by Derek Morrison
During family meals
No way of expressing
Exactly how she feels.
Time for bedtime stories
Children tucked in bed
Push aside her troubles
Focus on them instead.
Mummy, what do you do?
The youngest child asked
Why, I work in an office
Where I do what I’m tasked.
She must avoid such probing
Focus back on fairy tales
Where good always trumps evil
And nothing ever fails.
At first sleep evades her
Then come movies in the head
Replaying endless highlights
As nightmares they are fed.
Long days tracking ‘bad guys’
Logging exactly where they go
For higher pay-checks to decide
When to strike that blow.
Target in the cross-hairs
White furnace — then cloud of black
Wait until dust has settled
Now there’s no going back.
Survey the scene for hours
Observing what they do
Until the shift is over
Replaced by another crew.
For her no warrior status
No ‘right stuff’ claim
Just another day at the office
With tomorrow just the same.
Just Another Day at the Office does not focus on the causes or moralities of exacting virtual warfare.
Instead, the poem tries to capture the dissonance implicit in going to work in an ‘office’ where your role is to be the ‘worker’ most intimately connected to the virtual technologies responsible for first observing and then potentially destroying people and places in remote lands. A person with such a role is not exposed to any direct physical risk, undertakes a shift and may well then go home to their family. The absence of physical risk thus accords them no warrior, “right stuff”, or heroic status. Where then the “band of brothers” (or sisters), the feeling of belonging, the peer support, the group protection that can shield at least some people from the mental consequences of taking part in warfare and conflict? I deliberately made the key actor in the poem a mother because the emerging reality of virtual warfare is that it can be gender neutral. I don’t know whether a maternal role would further amplify the almost inconceivable levels of dissonance because there is a paucity of publicly available research evidence in this area.
So who are these people?
The key actor in Just Another Day at the Office is a female Sensor Operator or ‘Sensor’ for short. For example, the US Air Force enlisted career option for a Sensor Operator states that after a 34 day course of technical training:
You’ll use state-of-the-art equipment to perform surveillance and reconnaissance and provide close air support and real-time battle damage assessment. You will also use precision-guided munitions to help eliminate targets and threats. As a Sensor Operator, you’ll play a vital role in keeping people safe and making sure missions succeed.
Just Another Day at the Office tries to capture the reality of what that entails, i.e. endless watching from afar interspersed with guiding a missile to an approved target whilst trying to limit the amount of death and destruction they visit upon those in the surrounding area. Unlike a fighter pilot who tends to get out of the target area as soon as possible the Sensor both guides the missile and hangs around afterwards as part of the audit of results.
Further insights and resources
Omer Fast’s 2011 film 5000 Feet is the Best was part of the UK Imperial War Museum’s Contemporary Art Programme which was screened between 29 July-29 September 2013. The work is based on interviews with a former drone operator and its title refers to the optimum operational flight altitude of a US Air Force Predator drone that can tell what type of shoes an individual is wearing from one mile up in the sky. The full 30 minute version of 5000 Feet is Best is still available online but I found the ten minute extract still captures much of the intensity of the issue.
Fast’s film highlights the weirdness of the drone operator’s work, i.e. endlessly trawling for “bad guys” in remote countries and then delivering death from afar. Fast’s scene changes can be confusing at first; I assume he wants us to actively try and derive meaning rather than it be handed to us on a plate. He uses an actor to portray the mental fractures resulting from being a ‘Sensor’ supplemented by extracts from an interview with a real ex-drone operator with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who now sounds cool calm and collected (hence the actor scenes I suspect).
To me the most powerful scene in 5000 Feet is the Best is the vignette told by the actor portraying the Sensor with PTSD. The vignette transfers Afghan/Iraq type setting to America, i.e. the innocent family become “collateral damage” from remote death delivered from the sky, but now situated on US soil and happening to a US family.
After viewing this it becomes even easier to envisage why the incidence of PTSD is not just possible, but very likely, in such virtual operators – who are physically detached from a war zone but whose role is to guide a missile to a target while trying to limit damage and death outside the target area. 5000 Feet is the Best may have used an actor to give visual form to some manifestation of PTSD, but it’s the real Sensor’s words that are chilling, e.g.
“Sometimes I make mistakes … There are horrors sides to this … You see a lot of death … You see it all … As I said I can tell what type of shoes you’re wearing from that far away … There came a point after 5 years of doing this that I had to just think that there was wow! so much loss of life that was the direct result of me … The one factor that helped me was that if it wasn’t me doing it, it would be some new kid doing it, but worse … It’s not like a video game, I can’t switch it off”.
If Omer Fast’s film doesn’t depress enough then perhaps sample the following circa 8 minute segment from a 2014 PRI broadcast which, again, illustrates that this role is as far removed from ‘Top Gun’ as it is possible to get; it’s the potential banality of the work that is so challenging even to think about. You fly over foreign lands, maybe kill people, then drive home for dinner (The World, 12 December 2014, Public Radio International [PRI] & BBC)
The forthcoming documentary Drone has a number of extracts already available. The UK Guardian is currently offering a 10 minute clip with the title Drone wars: the gamers recruited to kill. There is also a short two minute trailer to the documentary.
You may also want to read, Drone Wars: Pilots Reveal Debilitating Stress Beyond Virtual Battlefield (LiveScience, 2013).
In conclusion, I pose an interesting question. I’ve focused on the ‘Sensor’ rather than the drone pilot because the latter’s role is ‘flying’ and navigating the aircraft whereas it is the Sensor who is the “eyes on” and guide missile to target. What then is the future for “Top Gun” when automation evolves to a point where the ‘pilot’ is the computer. The real horror, of course, being when the ‘Sensor’ is the computer. Computers do not, after all, suffer from PTSD – just a thought.
On 15 April 2015 Ray Mabus, the US Secretary of the Navy speaking at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 Conference said:
Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas … For example, as good as it is, and as much as we need it and look forward to having it in the fleet for many years, the F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.