Military Book Reviews

On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones

On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones by Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Phelps (Little, Brown and Company, 2021, 285 pages)

Throughout history, society has determined specific rules of engagement between adversaries in armed conflict.  With advances in technology, from armor in the Middle Ages to nerve gas in World War I to weapons of mass destruction in our own time, the rules have constantly evolved.  Today, when killing the enemy can seem palpably risk-free and tantamount to playing a violent video game, what constitutes warfare?  What is the effect of remote combat on individual soldiers?  And what are the unforeseen repercussions that could affect us all?
Lt. Col Wayne Phelps, former commander of a Remotely Piloted Aircraft unit, addresses these questions and many others as he tells the story of the men and women of today’s “chair force.”  Exploring the ethics of remote military engagement, the misconceptions about PTSD among RPA operators, and the specter of military weaponry controlled by robots, his book is an urgent and compelling reminder that it should always be difficult to kill another human being lest we risk losing what makes us human.

A timely and thoughtful examination of the mental and emotional toll our nation is exacting from the warriors it assigns to operate its Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) (aka drones), On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones, is a deep dive into the development, operation, and potential future of the RPA community and its culture. Lieutenant Colonel Wayne Phelps’ work brings clarity to the opaque world of drone operations, highlighting critical and unexpected challenges faced by RPA crews. It also sheds light on the practical and philosophical implications of a Joint Force that is increasingly invested in using unmanned technologies for the conduct of warfare. 

On Killing Remotely is the first offering from Lt Col Phelps. Although currently employed in private industry, Phelps served a full career in the United States Marine Corps; during which he deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. He stood duty as an instructor at the Marine Corps’ version of Top Gun (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One) and commanded an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron (VMU-3). His access to and experience in the RPA community make him the ideal emissary to the rest of the uniformed service, academia, and the public at large to dispel the myths about the role and use of drones in war; but more critically, to begin the conversation about what the extensive use of unmanned technologies portends for the nation and its warriors as the character of warfare calls for increased incorporation of automation.    

Phelps effectively frames the history of RPA in the technological development of warfare both generically (how they compare to earlier advances, such as gunpowder) and specifically (the repercussions of a rapid expansion of RPA employment after 9/11). This allows the reader to understand where the RPA community fits within a broader military culture and why. Most significantly, On Killing Remotely provides a clear understanding of the perils that accompany the application of RPA in modern remote warfare as they at once both extend the physical distance between combatants and close that distance cognitively to make the violence of war more intimate.

Explaining this intimacy and its repercussions for the services, service members, and their families is the central element of the work. The message is clear: professionals that operate RPA are paying a heavy tax doing critical missions. To understand and adjust to the costs of doing business, significant work remains to integrate their operators fully into the U.S. warrior culture and ensure their longevity. Significant quantitative and qualitative research underpinned by surveys of over 250 RPA crew members and extensive interviews supports the conclusions. Careful to make clear when his opinion intervenes to inform, Phelps is equally honest about where others with similar bona fide disagree. Effective linkages between seminal psychological studies (Milgram’s work on obedience), classic works on warfare, and contemporary scholarly and professional efforts that scope the ethics of drones in war bolster his key argument. The net result is an insightful and important measure of the state of the RPA community that pragmatically identifies current challenges, provides potential solutions, and gives a fair and comprehensive treatment of human considerations. Civilian and uniformed leaders must make this consideration in setting policy and procedures for future RPA operations.

Where a reader will find a shortcoming, On Killing Remotely, like most contemporary books, tackles moral issues without expressly addressing religion. While it faithfully acknowledges the need for proactive engagement of RPA crews by mental health professionals and mentions the role of chaplains, it approaches the problem set of coping with killing from a clinical (psycho-emotional) perspective without ever explicitly discussing the spiritual ramifications inherent in killing. Though its secular humanist approach to exploring the moral, mental, and physical without fulsome consideration of the spiritual makes On Killing Remotely typical of our post-modern world. Its serious exploration of the topic along those lines alone makes it a worthwhile read. That incorporating more automated systems into modern militaries is a certainty, makes this book a requirement for the library of any serious student of defense policy, warfare, or leadership.

Lt. Col Matthew Crouch is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.

Additional information about Matthew Crouch can be found here: 

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