What is it really like to pilot a drone? The new movie Eye in the Sky captures this surreal experience of moving straight from the war to your evening commute.
Last year we got a vivid education in the psychological impact of drone warfare from the Nora Theater's production of Grounded and the conversation after the show with MIT alum Jason Ryan. We learned that, while drone attacks are often criticized for creating a safe distance between the military and the effects of its strikes, the precise and vivid images from the plane's camera actually puts pilots face to face with their targets. Traditional bombers drop the weapon and fly away; drones see the whole event up close, from the living people in the target zone to the bodies on the ground. In Eye in the Sky, a drone pilot and his team are instructed to prevent a terrorist attack by making a strike on a house where they can see a child - not an abstract "collateral damage" but a little girl whom they watch twirling her hula hoop and selling her mother's home-baked bread.
Another complication for drone pilots is that they have no separation between home and the battlefied, no place to connect with comrades in arms before returning to their civilian friends and families. In the movie, the pilot (played by Aaron Paul, who was Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad) completes his ordeal and steps blinking out into the Nevada sun, where his commander tells him, "Good job, see you back here in 12 hours." As Jason Ryan told us, this rapid switching between intense experiences of warfare and the expectations of "normal life" result in a whole new form of psychological strain.