I research drones and in particular drone pilots (whether or not I should be calling them drones – or indeed pilots – is a separate massive debate which I will deliberately not engage with here). As part of this research I read as many accounts of the lives of drone pilots as I can get my grubby hands on: newspapers, magazines, radio shows, official transcripts obtained through FOI requests, and academic accounts. It is a challenge to get access to “real life” drone pilots, (although I am determined to do so) so I do sometimes have to rely on the presentation of other people’s words and interpretations. I am also a gender scholar. I am interested not just in the experience of female drone pilots (there are some) or pregnant drone pilots (anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been some). But also how the military, as a structurally masculine institution, interacts with these individuals.
Consider the following selection of quotes pulled from popular accounts of drone pilots:
‘Six days a week, Shannon Rogers kisses his wife and two young kids goodbye and wheels his battered 1989 Chevy Cavalier out of the driveway of his suburban Nevada home.’ (Donnelly, 2005)
‘He explained to me the odd reality of making his kid’s lunch in the morning, kissing his wife goodbye, then driving to work in traffic, saying hello to his co-workers on base, and then passing through an aluminium door that miraculously transported him to the bloody battlefield of Iraq.’ (Rogoway, 2015)
‘Every decision you made was either somebody, somebody living, saving somebody or somebody dying. And you walk into your house and you’re trying to figure out whether your daughter is going to wear a blue tutu or a pink tutu and the disconnection is astounding. Is just, it’s, it’s amazing.’ (Black, 2013)
‘“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home — and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home — all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman,” Colonel Cluff said’ (Drew and Philipps, 2015)
‘Col. Pete Gersten, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Creech, said that when he deployed as a fighter pilot to Iraq and Afghanistan, he would kiss his wife, hug his children and then emotionally detach.’ (McCloskey, 2009)
‘“Normally, when you go to war, you go into a theatre,” he explained. “You sleep in a tent every night and you walk half a mile to go to the bathroom. In the Predator world, you’re in Las Vegas. You get up in the morning, kiss the wife goodbye and drive up the base. But when you get into the box, you’re right there in the theatre. You’re at war. It’s incredibly strange.” (Sankin, 2015)
‘At the end of a day’s work, you hop back in the SUV to pick up the kid at school, grab a pizza and head for your Ikea-decorated home right here in the United States’ (Fancher, 2011)
‘My first ten minutes at the controls of the MQ-1, otherwise aptly known as Predator, and I had already been in on a kill. Then I remembered that Trish had asked me to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home.’ (Martin, 2010)
Is it just me or is there an awful lot of wife-kissing going on? An awful lot of child- hugging? These pieces are written as a means of giving an insight into the lives and worlds of part of the contemporary military. That contemporary military, it seems from these snippets, is only open to those (or will only celebrate the lives of those) who have (ideally attractive) families comprised of warrior-dad, stay-at-home mom and the 2.4 children. Admittedly part of the point of these pieces is to highlight the “human” side of the drone pilot, to dispel myths that drones are really autonomous robots or piloted by morally bankrupted computer-game playing teenagers with no sense of the impact of their actions. But where is the diversity? Given that the UK has 10 Reaper drones and the US has an astonishing 101 Reapers and 73 Predators (to name just the most contentious, armed variants of the drone species) it seems unlikely to me that all of the crews comprise of these cookie-cutter families! Where are the women going home to their husbands? Going home to their (female/male/trans*) partners? The men going home to their husbands? To their housemates? Their parents? Where are the single parents? Where are the childless individuals (I know there are some, I’ve met them and see also the now famous Brandon Bryant)?
In these accounts, predominantly male drone pilots are humanised through use of domestic imagery- picking up milk, choosing tutus* and going to soccer games. In the same way that Carol Cohn in her excellent work on Nuclear Defense Intellectuals in the 1980s notes that discourses are used to “tame” the destructive potential of the nuclear warhead, the drone pilots are constructed as “the guy next door” through repeated references to groceries, childcare, and loving spouses. Whilst I would be the first to support the need to envision drone pilots as embodied humans, who have a life beyond their military orders; I am troubled by the singularity of the narrative being used here. We are shutting down the options for what is required to “make” a drone pilot human. In order to claim humanity as a drone (and to dispel the idea that you are a robotic callous civilian killer), it appears, you must be married (to the opposite sex), and a parent.
And I humbly submit that this is simply not ok. ALL drone pilots are human. They cannot be squeezed into this shape, we cannot ask them all to become cookie-cut individuals- severing limbs and qualities that don’t fit the discourse we like.
*(and whose child does ballet class in a tutu rather than the bog standard leotard?! But I digress…)
(I would recommend the play “Grounded” for anyone interested in this topic- the drone pilot in that is female. And whilst it is not unproblematic in terms of its gender portrayal it certainly adds another perspective).