OVER THE last few years the use of drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—has generated much debate and concern in the media and among the public. How concerned should we all be? According to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States already has more than 100 “heavy” drones carrying weapons that are part of a drone force nearing 700.
Other militaries are following suit. British armed forces have increased their numbers of armed Reaper drones from five to ten and established an operational base in Leicestershire. This doesn’t appear a monumental event in itself—it’s not as if the sun will be blackened out by swarms of drones (yet). And so this latest British step toward the drone age appears almost understated, even reasonable.
But, as an ex-British Army captain who worked with U.S. drones during an Afghanistan tour that still troubles me and left in tatters the vainglorious hopes of my former twenty-one-year-old self who joined the army in 2001, I’m worried. The continuous scaling-up of armed drones by the United States and British militaries marks a shift in thinking and procedure that I recognize firsthand, having experienced something all too similar during my military career.
I joined the British Army at the back end of its involvement in the Balkans at the end of the 1990s. On the television news I’d watched images of armed vehicles painted white as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force and women and children protectively shepherded by British troops. I thought it looked like a noble form of soldiering, heroic even, and decided it was worth trying. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?
By 2004 I was instead part of a combat unit, ordering my tank’s gunner to fire at men holding rocket-propelled grenades in the streets of Al Amarah, Iraq. Come 2009, I was sitting in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province holding a cup of tea and watching people on a computer screen get obliterated by Hellfire missiles. Some shift.
I ran my unit’s Tactical Control Air Party and was responsible for ensuring that forward air controllers (FACs) deployed on the ground got all the air and aviation assets they needed—drones, jet fighters, attack helicopters. In addition to providing a degree of oversight, I used the assets myself.
But most of my seven months in Afghanistan was spent at the end of radios listening to soldiers getting shot at, torn apart by improvised explosive devices, hit by rocket-propelled grenades, even falling out of helicopters, as my notions and ideals came apart at the seams. My regiment’s beret has a striking badge in the form of a skull, with two crossed bones beneath it and a banner saying “Or Glory,” which leads to the regimental motto: “Death or Glory.” Afghanistan forced me to confront a side of the military that had no glory, no glamour; just dirty, messy, mostly sickening experiences—not ones to make you proud or anywhere close to a hero.
I would leave the army just before turning thirty-one, confused and unsure about what had happened to me and to an institution I loved. I knew the Iraqi civilian body count was estimated at 110,000 dead. That’s documented deaths, other estimates say 650,000. Figures aren’t available for Afghanistan, although I knew civilians were dying because I was part of the process killing them.
I had to work out how to go forward in what was a new arena: the civilian world and the rest of my life. The American philosopher William James wrote in 1902:
What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war, without brass bands or uniforms or hysteric popular applause or lies or circumlocutions: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself incompatible.
That “something heroic” remains hard to find in society. I certainly didn’t find it in the military.
“Both sides have got their heroes, the Taliban will have theirs, the same as we have ours,” notes Sergeant Wayne Turnbull, who was one of the forward air controllers I worked with in Afghanistan. “The Taliban think if they get killed by a 20mm round from an F-18… they’re gonna be martyrs and they’ll go to heaven,” he explains, calling it a luxury he can’t rely on. “I’ve seen too much shit; I’ve held too many people together who’ve been hit by improvised explosive devices to believe there’s something above that looks out for us… I’m more fearful for my life, because I know there’s fuck-all to come after.”
Sergeant Edward Mather was another FAC in Afghanistan with Turnbull and me. During the tour he was part of a patrol ambushed by Taliban hidden behind a wall a few meters away. Two rocket-propelled grenades impacted between one and three meters away from Mather who sustained shrapnel injuries. The patrol took cover in a building thirty meters from the contact point—eight soldiers had been injured. Despite his injuries, Mather spoke to an A-10 aircraft sent to assist, but due to the enemy’s proximity it couldn’t engage. The patrol vacated the building and when he was about 100 meters away, Mather—on a stretcher and speaking through his radio—directed the A-10 to conduct a gun run on the Taliban position, allowing the patrol to extract to safety.
After the tour Mather was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the ambush—the third highest military decoration awarded “in recognition of acts of exemplary gallantry against the enemy.”
“I think the term ‘hero’ is used too much these days,” Mather told me. “We as soldiers are only doing what we have signed up to do and know the full consequences of the job. It’s a job not everyone can do, therefore a soldier is a special breed but that doesn’t make us heroes.”
Captain Timothy Drieslein was a former teacher in charge of a small unit of U.S. Marines attached to our battle group. Soft-spoken with a calm demeanor, Drieslein was the antithesis of the gung-ho American stereotype. I felt in him a kindred spirit often not felt with some of my fellow British officers. His father was a platoon commander during Vietnam and was at Khe-Sanh, a besieged Marine outpost that became emblematic of the war’s problems during the Tet offensive in 1968. When his father’s tour ended, only twelve remained from the original platoon of sixty-five Marines. Drieslein remembers vividly waking in the night to his father’s screaming.
Drieslein was in the operations room on November 3, 2009, running the Tactical Air Control Party. A British patrol visited an Afghan national police checkpoint in the town Shin Kalay. Troops had removed their body armor and were resting in a compound, supposedly safe—suddenly a policeman opened fire with his machine gun, killing five soldiers and wounding others. Taliban in a nearby tree line then began firing at the checkpoint. Soldiers fired back, igniting the field of crops behind the tree line, at which point civilians came rushing to extinguish the fire.
Drieslein watched this unfold through images beamed into the operations room from a reconnaissance drone in the sky. Such images provide a bird’s eye view of fluctuating clarity depending on various factors. In the heat of the moment, deciding whether a blurry head and shoulders on a computer screen represents a civilian or a Taliban fighter isn’t easy. Drieslein said it appeared people were moving to and from the tree line where the Taliban were stationed and in the field where civilians were dealing with the fire: “So it was just confusing and everyone was all for blood, because they’d just had five to six guys get killed.”
Apache attack helicopters arrived, which Drieslein—responsible for providing clearance to engage—directed against the Taliban. The Apaches did a gun run on the tree line, during which some Taliban and civilians were possibly killed. Everyone in the tree line and field started running away. The Apaches wanted to engage, but Drieslein didn’t clear them, convinced some were civilians: “Had I cleared them, I think we would have lost the whole town, because there would have been so many civilian casualties.” Drieslein said a complaint was made about him denying clearance for the Apache to engage. His commander reviewed the incident and confirmed he’d done the right thing.
The right thing—we seek justification for our actions in the aftermath when reflection is afforded. It’s easy reducing justification to a numbers game; the numbers in Afghanistan don’t compare to Hiroshima or the Dresden bombing in World War II or to Vietnam. Yet surely it’s not just a question of numbers, which smacks of moral circumvention. There’s a danger of the reverse beauty pageant effect: to achieve recognition, things must be worse than anything else. Kurt Vonnegut experienced the Dresden bombing, and later wrote: “The killing of children—‘Jerry’ children, or ‘Jap’ children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us—can never be justified.”
During my tour in Afghanistan a friend mailed me Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy, Sword of Honor. Near the end, the main character Guy Ridgeback is faced with the dilemma of whether to care for a deceased lover’s illegitimate child, which he knows isn’t his. He remembers some advice from his father: “Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of ‘loss of face.’” In that sentiment may reside the answer to the numbers conundrum. Just as one life saved is truly important, one life lost is equally important and why, even when numbers don’t match what’s come before, we can feel morally bankrupt facing up to the tally. Each death shames us, eroding our claim to a shared humanity. That’s the price we pay and that will be exacted somehow: be it on the battlefield, when locals turn against us, or back in the silence of a dark, lonely bedroom.
The “butcher’s bill” is old British Army slang for the casualty list after a battle. I remember talk about an increase in groin injuries due to the Taliban’s effective use of improvised explosive devices buried in the ground. Military doctors speak of a new “signature wound” from Afghanistan—two legs blown off at the knee or higher, accompanied by damage to the genitals.
Heroism is deeply ingrained in the male psyche and wedded to an image of masculinity—being a real man—and that masculinity is closely linked to physicality; soldiers especially set great store by their appearance, fitness, and strength. But if you have a limb—or especially your penis or testicles—blown off, where does that leave your masculinity?
And what if you take those things away from another man?
Despite the dangers, there is much that’s seductive about military life. It allows one to be elevated above the norm or the mundane and provides exciting opportunities it seems. “The camaraderie, sense of joint purpose, adventure, danger, thrill, realization of childhood dreams” all contribute to the appeal, says ex-infantry officer Alex Allen, further defining it as “that sense of being part of a broader effort, belief in being on the ‘right side.’”
Being or feeling you’re on the right side certainly helps. It’s a natural human desire. Protecting others has been an urge since our caveman days and implicit in that protection is choosing sides—and if you acknowledge a moral framework, you want to pick the right side. The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote that the history of warfare in our century could be told as the growing incapacity of the army to fulfill its basic function: to protect and defend the civilian population. It’s easy to forget that is the underpinning role of a standing army.
An additional seduction results from the combination of factors Allen mentioned—everything’s heightened in a military context. “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough ‘I couldn’t believe it!’ to last a lifetime,” wrote William Broyles Jr., a Vietnam veteran, in a 1984 Esquire article titled “Why Men Love War.”
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Drieslein contends. “My dad was a Marine who went through hell and back but he never had one bad thing to say about the Marine Corps. He only spent four years in the Marines, but it shaped his entire life, and I knew that was an organization I wanted to be part of.”
The civilian world—increasingly for men affected by gender role shifts within modern society—can easily appear unheroic; hence the idea of heroism linked to fighting persists. There’s a Japanese saying: “The cherry blossom is the first among flowers; the warrior is the first among men.” But William James questioned this dependency on war to prove manhood: “When we gravely ask ourselves whether this wholesale organization of irrationality and crime be our only bulwark against effeminacy, we stand aghast at the thought.” Yet from the evidence, it would seem society has kept step with the sentiment of that Japanese saying; it’s certainly not heeded James’ words.
Children are typically brought up to hold certain values. For anyone raised in a vaguely religious context there’s a paramount lesson: do not kill. Yet then, in war, we renege on the agreement. And what follows? Guilt and shame are hard to avoid for many. Far from a sense of anything heroic, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been linked to the conundrum of jarring emotions. Might the expectation of bravery versus the reality cause such a clash? In her 2011 book, Gated Grief, Leila Levinson writes about her father’s suffering after witnessing the Holocaust’s aftermath as a GI in World War II. During her research she met with recent veterans. “I realized that so much of what they are experiencing inside is a terrible, terrible guilt and shame and fear that if they share with any of us what they have participated in that we will condemn them,” she notes. “So they feel exiled to a whole separate realm from the rest of us.”
Chris Yates has considered this since serving as a tank commander in Iraq in 2004 and leaving the British Army. After recognizing you’ve been a voluntary party to violence, cruelty, and even evil, “one learns how desperately important it is to be good,” Yates says. “However, returning to civilian life, it’s obvious how civilians are really not good themselves, but full of petty selfishness, nastiness, and ignorance, which they refuse or seem unable or too unimaginative to recognize. So one ends up feeling trapped.”
It’s equally tough for those staying in the military. “Did we do everything we could do to try and prevent it? I deal with that myself still,” Captain Drieslein recalls of civilian deaths. “There are times when you’re at the supermarket or wherever and all of a sudden you start to think about that stuff again.” His answer: “I feel like we did in the heat of the moment as much as we could to try and save those civilians and save our own soldiers.” Maybe, though to this day I’m not sure regarding my own actions.
“As for the fallout from the tour, I don’t believe the full toll will ever be recorded,” Sergeant-Major Dave Cooper says about adjusting after Afghanistan. Cooper was my TACP second-in-command. “Everyone has been affected in some way or another—me included—whether it be a full-scale meltdown or just a change in attitude to certain things,” he explains. One of those things is money, which he says he “doesn’t give a toss” about. “When I was with the Vikings going up to Sangin, I was fuckin’ certain I was going to get killed, and I said to myself in the back of that wagon, I’m never gonna worry about money again.”
Looking back to when I joined the army, the world didn’t yet spin on suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, and ever-bulkier body armor to counter the increasing threat. The Cold War ended, we basked in the glow of the peace dividend, seemingly free to intervene in humanitarian crises. Perhaps I was naïve then about the future, perhaps we all were. Or maybe we made a load of mistakes during the course and squandered our best chances. It’s estimated that 160 million people were killed as a result of conflict in the twentieth century. How much of that toll came from the quest for the heroic and what will the toll be for this apparently advanced century we now inhabit?
“I really see a hero as someone who offers self-sacrifice in helping another living being in a way that, whatever the results, is intended to have a positive impact,” Alex Allen observes. His point causes me to consider my father who worked for over forty years in an unglamorous job as an army dentist; his work often tediously repetitive. He never went to war like me. He never fought the enemy, and as far as I know—I’m more than glad for it—he never killed anyone. But he helped his patients over the years and provided his family with a good life.
On some level, I believe being in the military was about protecting what I loved and why I still feel enormous pride having served in the British Army, despite the sorrows that persist. They say heroes shed no tears and if so I’m further than ever from that fabled realm. Now I can see children with their parents and suddenly feel like crying.
The image of a peacekeeping soldier patrolling a street and talking to children isn’t a quixotic notion, rather a type of soldiering the British Army once did exceptionally well. What place is there for that sort of soldiering in the drone age? Increasingly, society has sanctioned the military to press buttons from thousands of miles away, to kill people living on land they grew up on and, from their perspectives, are trying to defend.
When I left the army, I hadn’t lost faith in the men and women within and I still haven’t. But after Iraq and Afghanistan I’d lost faith in how the army was employed by its leaders and politicians elected by the populace. Will people continue to stand by and not ask questions about what the military is accomplishing and what it’s destroying? And as our armed engagement becomes more and more remote, will we come to feel that the lives taken mean less? Heroism in combat can be tough to square in any situation, but especially from a distance.