Of all the many troubling aspects of the Americans’ emerging policy of waging war via drone missiles, what leaps out and grabs the attention of BAMblog is the impact upon the hearts and minds of the pilots who control these drones, meting out destruction from distances unimaginable just a few decades ago.
For the generations that have grown up since the advent of television, an issue steadily thrumming beneath the surface of the worlds where media and child psychology meet has been the question of the long-term effects on developing brains of prolonged exposure to violence portrayed on television and in films.
From the cartoon calamities of Tom & Jerry through Peckinpah westerns to slasher and snuff movies to the modern phenomena of the darkest video games, the debate has raged. On the one side: concerns about emotional detachment and the diminished capacity for empathy. On the other hand: cries in defence of the freedom of speech along with accusations of insufficient evidence to back up the claims of the other side. And each side disses the other with all the tricks of the rhetorical trade: “they would say that, wouldn’t they!” and so on and on it goes.
That issue remains at best unresolved. But here is a worrying wrinkle, and it’s part of another human foible that is many centuries older than the voyeuristic attractions of onscreen death and dismemberment. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” was coined precisely one century ago this summer and describes the manipulation of keen and fit young men in serving the bidding of embittered old generals whose egos suppurate through the medals they wear on their chests.
So what’s happening? It’s as if these old guys have rationalised that while the question of “video violence” and its effects on young brains remains an open question, why don’t we employ these highly skilled gamers in watching “terrorists” on satellite cameras and, when we have identified a sufficiently credible threat, obliterate it with a drone-mounted missile! Simples . . .
Then out comes the whole Orwellian lexicon of euphemism: the technical-sounding “surgical” strike, the putative absence of “collateral damage”, the no-muss, no fuss elimination of a dangerous insurgent carrying a rifle in some foreign sandpit.
Round about now the truth starts leaking out. The highly pixelated image on the drone pilot’s monitor may as easily have been a young child carrying a shovel as a “terrorist” carrying a rifle. The possibility does not play well in the mind of the pilot. Stories are emerging of diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and studies – not only independent but some by the US Air Force itself concluding that several of these stressed pilots are “clinically distressed” – suffering levels of anxiety and depression that is severe enough to spill into their personal lives.
So while the old problems of understanding onscreen violence remain unresolved and therefore uncosted, we have the additional problem of a new variation in the way that old donkeys can put their young lions in harm’s way, along with whatever other collateral damage emerges in the equation.