable how much attention in the press and academia still focuses on how drone pilots kill people but are not part of the “battle” in some supposed moral sense – and yet never ask, for example, how much “part of the battle” is the person who fires a cruise missile from a computer console deep inside a ship hundreds of miles out in the ocean. Mazzetti’s piece thankfully does not repeat the now – one hopes – thoroughly discredited idea that drone operators fire at targets with a “playstation mentality” – the stuff of many a UN special rapporteur report. But by failing to make the relevant comparison, he missed an opportunity to more accurately capture the nature of being a drone pilot. The real news in the NYT Magazine article, it seems, is that drones are so entirely normal in the emerging US military that the training of drone pilots is about as interesting as what would be the training of missile battery operators on a US Navy vessel – interesting to some people (including me) but probably not very to folks who read the New York Times, especially the Magazine on a Sunday morning in bed (also including me).