On Killing Remotely
The Psychology of Killing with Drones
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021.
Hardback 368 pp RRP 45.00
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, May 2023
The title of this book is a little deceptive as this book focuses on a very specific and limited part of operations with drones, namely operations, mostly conducted by the USAF, where the controllers are located in the continental US while piloting RPA’s which are operating in the Middle East. It is in this very long-distance sense that the word ‘remotely’ in the title of the book has to be taken. Clearly this is a very different setting to one where the drone controllers are ‘in theatre’. Indeed, it is this which makes the book interesting to read as the author is attempting to explain why crews who, in the words of the author, ‘commute to combat’, have rates of PTSD and other stress indicators higher than one might imagine would be the case.
The first section of the book (103 pages) provides background information and covers the history of remote killing in warfare, the technology used - with much attention to the Predator and the Reaper operated the US forces, the different types of missions which may be undertaken and the control and communications infrastructure. The remainder of the work (218 pages) focuses in some detail upon the nature of missions involving killing and the psychological effect of such operations on the crews involved in controlling the drones. The author identifies two key factors which have a negative impact upon the crews, despite their being a considerable distance from the actual killing. First, it is in the nature of the way the operations are conducted that often the mission involves killing a person whose activities have been monitored by the crew(s) over long periods, not just hours or days but weeks and even many months. This means that the crews become very familiar with the person involved including detailed knowledge of their home and family life. As a result an intimacy of sorts develops. Secondly, it is often the case that the crew are required to observe and report on the aftermath and effectiveness of the strike and, as a result they routinely witness the impact of the strike, the carnage involved and the impact on bystanders, which often includes the family of the person who has been killed.
I think the best way to approach this book is to see it as a follow-up to Samuel Marshall’s highly influential Men Against Fire published in 1947 and the 1996 book On Killing by Dave Grossman. Following Marshall and Grossman, Phelps adopts the view that the act of killing is psychologically traumatic for the killer and as a result there is a ‘resistance to killing’. Phelps argues that to overcome this it is essential that the crews operating the drones on kill missions have complete trust in the motivation and judgement of those who are directing them to kill.
The book has a six-page bibliography and a comprehensive index.
Wayne Phelps is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel whose military career included a number of deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. He commanded units at every level from platoon to squadron, served as an instructor at the Marine Corps’ premier aviation training squadron and a staff officer in the Pentagon. In 2014 he was selected to become an RPA pilot and he attended the Air Force’s Undergraduate Pilot Training program. His last assignment was as the Commanding Officer of a Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron. As the Commanding Officer, he deployed a number of remotely piloted aircraft detachments to conduct counter-terrorism operations against violent extremist organizations. He is thus well-placed to write on this topic.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.