The Evolution of Punishment: Drones, High-Value Targeting, and the Neurobiology of Mechanical Justice

The Evolution of Punishment: Drones, High-Value Targeting, and the Neurobiology of Mechanical Justice

Luke Preston Allison

“Be skeptical of concepts that divorce war from its political nature, particularly those that promise fast, cheap victory through technology.”

-- Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster[1]

An illusion persists where people seem somehow convinced that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones to kill is somehow safer or better than available alternatives. Unfortunately, it appears that drones actually expand the scope of conflict by exposing people who might not have been impacted by a different modality. What is emerging is the evolution of punishment where unmanned pilots and operators are traumatized while simultaneously the people they fly over are traumatized. Drones bring the peril of violence to the masses.

People are making determinations and decisions upon those determinations that remain inconsistent with current understandings pursuant to brain structure and function. The emphasis, or edifice, of adding neuro in front of whatever subject you’re involved in is to correctly and verifiably frame distinctions regarding what is possible and what is not. If something is bad science, or perhaps an instance of poorly applied or understood science, wouldn’t that necessarily suggest that the decisions and outcomes derived would be bad as well?

At issue, not merely comments like the following, but more importantly the mindset and decision making potential behind them, as Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said, “The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain.”[2] The only problem with this statement is that there isn’t any truth in it. To be more specific even, the statement is wrong categorically. The reason we know this is that, “[…] research has mostly yielded more evidence that the brain, which has more neurons than the Milky Way has stars and is perhaps one of the most complex objects in the universe […]”[3]

Where is the potential for salvific input into a system that begins with flawed circumstances? Disappointment is or should be endemic as we encounter ideas or beliefs that are not supported by neuroscience. Also, the likelihood that this sort of scientific understanding produces good national security policy is unlikely.


It is necessary to reiterate that terrorism is simultaneously against criminal statutory law and the laws of war. Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll asks, “Was terrorism a law enforcement problem or a national security issue? […] The policies set out in [National Security Decision Directive] NSDD-207 came down on both sides of these questions.”[4] The discrepancy arises as a result of interpretations that place terrorism into either category at different times. Obviously, each particular paradigm of category informs behaviors, priorities, and responses. The drone figures prominently into the conceptualization of kill/capture as a strategy to deal with high-value targets (HVT). High-value targeting is the euphemism for actions taken to neutralize or detain leadership elements or other important members of a terrorist organization. Targeting by drone via missile strike is one option. Second, targeting by specially trained raiding forces to kill/capture is another. Thirdly, local security forces or even local civilians can be utilized for interdiction.

The prevailing paradigm has been to evaluate or attempt to choose between these options based on notions of policy, strategy, or geopolitics. While these approaches are interesting they are also insufficient. At one and the same time, it seems both amazingly overdue and impossible to deny that the mind is central to all endeavors. There is a different level of analysis available if we apply the insight neuroscience provides. There is risk inherent in any option. However, the risk is not co-equal, and neither is our understanding of the potential for mitigating those risks.

Necessary Limitation

Research on current generation drone pilots/operators may not fully account for or integrate previous assignments with manned aircraft. Ostensibly, previously flying manned aircraft in conjunction with the selection process and training that it denotes emphasizes a marked physiological difference from peers without this considerable background. If we accept the conclusion that those operating drones are not overly stressed or traumatized due to their occupation it might be because they previously distinguished themselves as pilots demonstrating superior potential for stress inoculation or resilience against other potential hazards. What questions exactly are being answered by research derived from survey data[5] in terms of the physiological and psychological demands of the unmanned aerial vehicle capability? If this supposition holds, then what explains it? Also, something slightly more ephemeral, what specifically about those conditions or trends in repetition or intensity are sustainable or likely to persist? Could this also be a matter of the disposition and composition of those manning the drone fleet?

The pertinent question pertaining to civil-military relations and the budgetary process is: why not train drone pilots and operators as if they were going to fly manned aircraft? A simple fix presumably would be to train pilots like pilots regardless of platform. A useful explanation of the relative value of pilots is that:

“First, as a highly screened and selected group, USAF pilots are likely less prone to MH [mental health] outcomes as compared to airmen in other occupations. All USAF pilots are college graduates who have passed stringent physical requirements, psychological standards, legal and behavioral background checks, and rigorous operational training programs. Flight surgeons evaluate all pilot candidates for occupational suitability, which includes emotional and behavioral screening. Discovery of psychoses, neuroses, or personality disorders, for example, may result in disqualification. Second, these findings may reflect the effects of special preventive measures for pilots. As compared to airmen in other occupations, pilots undergo more robust periodic health assessments and may have better access to care given the relatively low ratio of pilots to flight surgeons.”[6]

An incisive way to quantify this is to reference someone like John Robb. Robb, a former United States Air Force special operations pilot whose education, “Other than the AF Academy, the government spent over $2.5 million training John.”[7] And yet, someone somewhere would object highlighting the unnecessary nature and excessive expense. If the price is too high maybe it shouldn’t be a priority? Does having drone pilots/operators flying manned aircraft make any sense? If not, why not? Even if obvious, the unspoken truth here is that they would not and could not be given the abilities to discharge the duties of operating a manned aircraft safely. And now we have arrived at an important point about the inherently risk, danger, and stress involved. If failure is all but preordained: don’t we avoid the process that would achieve that outcome? To pretend is to wish that things were different than they are. The human body is exactly what it is. To deny, or wish that every single body was either the same, equally capable, or interchangeable is naïve if not disturbing given the moment in time we reside in.

The Easy Button

A philosophy of desperately seeking shortcuts is wanting to press the easy button that never existed. People want things they haven’t earned and are unwilling to the pay the price to obtain. Except they want and want all the same without meeting any of the preconditions. The desire for a shortcut in any human endeavor is sadly endemic to our nature. As Mark Twight points out, “So it's true: Shortcut Road is a fucking dead end. And what was wrong with the long, hard way around in the first place?”[8] Well the long way is hard for one. An imbalance in desires and behavior is bound to lead to disappointment. Adjust your behavior or adjust your desires: but please don’t insist on the impossible combination of war with negligible human suffering. Being that we are talking about neutralizing high-value targets it seems that if these matters where, in fact important, or perhaps if they actually had symmetrical importance inscribed upon them then it would likely merit or necessitate physically sending someone thus obscuring the remoteness of drones. Either these activities are important or they aren’t. These instances are situations bound up with enduring national security concerns and geopolitical interests or they aren’t: which is it? Does the act of sending drones instead of putting boots on the ground serve to obfuscate or undermine whatever narrative is being constructed to establish necessity? Pushing the easy button is actually done at your own peril. What is the logical outcome of trying to avoid suffering by subverting risk, danger, and sacrifice? Almost certainly, “If you get without giving, the universe still charges you for it. It may not cost in terms of money or effort, but it will have a greater cost in terms of empty pride and self-deception.”[9] No easy way out, no shortcut home and there never will be either. Please be prepared to pay for whatever it is you want.

On Neurobiology and Potential

On a small scale across all service branches, those that handle stress disproportionately well have already volunteered, gone through training, and been identified through physiological and behavioral markers. Most commonly, if incorrectly the public identifies individuals simply as Special Forces. For our purposes, without getting into unnecessary specifics, the individuals of particular import are those that operate behind enemy lines and require survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) training. Special is either misnomer or a revealing description depending on your vantage point. The necessary prerequisite however is to establish that that not everyone in the United States military is equally capable or equally suited. As an important clarification, this serves not as a pejorative but as a statement to focus awareness. A loss of awareness is actually only an initial mistake that serves as a harbinger for other often more serious ones. The key is to identify how and why military personnel might be placed into situations where they cannot be expected to perform successfully and not just in an ephemeral sense either.

People have verifiable strengths, weaknesses, and limitation. We know this because sufficient scientific understanding exists to measure variables and objectively evaluate performance. Describing the research of Dr. Charles Alexander Morgan III of Yale University Ben Sherwood explains that:

“In essence, NPY [Neuropeptide Y] is one of the fire hoses that your brain uses to extinguish your alarm and fear responses by keeping the frontal-lobe parts of your brain working longer under stress. Morgan found one very specific reason that Special Forces are superior survivors: they produce significantly greater levels of NPY compared with regular troops. In addition, 24 hours after completing survival training, Special Forces soldiers returned to their original levels of NPY while regular soldiers were significantly below normal. With so much more NPY in their systems, the Special Forces soldiers were much more clearheaded under interrogation stress and performed better according to the trainers. Special Forces soldiers really are special and different from the rest of the Army. They stay more focused and engaged in a crisis and bounce back faster afterward because their bodies produce massive amounts of natural anti-anxiety chemicals. In the fog of war—and everyday life for that matter—that's a major advantage.”[10]

The operative phrase is advantage relative to individual difference or variation in nervous system function. Not all personnel are being asked to do the same thing. There are different training requirements, mission parameters, and inherent risks associated. If war is war, then the stimuli is the same, but the ability to absorb stress is as we understand it differentiated.            

The point of much of what follows is to take some of the guess work out of the national security policy decision-making process: the knowledge already exists to foster and justify a better process grounded in science. Are drone pilots and operators prepared or inherently capable of handling the stress of their jobs? Does it make any difference if those pilots or operators were trained to fly manned aircraft previously? Conversely, the human raiding alternative is likely comprised of individuals specifically suited for unusually stressful operations as they come from the special operations community. The principle distinction between these options is not the capability to finish a high-value target, but the capacity for personnel to manage stress and arousal successfully during and after an operation. The results might be coterminous but the methods and means of achieving that result are not, and the personnel selected matter significantly. More specifically, Dr. Morgan notes:

“Neuropeptide Y is colocalized (and released) with neurons containing norepinephrine and is intimately involved in the regulation of both central and peripheral noradrenergic system functioning. In addition to its involvement in the maintenance of vascular tone and appetite, NPY functions as an endogenous anxiolytic agent that may buffer against the effects of stress on the brain. It is possible that elevated NPY and reduced vagal tone are related in soldiers who perform well under conditions of stress. It may be fruitful in prospective studies to examine the relation between baseline NPY, vagal tone, and military performance. Our current findings indicate that an objectively assessed physiological variable predicts human performance under conditions of high stress. Our research within various military environments is unique in demonstrating relations between cardiophysiological measures and military performance.”[11]

A mismatched relationship between physiological capacity and performance demands is going be problematic because there are at least some discernable predictive limits. What does the human body do when it encounters more stress than it can readily process? Unfortunately, the body’s coping mechanism is to detach from reality. In psychological parlance this behavior is known as dissociation, and it exists on a continuum, but it can be quite serious. In another study Morgan highlights the important implications of Neuropeptide Y release:

“Previous clinical research has shown that combat veterans suffering from PTSD and symptoms of dissociation exhibit a reduced capacity for NPY release as well as increased symptoms of anxiety and sympathetic system arousal […] The capacity for NPY release and for experiencing symptoms of dissociation therefore may be related and may influence risk for the development of PTSD. Based on these findings, one might hypothesize that military personnel exhibiting diminished capacity for NPY release during stress and increased symptoms of dissociation are at greater risk for the development of stress-related illness such as PTSD.”[12]

The opportunity cost in human terms of surpassing that quantifiable limit and being objective enough to assess risks and additional value is really where this discussion is going. This is a differentiated understanding of military capabilities filtered through biological potential. Matthew Power outlines and helps give shape to what symmetry might mean in terms of concurrent suffering among unmanned pilots and operators and the people they fly over. In his interview with former remotely-piloted-aircraft sensor operator Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, Power notes:

“How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? ‘Horrible,’ he says now. But at first, he believed that the mission was vital, that drones were capable of limiting the suffering of war, of saving lives. When this notion conflicted with the things he witnessed in high resolution from two miles above, he tried to put it out of his mind. Over time he found that the job made him numb: a ‘zombie mode’ he slipped into as easily as his flight suit […] Other members of his squadron had different reactions to their work. One sensor operator, whenever he made a kill, went home and chugged an entire bottle of whiskey. A female operator, after her first shot, refused to fire again even under the threat of court martial. Another pilot had nightmares after watching two headless bodies float down the Tigris. Bryant himself would have bizarre dreams where the characters from his favorite game, World of Warcraft, appeared in infrared.”[13]

Man Versus Man

In this instance, however, transposing humans and machine has actually created a unique vulnerability through time-space distanciation. The appeal of drones is that they create distance between humans and the violence of war. Except, and it is an unfortunate exception that this is a false belief because it is impossible. Mark Coeckelbergh points out that:

“As a human being, the [drone] operator can only know through his body and through his engagement with the technologies and—via the technologies—with the battlefield and the people on that battlefield. […] Even if our experience and knowledge is mediated in such a way that we experience more distance and are often less aware of our body, we always remain human beings and cannot fully escape an embodied mode of knowing.”[14]

There isn’t any way to deal with experience other than through the body with the body. And so it goes as Brandon Bryant was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder which seems even more poignant when he mentioned, I was never prepared to take a life.”[15] It appears as the unsurprising is now surprising and things have come full circle in the most inextricable way: war has consequences and while some of them might be unintended they aren’t by any means unforeseen. Contrast Bryant’s experience with former Delta Force Commander Pete Blaber’s:

“From our perspective, we volunteered for this way of life with full cognizance of the risks that went along with it. We trained our bodies and our minds to a level that gave us supreme confidence in our capability to be successful in any situation, anywhere in the world.”[16]

Finally, this is a timeless matter of proportionality as it says in the King James Bible Luke 12:48:

"But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more."[17]

Not everyone or everything is equal. Our paradigm should at some level anticipate this reality of vastly different levels of performance under stress. Also, it is not an insubstantial concern to ponder a possible connection between occupational stress, successfully mitigation or amelioration, and trauma.

That Looks Familiar

The late Matthew Power concluded with Brandon Bryant by perhaps accidental rediscovering what Nietzsche mentioned about the void:

“The landscape of western Montana, Bryant observed, bears a striking resemblance to the Hindu Kush of eastern Afghanistan—a place he’s seen only pixelated on a monitor. It was a cognitive dissonance he had often felt flying missions, as he tried to remind himself that the world was just as real when seen in a grainy image as with the naked eye, that despite being filtered through distance and technology, cause and effect still applied. This is the uncanny valley over which our drones circle. We look through them at the world, and ultimately stare back at ourselves.”[18]

Technology and distance are abstractions that obfuscate. If high-value targeting was actually of principle importance people would be conducting it face-to-face more or less exclusively rather than remotely from thousands of miles away. The paradoxical nature of the situation as it is says plenty. Again, disappointment and confusion abound as the result of a lack of congruence between scientific understanding and military strategy or national security policy. Awareness is always personal, and perhaps that’s an inherent irony in regards to technology and distance. Sun Tzu was correct when he wrote,

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”[19] Similarly former CIA officer Robert Baer asks:

“… Shouldn’t we be killing people we know and all of the really evil shit that comes along with them? Isn’t it the enemy you know, with a face and a past, you want to destroy, instead of the one you don’t know? You’re certain he’s either done you harm or is about to. What I’m trying to say is that killing total strangers, especially at great distances, is something other than proper assassination. It’s more like–I don’t know–spraying insects from a crop duster.”[20]

People with faces? What does that mean and what possible implications could it have on this discourse? Losing track of the innate humanity of whomever might be opposing you in likely a slippery slope as:

“The neurological research demonstrates that empathy, far from being an artificial construct of civilization, is integral to our biology. And when biological intersubjectivity disappears, when the face is removed from life, empathy and compassion can no longer be taken for granted.”[21]

More specifically, Dr. Marcus Holmes has written masterfully about the role personal interaction plays in diplomacy by demonstrating that:

“… face-to-face interactions provide a mechanism by which individuals can understand each other’s intentions from the inside under certain conditions. Through the mirroring system in the brain, individuals are able to actively simulate the mental states of others and replicate for themselves what is occurring in the other’s brain.”[22]

Best practices are best practices because we are still only human. While this might be obscenely complicated that isn’t to say we don’t have insights that provide guidance. Face-to-face diplomacy and face-to-face war for that matter. If not, someone somewhere needs to explain why whatever is happening isn’t sufficiently meaningful to warrant this level of interaction. Important enough to kill, maim, and traumatize over, but certainly not important enough to merit face-to-face interaction. Diplomacy like war is an interpersonal phenomenon. Multiple similar if not indistinguishable accidents probably denotes something much closer to coincidence. Dr. Marco Iacoboni explains how:

 “The initial hypothesis about the functional role of mirror neurons focused on action recognition. By firing during actions of the self and of other individuals, mirror neurons may provide a remarkably simple neural mechanism for recognizing the actions of others.”[23]

We know that this is in fact the case because we can look to similar if not parallel pursuits and garner insights from them. Special Forces, as mentioned in the section on Neuropeptide Y, benefit from and enjoy a range of structural advantages based on the requisite skills of their vocation. Working face-to-face with indigenous populations is the type of interaction that leads to deeper understandings between individuals. Dr. Iacoboni continues noting that, “[…] through imitation and mimicry, we are able to feel what other people feel. By being able to feel what other people feel, we are also able to respond compassionately to other people’s emotional states”[24]

Dehumanization and Unintended Punishments

Michel Foucault’s thesis in Discipline and Punish states that justice has undergone a transmutation from a punishment of the physical body to punishment of the soul. He explains how:

“Punishment, then will tend to become the most hidden part of the penal process. This has several consequences: it leaves the domain of more or less everyday perception and enters that of abstract consciousness; its effectiveness is seen as resulting from its inevitability, not from its visible intensity; it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime; the exemplary mechanics of punishment changes its mechanisms.”[25]

The key transition lies in the migration of intense public threat (torture, dismemberment, execution) to the inevitability of a very private even invisible punishment. If nothing else, drones are a lethal symbol of patience and omnipresence. An individual’s inability to surrender to a drone is prescient and pertinent. In spite of this, technology remains in essence an enterprise devoid of moral intentions either good or bad beyond those inscribed by creators or users. An understanding of what constitutes the physical body is more or less apparent. The body had been a target for violent punishment, torture, and public spectacle. Previous incarnations of punishment to the body operated perhaps by a somewhat formulaic process. To be quite clear, punishment of the soul is an entirely different pursuit and a more subtle one.

Violence is obvious but denial is less so. The edifice of punishment through denial remains obscure: denial of what exactly? Denial of whatever is necessary to animate a person making individual expression or choice impossible. Conversely, to enable survival through the endurance of punishment is at one and the same time a mitigation of pain and removal of control as:

“The body, according to this penality, is caught up in a system of constrainsts and privations, obligations and prohibitions. Physical pain, the pain of the body itself, is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations punishment has become an economy of suspended rights. If it is still necessary for the law to reach and manipulate the body of the convict, it will be at a distance […]”[26]

The body does not require injury for very real suffering to occur. Directed at the body or directed at the mind is a difference without distinction. What is understood to be true (as predicted) is a pattern of violence of punishment directed not at the suspected guilty parties’ body, but at his essence, his decision making, his freedom, and his ability to be unique. To damage what you are rather than merely damaging what constitutes you.

There is evidence that the consistent presence of aerial drones, the auditory signature, and the anxiety and paranoia associated with attacks can impact psychological health potentially leading to a myriad of behavioral problems. A report from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law details how:

“In addition to feeling fear, those who live under drones–and particularly interviewees who survived or witnessed strikes–described common symptoms of anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. Interviewees also reported suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances, which medical health professionals in Pakistan stated were prevalent.”[27]

The point that either hasn’t been made yet, or hasn’t been made as well as it should be: collateral damage from kinetic operations persists and accidents will continue, but there is deafening silence regarding unintended consequences that punish all the same. Michel Foucault explains that:

“Punishment had no doubt ceased to be centred on torture as a technique of pain; it assumed as its principal object loss of wealth or rights. But a punishment like forced labour or even imprisonment – mere loss of liberty – has never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself: rationing of food, sexual deprivation, corporal punishment, solitary confinement. Are these the unintentional, but inevitable, consequence[s] …”[28]

The Stanford and NYU report highlights an emerging societal aspect of the drone dilemma in Pakistan. The report relies on interviews and often protects the identities of sources. It does, however, offer penetrating insight into the disruption of normative social patterns in afflicted areas. As mentioned above, there are strategic and geopolitical concerns involved, but there are aspects of this phenomenon that are moving in an entirely different direction.

Are You Anxious Yet? How About Now?

Human al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor. While otherwise unremarkable, Balawi is a known entity because of his actions on December 30, 2009. He killed several CIA operatives and associated contractors by detonating a suicide vest at a remote U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan. While the end of Balawi’s life is not of overwhelming concern, how he began traveling a road leading to his demise and what he experienced in the process is of particular interest. Joby Warrick, who has written the definitive account of Balawi’s story, explains how “A year earlier he had been a clean-living pediatrician, treating children’s fevers and infections at a United Nations refugee clinic and driving his young daughters to school in a banged-up Ford Escort.”[29] Balawi came to the attention of Jordanian intelligence through various online jihadist activities. Balawi was turned by the Jordanians and sent to Pakistan to spy on al-Qaeda. While in Pakistan, he first experienced the duality of what it was to be a victim of unintended consequences. As Warrick writes:

“The unrelenting threat of death from a missile strike had begun to gnaw at Balawi, just as it did others in the tribal belt. The low buzzing of the CIA drones was nearly constant now, and it so unnerved Balawi that he often had trouble sleeping.”[30]

Warrick documents Balawi recounting of the same sort of symptoms that have been mentioned above. Far from being inoculated against behavioral disruption by his background and circumstance, Balawi endured the same dose from above, and the same troubles.


Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni national, and recipient of a State Department Scholarship, took the opportunity to relay several stories in his statement to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. In what is actually a masterful, concise, and convincing statement, Mr. Al-Muslimi enumerates the strategic and ethical challenges created by drone strikes in Yemen. He mentions an interview where it is explained how “‘In the past, mothers used to tell their kids to go to bed or I will call your father. Now, they say, 'Go to bed or I will call the planes.'"[31] The purpose and perhaps added value of Mr. Al-Muslimi’s words remain the exacting poignancy in which they convey the visceral changes to normal life in the rural parts of Yemen where he comes from. Perhaps no single observation anywhere emphasizes the scope of destruction better than his reference to a December 2009 strike where the “… bodies were so decimated that it was impossible to differentiate between the children, the women, and their animals. Some of these innocent people were buried in the same grave as animals.”[32] It would be sufficiently terrible to leave living beings in unrecognizable pieces expect that is not a real endpoint in this story because there is also symmetry.

The Red Queen

As previously mentioned, that which causes damage causes damage. The self-referential and self-perpetuating nature of high-value targeting creates circumstances that are maladaptive. Specifically, in this instance, drones serve to extend conflict rather than ameliorate it. There are always terrible strategies, and the likely requisite freedom to pursue them. The question becomes: what is the survival rate of a maladaptive organism or organization? How much latitude are we talking about in terms of successful completion of objectives, costs, and duration? There are innumerable limiting factors, but in general, most things are both finite and perishable, which necessarily places a premium on applying the right answer at the right time. John Robb offers a uniquely useful distillation:

“The Red Queen's Trap is a paradox torn from the pages of Lewis Carroll's ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ The Red Queen, in the book, uses it to explain how different her kingdom is from all the others. She says: ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ Why is this paradox useful? This paradox is the basis of a very interesting strategic trap. A trap that has destroyed organisms of all types, from nation-states to companies to industries to individuals to (for my purposes here) terrorist groups. The Red Queen's Race is [a] good analogy for a destructive evolutionary struggle. It is what happens when competition between highly adaptable competitors gets out of control. In the Red Queen's Race, every improvement one competitor makes is rapidly matched by the opposition and so on, forever. This struggle increases in intensity and frequency until one or the other competitor falls behind -- all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. When that happens -- finito. So far, that sounds like a standard competitive struggle in the natural world, business arena, in warfare, or on the playing field. However, the Red Queen is different than a normal competition. The Red Queen is destructive to both of the competitors. Here's how: The Red Queen consumes all of the energy (adaptive capacity) of the both competitors for as long as it persists. No other adaptation is possible. The Red Queen forces competitors to specialize to win this, and only this, competition. This specialization is almost certainly maladaptive -- it's of little use outside of the competition and of zero use when the competitor is dead. An organism can get into a Red Queen's race with itself. Essentially, a competition that results in suicide.”[33]

People fight or engage in competitive behaviors all the time in peculiar and nuanced ways that cannot support strategic victory. Intransigence in ideation subsumes the actual importance of the activity taking place. How important something is will probably model the need for novelty. If it’s not important do whatever you want. Attempting to leverage assets and abilities that do not have the potential to translate into higher order change or new political realities is going to end in disappointment. As Robert Baer asked, “Is this what the end of history looks like, killer robots flying the skies and rendering justice?”[34]

Mechanical Justice

What is the relationship between drones and justice? People are important as they experience the operational processes and outcomes associated with drones. The example of The Red Queen is highly instructive in that it conveys the notion of problematic adaptation. Again, Robert Baer points out the uncomfortable fact that, “…Washington is politically and financially invested to the hilt in drones, data analytics, and the fantasy there is such a thing as mechanical justice. Never mind that a lot of innocent people are being slaughtered.”[35] The utility of using drones to kill high-value targets is ephemeral. The capability is over-specialized in that it doesn’t readily translate to other objectives. As mentioned above, there are inherent biological advantages in using Special Forces for raiding. The secondary and tertiary aspects of those advantages manifest as high-value targeting progresses beyond the binary kill/no kill into kill/capture. Special Forces are particularly tailored for use in conjunction with indigenous forces. A particular although much maligned example of this was enacted by Captain Jim Gant (USA Ret.) as relayed by Ann Scott Tyson:

“Jim believed reintegrating the Taliban was vital to any lasting peace in Afghanistan. He also realized that the formal reintegration program run by the Afghan government and U.S. military was slow, bureaucratic, and corrupt. As a result, it was destined to fail, because it could only appeal to a narrow subset of the Taliban. It required the former Taliban to hand over their weapons and publicly renounce the insurgency, yet it allowed the government to arrest them at any time. So, working quietly through the tribes, Jim reached out to the Taliban using his own, more sophisticated, nuanced, and ultimately flexible approach-one that was riskier and more time-consuming but which offered more options for both him and them. For example, short of public reintegration, a Taliban member could become a source of intelligence or could even conduct ‘red-on-red,’ or surrogate force, operations against other insurgents. In many cases Jim's approach was not one approved by his command, but now that outreach was paying off.”[36]

These instances serve to limit the appearance of outside involvement. A drone strike is substantially more difficult to obfuscate. Another problem is how do you surrender to a drone anyway?


Drones are synonymous with remoteness, and perhaps that coupling is instructive. However, that distance is illusory literally and figuratively. Unintended consequences, as mentioned, amplify conflict by diffusing those consequences across a much wider population. Whatever happened to the understanding that the design personification of a machine is as a tool? Isn’t human interaction and impact the logical and undeniable endpoint? Another overarching consideration is the mental health component of those affected on all sides over a life-long duration. What is the residual impact of being traumatized while traumatizing others? What is the basis for understanding strategic interests or even strategic victory relative to a traumatized population of any size?

In clinical terms, trauma is quite difficult to manage or treat, and it can persist for decades. Additionally, trauma has to the potential to be epigenetic meaning it can influence genes in external ways. All of this feeds into a calculation about scope and scale and what is possible and what is not, and ultimately who does what with a reasonable chance of success. But again, this is not a blind process, we can appeal to a deeper level of understanding and apply science, particularly neuroscience. People have been identified through physiological and behavioral markers that have the potential to handle stress better than their peers. Maybe this is actually a start point for a different discussion entirely rather than an endpoint. This type of insight is something anyone can ignore, but ignoring it will never invalid it. Ultimately, as Colonel John Boyd (USAF Ret.) said, "Machines don't fight wars, people do — and they use their minds."[37]


[1] H.R, McMaster, The Pipe Dream of Easy War.

[2] Greg Miller, Yemeni president acknowledges approving U.S. drone strikes

[3] Gary Greenberg, The Psychiatric Drug Crisis

[4] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: the secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001, 141.

[5] Wayne Chappelle, Amber Salinas, & Kent McDonald, Psychological Health Screening of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Operators and Supporting Units.

[6] Jean L. Otto & Bryant J. Webber, Mental Health Diagnoses and Counseling Among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force, 5-6.

[7] John Robb, About

[8] Mark Twight, 9:00 AM - 19 Apr 2011

[9] Scott Semple, The high cost of no price

[10] Ben Sherwood, Ultimate Stress Test: Special Forces Training

[11] Charles Alexander Morgan III, Relation Between Cardiac Vagal Tone and Performance in Male Military Personnel Exposed to High Stress, 126.

[12] Charles Alexander Morgan III, Neuropeptide-Y, Cortisol and Subjective Distress in Humans Exposed to Acute Stress: Replication and Extension of a Previous Report, 140-1.

[13] Mathew Power, Confessions of a Drone Warrior

[14] Mark Coeckelbergh, Drones, information technology, and distance: mappingthe moral epistemology of remote fighting, 94.

[15] Mathew Power, Confessions of a Drone Warrior

[16] Pete Blaber, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, 76.

[17] Biblehub, Luke 12:48 King James Version

[18] Ibid.

[19] Sun Tzu, The Art of War

[20] Robert Baer, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, 153.

[21] Stephen Marche, The Epidemic of Facelessness

[22] Marcus Holmes. The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Mirror Neurons and the Problem of Intentions, 856.

[23] Marco Iacoboni, Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons. 654.

[24] Ibid., 659.

[25] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 9.

[26] Ibid., 11.

[27] Living Under Drones, Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan, 82-3.

[28] Foucault, 15-6.

[29] Joby Warrick, Humam al-Balawi: The Triple Agent.

[30] Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA, 80.

[31] Farea Al-Muslimi, Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing, 7.

[32] Ibid., 5.

[33] John Robb, The Red Queen’s Trap

[34] Robert Baer, The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, 161.

[35] Ibid., 166.

[36] Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant, 234.

[37] Franklin Spinney, Genghis John           











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