What’s it like to watch someone die? Ask a drone pilot | Adrian Chiles

Technology used to distance the military from the deaths they caused. Now everything is up close and personal

Microphone in hand, making radio, I don’t half find myself in some odd places. The inside of a shipping container, for example. This one was in an aircraft hangar at an RAF base somewhere in England. What it contained was the cockpit of a drone flying high above Syria and Iraq. For company in there, as I remember it, I had the pilot, the person in charge of firing whatever weapons this drone carried and a lawyer whose job it was to advise on who and what were legitimate, legal targets. And there was an RAF press officer, of course – I hadn’t just snuck in there.

I don’t want to get into the morality or otherwise of drone warfare here – you may or may not be minded to put inverted commas around the words “legitimate” and “legal” above. It’s just that this whole fascinating, unsettling, disorientating experience came back to me during the furore over Prince Harry’s book and what he had to say about his experience of visiting death and destruction upon, it is to be hoped, legitimate and legal targets from Apache helicopters.

One of the drone pilots I met on that RAF base contacted me a few years later. By then, tormented by post-traumatic stress disorder, he said he had been medically discharged and was being refused compensation on the grounds that he had not been “exposed to death”. His point was that death, in appallingly high definition, is precisely what he had been exposed to, as he saw the before, during and after of the Hellfire missiles he was unleashing.

“When you are killing the enemy, you see it in so much detail because you are watching them, sometimes for hours or even days on end, then lingering afterwards, watching the impact of what you have just done. Your brain can’t tell the difference between 3,000 miles and three feet,” he said.

It fascinates me that, seen like this, technology might be taking us back to something approximating what warfare was once all about. That is, while not engaged in hand-to-hand combat, nevertheless having to see at close quarters your enemies dying. While more acts of war have become detached – long-range missiles and so on – in the interests of precision some have become devastatingly intimate. I think this is what our prodigal prince was getting at with his thoughts on the “chess pieces” he was toppling.

As my pilot said: “This takes us back by about 300 years to a man with a crossbow targeting the enemy: you feel like you are only a matter of feet away. You’re seeing everything in detail – and that’s the problem.”

I wonder if the dark sides of social media will take us to the same place. In the analogue age, haters were in the main restricted to hating face to face – in physical or emotional combat. Then along came texting and Twitter and whatnot, and the means of delivery widened. The cruise missiles and cluster bombs of online abuse have visited untold harm but at a distance and, at the moment of impact, out of sight of the perpetrators. What comes next? What’s going to be analogous to drone pilots being forced to see exactly the impact of their actions? Perhaps smartphones will be equipped to monitor the widening of the eyes of the recipient as the online abuse lands. Or their heart rate, or tear ducts.

Pardon all this dystopian stuff. Again, it’s down to the beautiful random oddness of radio – I have just been reading A Clockwork Orange at the behest of the chap from Heaven 17 for A Good Read on Radio 4. So blame Anthony Burgess, or Martyn Ware.

I’m seeking a ray of light. Perhaps more intimate exposure to the moment of harm will lead to conscience kicking in, or at least a smidgen of squeamishness, to lighten the darkness of man’s heart. Here’s hoping.

  • Adrian Chiles is a writer, broadcaster and Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.


Adrian Chiles

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