The right stuff


In a Washington Post feature article (‘Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing’), Greg Miller writes that ‘no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.’

I’ve discussed this fact before and considered what the drastic expansion of executive power reveals about the policy objectives of the US elite and its allies. There’s more to think about, though.

Use of remotely-piloted aircraft (as well as cruise missiles and manned gunships) for weapons delivery requires the presence, midway along the ‘kill chain‘ between sensor and shooter, of human operators and analysts.

These people must watch, with sustained attention, live video feeds or surveillance imagery of death and destruction as human targets are found, tracked and exterminated with high-explosive anti-armour (blast and fragment) munitions.

In other words, Washington’s global death program entails the existence of an extraordinary sort of workforce.

Members must be able to withstand both prolonged and acute exposure to horribly unpleasant stimuli while maintaining vigilance and task-specific focus and without experiencing the kind of negative emotional states or overwhelming affective responses that lead to performance degradation (e.g. failure to determine whether a target has been successfully ‘neutralized’ or merely incapacitated, inability to discriminate between the remains of targets and those of bystanders or non-humans, unwillingness to detect subsequent targets, etc.).

One method people use ordinarily to cope with distress is avoidance: diverting attention from the source of aversion as a way to alleviate anxiety. This is impossible for the drone operator, whose job description requires him never to look away.

Wayne Chappelle and Kent McDonald at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in Ohio have undertaken studies, using surveys, tests and peer reports, into the personality traits and behavioural dispositions, as well as the cognitive and psychomotor skills, needed by successful operators of unmanned weapons-deploying aircraft and their sensors.

Among other things, this has involved rating participants along the Big Five personality dimensions (openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and comparing results to those from the civilian population and the aircrew of manned gunships. (Other recent papers can be found here, here and here).

UAV crew members unsurprisingly must possess all the usual traits: self-confidence, assertiveness, excitement-seeking, internal locus of control, a high degree of intrinsic motivation, etc.

But given their specific combat role, the final attribute in the Big Five domains – emotional stability or composure in the face of induced transient stress – becomes especially important if personnel are to perform successfully and avoid burnout or impaired performance. (Predator/Reaper and AC-130 gunship operators both score lowest, relative to the general population, on neuroticism.)

According to McDonald and Chappelle, those who adapted to the ‘operational environment’ displayed ’emotional stamina’, lack of vulnerability to negative mood states, were ‘tough-minded’ and not prone to distress. They found that ‘higher than average levels of  resilience to stress (or other negative emotional states), need for excitement-seeking, and compartmentalization of emotions are required to adapt to the operational demands’:

According to SOs [sensor operators], the deployment of weapons also requires well-developed skills for compartmentalizing their emotions.

The rigors of training and operational demands of the RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] platform (e.g., targeting and destruction of enemy assets, taking the lives of enemy combatants, as well as surveillance of battle damage) can be emotionally taxing.

SMEs [subject-matter experts, i.e. superiors] reported the ability to compartmentalize the emotional rigors of one’s job in order to conserve emotional reserves when returning home from work or interacting with others outside the military installation can be an important trait for long term stability.

It is well-known that resilience to stress and emotional difficulties (often known has psychological hardiness) is considered a core attribute of those within high risk military occupations.

Furthermore, some airmen may emotionally struggle with their role in the killing of enemy combatants.

Interviews with SMEs reported a small number of incidences (i.e., four to five) of SOs voicing their discomfort with their duties and/or requesting to leave the career field after their role in the deployment of weapons. They reported such SOs performed their surveillance and reconnaissance duties well, but emotionally struggled with their role in taking the lives of others, regardless of the threat enemy combatants posed to U.S. and allied forces.

SMEs reported such SOs experienced significant internal conflict with their role, and that such a conflict did not become apparent until the SO was faced with a real-life situation or fully educated about the nature of their combat-related duties.

It is important to ensure that airmen selected for RPA SO duties are fully aware of, and understand, their role in the targeting and destruction of enemy combatants and assets prior to entry into training. It is likely that some SO candidates will decline the opportunity to pursue such duties once they fully understand their role in precision strike operations.

In other words, remote operators of weapons-deploying aircraft must be unusual people, many of them several standard deviations from the population mean on various personality dimensions.

The most important of these dimensions is neuroticism and its components: susceptibility to sadness, regret and depressed mood. If they feel at all queasy, guilt-ridden or troubled when observing burnt and mangled corpses, they must manage to suppress such feelings and get on with the job without any noticeable decrement in performance or distraction from task engagement.

In seeking to retain incumbents and find suitable recruits to work as happy killers, Washington’s expanding assassination program thus must fish in shallow waters for rare species (certainly including sociopaths) displaying the desired personality traits.

One way of achieving sufficient numbers at the extremes (i.e. tails) of a distribution is to shift the population mean for the trait in question. If the average person becomes less prone to a negative affective response upon witnessing scenes of extreme violence and destruction, then the ‘less neurotic’ types will be more stoic still, and their numbers more plentiful than otherwise.

Similarly, such a population-wide shift would raise the stress threshold beyond which task demands (such as remote killing) were experienced by operators as unfamiliar, unbearable and exceeding the operator’s capacity to cope.

Finally, an increase in the median voter’s ability to withstand the sights and sounds of extreme violence, without lapsing into appalled paralysis or low moods, would presumably increase public tolerance for large-scale killing, by those at the extremes, in pursuit of elite objectives.

How might this be achieved?

Applicants with the desirable traits and states obviously self-select for the job. But the above quotation shows that candidate recruitment isn’t perfectly reliable.

In such cases, and generally, affective response and emotional disposition can also be modified and reinforced by training. People from the University of Central Florida psychology department (Mustapha Mouloua, Peter HancockEduardo SalasDeborah Billings, James Szalma, etc.) have explored how stress-exposure or stress-resiliency training can “harden” personnel who must use UAVs in combat, so that their ability to acquire and engage targets is not overwhelmed by emotional and physiological response.

The basic technique works via graduated-intensity exposure to battlefield stressors and realistic perceptual cues, including through high-fidelity simulation and games. The trainee is habituated to environmental cues that initially were aversive and debilitating, thus becoming ‘inoculated’ against combat stress.

Similarly, by exposing the general population to an unceasing barrage of (imagery of) extreme violence (e.g. by allowing it to saturate popular entertainment), one may presumably shift in a convenient direction the population distribution of relevant dispositions and attitudes, bestowing an everyday familiarity (sanitized, to be sure) and tolerability on what is pursued in secret.

This, too, I’ve discussed in greater detail in another post.


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4 Responses to “The right stuff”

  1. Rewarding and pleasurable « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] It’s unclear whether this shift in norms is an accident or a project. Perhaps, as the economist James T. Hamilton has suggested, the oversupply of media violence is a ‘blind’ aggregate effect of individuals firms acting singly in pursuit of their own ends. Or maybe there is coordinated collective action under way, with some people acting jointly in pursuit of definite political goals (deliberately fostering a remaking of preferences to support greater tolerance for violence). […]

  2. The statesman speaks « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] effect of many mass-entertainment products (TV, films, video games) elsewhere, and the functional purpose such cultural decay […]

  3. Learning to see like Maya: brutalizing the audience « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] this sort of emotional resiliency in its recruits is something imparted by training and by self-selection of Washington’s military death squads and CIA […]

  4. Doubt as a free good; or, ‘Product defence’ as an externality « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] – thereby being brutalized from early childhood – must prompt little concern, and provoke some pleasure, in ruling […]

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