Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released in 2009, making its way into the hands of 4.7 million people in the U.S. and U.K. during its first day on the market. The first level of the game thrusts you into war-torn Afghanistan, where you shoot and kill computer-controlled insurgents. You can opt for multiplayer, where you virtually kill your friends, and other players from around the world. You can talk to them while you shoot them. Kill five people in a row and you are rewarded with a drone strike.
For many children who grew up with Call of Duty and games of the same ilk, this is what warfare looks like. You sit in a dark room, headphones on, slam some Mountain Dew and snack on potato chips while fighting terrorists a world away.
The U.S. began executing drone strikes in the war on terror in the early 2000s, and have steadily ramped up their reliance on drones ever since. With this increased use of remote controlled drone technology has come a new military need — drone pilots. And it just so happens that an entire generation has been training for this job in their free time. Call it the military-industrial-videogame complex.
This development has not been lost on Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, director of the award winning film, “Drone,” an exposé on the CIA’s drone warfare program.
“Today, our children go from points per kill to killing real people on the other side of the world,” she says at TEDxTrondheim, focusing on the hidden victims of this military strategy — both civilian casualties and the American pilots who are responsible for their deaths.
“We have succeeded at making war into a game.”
But in this game, your enemies aren’t presented to you by a video game console, carefully crafted by game designers to resemble evil incarnate. In war video games, you aren’t supposed to feel bad about killing. In fact, you are supposed to revel in it.
So how does one respond when their video game world meets real-time war? The distance provided by remote strikes removes much of the personal brutality of killing an enemy; but it isn’t just desensitization that plagues our drone pilots, Schei says.
“This ultimate distance comes with a new level of intimacy. Drone pilots sometimes observe people for months. They see them be fathers, husbands, or lovers before they get the order to kill.”
Resultantly, it is not just the victims that suffer from these attacks. Schei spent time getting to know some of these pilots, and she found that, “This new level of intimacy in killing carries a huge cost. Drone pilots suffer from high PTSD and severe depression, and anxiety destroys their lives.”
Much of this warfare persists away from the public eye. And because it is invisible, the government labels drone warfare as “clean and efficient.”
This label further erases the many casualties of U.S. drone strikes, and the fear they instill in those who live under the constant threat of missiles from above. Schei has spoken with these hidden victims — “We have met with children that have survived drone attacks, and they tell us that they are afraid of the blue sky, because that’s where the drones fly.”
“We have made killing too easy and life too cheap, and in doing so, we are lowering the bar for going to war.”
Schei urges us to address the ethical and political ramifications of drone warfare. We would all do well to remember that “there is no war without sacrifice.”
Watch Schei’s entire talk below: