Drone-Visuality: The Psychology Of Killing

The prevailing literature contends that the drone camera alleviates the psychological burden of killing by visually representing warfare in a manner which spatially and morally distances the US and other nations' military forces using the technology from their lethal consequences. 

The drone camera, and the technological nexus it is situated within, enables killing to become a networked phenomenon, dividing the moral culpability between multiple actors, and further alleviating the psychological burden of killing-by-drone. 

From a more nuanced stance, it can be argues that killing through the drone camera’s gaze may be more difficult than the present literature estimates, for two reasons. 

 

Firstly, the specific ontology of the imagery relayed to the drone pilot via drone camera - referred to as ‘drone vision’ could potentially inflict great psychological trauma on the drone pilot. Drone pilots intimately experience the destruction inflicted by them unfold in real-time via video feed and often have to monitor the aftermath of their actions to confirm fatalities and oversee potential developments. 

Consequentially, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may manifest itself in drone pilots, at a similar rate to other combatants, contradicting the dominant notion that drone pilots’ distance from conflict affords them protection from such psychological trauma. 

Secondly, drone vision produced by the Multi-Spectral Targeting System camera (MSTS camera), the most prevalent drone camera in operation, is fallible. Under certain circumstances, the MSTS camera produces poor quality drone vision, which can be misinterpreted and result in collateral damage, compounding the psychological burden of killing-by-drone. 

Drone vision is a complex phenomenon, dependent on the technologies that produce it, and is likely to transform with these technologies. 

Killing-by-drone has become controversially emblematic of contemporary US warfare, with little indication of decline. Prior to 9/11, the US army had two hundred drones in operation; by 2011 this number had increased to seven thousand and is likey signicantky higher now.

This dramatic growth in the use of drones has meant that contemporary warfare is increasingly mediated and conducted through the visual representations relayed to the drone pilot, and other military personnel, networked into drone operations via the drone camera. The drone is thus, not simply a weapon, but an emerging medium for representing conflict. 

Drone vision created by the MSTS drone camera typically consists of live video imagery depicting a bird’s-eye view of various geographical landscapes: usually Middle Eastern mountainous terrain or underdeveloped urban areas, which can produce a cluttered visual scene. Live video is relayed to drone pilots in colour during the day and black-and-white, via thermal imaging, at night. 

The imagery relayed to the drone pilot is such that there is a delay of 1.8 seconds, a problem the US military have termed ‘latency’. Importantly, drone vision is not just viewed by the drone pilot, but is networked between various personnel including a ‘sensor operator’ seated next to the drone pilot, ground troops, and Central Command (CENTCOM). 

However, drone vision, like any medium of visual representation, possesses its own ‘visual culture’, impacting on “how we see, how we are able, allowed, [and] made to see”. Therefore, whilst specific ontological features of drone vision may enable the drone pilot to kill with relative psychological ease, we should not neglect the broader visual culture which surrounds drone vision that might also enable this killing. 

This visual culture is socially constructed, shaped by various cultural discourses which determine how drone pilots perceive and react to drone vision, thereby establishing ways-of-seeing, which affects how drone warfare is waged.

Thus, drone vision and visual culture have a complex relationship, and both impact on the drone pilot’s psychological ability to kill. The impact of drone vision on the psychology of killing in war is complicated by the presence of a broader visual culture, which affects how drone pilots perceive and respond to drone vision.

Drone vision is a dynamic phenomenon both reinforcing and destabilising one’s psychological inhibition against killing. The prevailing literature argues that the drone camera alleviates any psychological resistance to killing in war, by spatially and morally distancing the pilot from their killing and by rendering killing-by-drone a networked phenomenon.

However, killing via drone vision is complexly mediated by a number of factors, including a broader visual culture, and a nexus of technologies which are liable to fluctuate. Whilst the former establishes relations of power between drone pilot and their targets, which enables killing, technological improvements to the latter may serve to increase the psychological trauma of killing-by-drone. 

Thus, drone vision is a complex and unique visuality within the context of war, and one which deeply impacts on the politics of killing in contemporary warfare.

The Raytheon Multi-Spectral Targeting System (pictured) is a turreted electro-optical and infrared sensor used in maritime and overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

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