Man has been killing man since the earliest records of human history. Combat, it seems, is an inevitable ingredient to humankind as we know it. The effect that combat and killing have on a combatant is a topic that humans have only recently had the luxury of considering and studying. It is through such studies that the sinister realities of combat-related PTSD have become prevalent subjects of study, academic conversation and even policy at national- and international levels. LTC (retired) Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society is widely recognized as one of the best resources for understanding the effects that killing in combat (or elsewhere) has on a person and how that effect has changed over the course of millennia.
Included in his work, Grossman talks specifically about the phenomenon of the sniper’s ability to more willingly kill than an infantryman in close-combat. He mentions three specific factors that contribute to this: “(1) the physical distance at which they fire, (2) the mechanical distance created by viewing the enemy through a scope, and (3) a temperament predisposed to the job, due to their careful selection by command and self-selection through their willingness to volunteer for the job.” Donald L. Miller’s brilliant work Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany delves more specifically into combat killing as related to both pilots and aircrews, noting that a majority of the killing done in the war was carried out by these relatively few. This was due not only to the use of mass-casualty weapons (the millions of tons of bombs dropped by bomber crews), but equally to the willingness of those crews to deploy those weapons, given those same aforementioned factors.
But these factors that make a combatant more willing to kill are not being proven to make the act of killing another human being any easier, or rather, any less against natural moral-inclinations, on the one pulling the trigger. In fact, as Grossman notes, developments in modern society have made the act of killing anything, including the food for one’s table, almost taboo for the majority of people. This is in radical contrast to the almost unending proliferation (and subsequent consumption) of violence portrayed in film, television and video games, a juxtaposition that only further muddies the water in the societal impact on the development of an individual’s moral compass. These two utterly opposite societal inputs create a natural conflict in a person as to whether the act of killing is, in fact, a glorious event as portrayed in media, or an abhorrent and incredibly uncomfortable task carried out only by psychopaths or those who literally have no other option.
On top of all of this, we are living in an age where, for the first time in history, someone can be an active combatant in a war zone from the comfort of an air-conditioned trailer literally half a world away. When drone warfare was first being introduced to the battlefield there was genuine concern amongst military leaders that those carrying it out would not take combat, and their participation therein, seriously. Their physical separation and the fact that they were utterly impervious to the enemy were viewed as factors that would potentially turn the entire affair into nothing more than a video game for the operators themselves. In fact, quite the opposite has proven to be the case.
Because of the relative novelty of drone use in combat, and the endless debates of the morality of the same, one can find several studies, articles and even books about drone warfare. Though many of them focus on the morality of the subject and not the effects on the drone operators themselves, there are a small number of resources regarding the effect that killing has on a drone operator. However, the same cannot be said for those flying into combat in fixed- or rotary-wing platforms. This is precisely because these individuals are still, theoretically, participating in a manner that calls their own safety into question. They are in the space between the infantryman and the drone operator. Logically, this should relieve these individuals of the moral burden of killing while not being in danger of being killed. And the fact that there are much fewer cases of combat-related burnout among combat pilots than drone operators would seem to indicate that there is, in fact, no need for such studies to be carried out.
This is interesting, given that the current wars are quickly rolling towards the dawn of their third decades of existence. Meaning a lot of combat pilots have spent a lot of time flying, shooting, being shot at, killing and then dealing with the subsequent emotions and psychological effects of those actions. With the amount of studies that have been done on all manner of topics related to warfare in the past 20 years and, even more specifically, to the effects that killing and combat have on a person, it’s surprising that I cannot find anything specifically related to those effects in combat pilots. So I can only relate the effects that killing has on combat pilots from personal experience and that of pilots with whom I’ve spoken. I’ll use Grossman’s three factors listed above as talking points.
‘PREDISPOSITION FOR THE JOB’
From both personal experience and those of many individuals with whom I’ve spoken, I can state unequivocally that these pilots are every bit as vulnerable to the ‘moral injury’ of their profession as the person sitting in Nevada while simultaneously flying in Syria. I would certainly agree with Grossman’s assertion that certain characteristics of a given individual will make them either more prone to, or more psychologically defended from, such injury. But the demands, restrictions and requirements of modern combat will inevitably lead to every attack pilot having to confront the conundrum of killing in conditions that do, or do not, favor their moral concept of war.
A particular instance relating to this is that of being sent on a kinetic strike where no friendly ground forces will be involved. In a near-peer conflict, such would be a dream come true for many Apache pilots. Missions like the one that began Desert Storm (and ushered in the era of the Apache) are a perfect example of this: These pilots flew low and fast behind enemy lines to an Iraqi air-defense radar site and effectively blew a hole in the Iraqi airspace to allow coalition aircraft to enter Iraq unimpeded and lay waste to its significant armor columns.
But in Afghanistan over twenty years later, getting sent on a mission where you’re told bad guys are in a building and you just need to go and blow it up is a lot less certain. ‘Who’s saying the bad guys are there? Are there other people in there who maybe aren’t so bad? It’s cool that the drone-guy somewhere up in the aether has been watching the whole thing and feels confident that that building and its inhabitants need to be gone, but I haven’t been watching and I don’t actually know what or who is in that building.’ Luckily, cases of such missions taking place have been few in Afghanistan and Iraq, but other scenarios containing a few of these ingredients of uncertainty have given more than a few pilots pause. Or forced them to question the morality of their participation.
Furthermore, not every combat pilot necessarily chooses to be a combat pilot. I personally know several Apache pilots who had no desire whatsoever to fly Apaches. However, they’re own underperformance in the rigors of Flight School combined with the Army having a particular demand at the particular time of these individuals’ attendance at flight training led them to being put in the Apache program in order to meet ‘the needs of the Army.’ Between this and the aforementioned contrasting societal inputs, the number of individuals who are potentially ill-equipped for the psychological combat that occurs after the physical combat is alarmingly high.
Eric Haney, in his book Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit, relates the story of the Munich Olympics Massacre in September of 1972 when the Black September organization abducted and murdered Israeli Olympic athletes. Specifically, he makes mention of the German snipers who watched the abductors from afar in preparation for action against them. Ultimately, when they were called upon to terminate the captors, the snipers hesitated or were utterly incapable of firing. This because, for a period, they had in Haney’s words, “…watched them as they interacted with others, or took a nap, or ate a sandwich…” They had seen, intimately, that their targets were human beings. And self-selection or predisposition for the job be damned, that harsh reality made the act of killing these individuals seem unbearable. The snipers couldn’t do it.
In this regard, combat pilots could be considered fortunate that general fuel and noise restrictions will not often allow for them to sit and get to know a target before ultimately being tasked to terminate that target. For our brethren flying remotely, this has been among the chief factors leading to moral injury. Drone pilots spend literally hours and days watching a target engage with other people, including their families, utterly humanizing that target. And all of this without any direct threat to themselves. I can only imagine how difficult the task of killing that target would actually be given these conditions.
But for the rest of us, our participation in the last two decades has more often been responding in a Quick-Reaction Force (QRF) capacity when troops on the ground are engaged. For Apache pilots, this means ‘get a radio frequency, get a grid location, and pull the guts out of those engines to get overhead and fight off the foe.’ In this regard, most of the attack pilots that I know have been able to work through the morality of killing because they were asked to strike when the iron was still hot. There was nothing resembling a “getting to know you” session with the enemy. Pilots came on station and the bad guy was shooting at the good guys with the intent to kill them. He punched his ticket to the afterlife. Simple as that.
But, unfortunately, even in these cases it’s not ‘as simple as that.’ These circumstances don’t simply make the humanity of the enemy disappear. I know pilots who have been forced to grapple with a target’s humanity because the individual survives the initial engagement enough to attempt to crawl desperately away from their own detached limbs, or to visibly writhe in agony. Nothing could be a more stark reminder of someone’s humanity than such panicked and ultimately fruitless attempts to just stay alive.
As a pilot, you hope that your munitions fly true and dispatch the enemy as quickly as possible. When this happens, processing the fact of life-taking is much quicker because one has to move on immediately to the next task. But sometimes munition effects just aren’t quite that clean. And the terrible theater of the struggle for life is displayed vividly through ultramodern sensors into the cockpit on screens. I’ve seen the combat footage of such engagements and shaken my head wondering how that image must sear itself into the shooter’s brain. Particularly knowing that the pilot will have to then re-watch everything as they review the engagement with a military lawyer to ensure that everything was done properly and in adherence to the laws of armed conflict.
So the “advantage” of mechanical distance, in the age of modern technology, may not be so advantageous after all.
This, I feel, is an undeniable advantage that a pilot has over a soldier on the ground. Not because of the reduction in danger. Rotary wing aircraft make attractive targets. They’re big, noisy and generally unapologetic about both characteristics. They loiter intimately closer to combat than their fixed-wing counterparts. And, I’d imagine, the fantastic prospects of being the guy who brought down a helicopter is wildly appealing. All of these factors lead to weapons pointing skyward.
No, the advantage that pilots have in their physical distance is that they DON’T have to see the effects of what dropping a Hellfire Missile down the chimney of a building had inside that building. To be clear, the process leading to the application of munitions is VERY careful and considered. Depending on when one took part in the war, a Santa Claus missile like that could only be applied with the blessing of multiple people ranging from the one pulling the trigger, the pilot in command of the aircraft, the commander of the ground force all the way up to the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. So such action is hardly applied willy-nilly. But when it is, the pilots don’t have to then witness in full-living color, scent and touch, the results thereof.
This, I believe, is the biggest reason that occurrences of PTSD are much more prevalent among ground-pounders than among combat pilots. Because when those ground guys are in it, they are undeniably and unavoidably IN it. And we have the advantage of being in it while also physically separated. It is a profound respect for this fact that drives combat pilots when the call comes that troops are in contact. Because we know that they are currently having the worst day of their life in probably every psychological and sensory way.
It is for the reasons listed above that, I believe, no studies have been conducted specifically to examine the effects that killing have on combat pilots in these modern conflicts. Their physical distance allows them to avoid witnessing what those on the ground witness but they’re still actively participating in a manner that shouldn’t risk the moral injury from which drone pilots so often suffer. Combat pilots are operating in the ‘in-between.’ This nebulous space where, in the eyes of the people conducting studies on the effects of war and killing, everything is right and okay. But to believe such is actually the case is negligent, and there are absolutely combat pilots who have suffered for that negligence.
There are those pilots, as suggested by Grossman, who are simply equipped psychologically to this work. They talk very matter-of-factly about their engagements as points of instruction, or they talk proudly about them as war stories, or whatever. There are others who are proud of, or at least at peace with, the killing they did because it was in support of those people on the ground, but they don’t talk about it simply because they don’t like to relive it.
But for all of these, there are also pilots who volunteered, self-selected to be combat pilots, for whom the entire thing is too distasteful. Those who leave the Army, or at least aviation, and go on to live and thrive despite dark and difficult memories. And there are those, of course, who are so overcome and haunted by the entire affair that they cease to function or worse.
And in this regard I suppose that, ultimately, the experience of killing has the same effect on combat pilots as it does on anyone else participating in war. It is experienced differently, to be sure, but the moral struggle and psychological wrestling match are still the same. They are still the gatekeepers. And everyone who has participated is able to continue living and thriving only by confronting and overcoming them.
For myself, thankfully, I haven’t done anything that makes me lose sleep at night. But whether on the ground, at sea, in the air, or sitting in that trailer in Nevada, combat and killing are ugly affairs. And I hope that all of those who decide they don’t want anything to do with either will allow themselves to truly consider and appreciate the experiences and sacrifices of those that volunteer to do it for them.