The Chair Force

Fascinating article on the operators of Predator and Reaper drones, who sit in naugahyde chairs in Nevada, monitor the war zone, sometimes launch Hellfire missiles that kill people (many people) in Iraq or Afghanisgtan–then clock out, and get home in time for soccer practice.

“Combat is a very personal event,” [Col. Pete] Gersten [commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing] said. Getting questions at home at the end of each shift means “that compartment is being breached to a degree.” Even for those willing to share that aspect of their lives with their spouse, they feel limited by the secret nature of their job.

“It’s more frustrating than anything else. Your family doesn’t have a security clearance, so it makes for really boring dinner conversation,” said Lt. Col. David Kent, an F-15E pilot who was recently stationed at Creech and now teaches at the Air Force Academy. “You feel really good about something you did that day, but you can’t say anything. Your family can’t share the triumphs and trials with you.”

Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article on drone warfare states that there are about 10 collateral damage kills for every successful “take out” of intended targets. But to be fair her article discusses both the above-board military drone program discussed in this article, as well as the secret one run by the CIA, out of an unspecified location, and perhaps with hired contractors.

The Predator “pilots” emerge here as yet one more overworked and stressed out arm of the far-reaching ambitions of the U.S. military:

In 2006, a military study found Predator crews are at least as fatigued, if not more so, than pilots deployed downrange. Changes were made to the shifts, but a follow-up survey last year still showed “emotional exhaustion and burnout.”

The studies found many crew members are chronically fatigued, with about 40 percent reporting “a moderate to high likelihood of falling asleep in the [ground control station] while operating a weaponized, remotely piloted aircraft.”

Mathewson said conditions have improved, but sleep deprivation hasn’t stopped being an issue. Gersten said the fatigue is being “realized in vehicle accidents” on the drive home from base.

“It’s insane,” Kent said. “You can’t run an Air Force like this without burning your people out.”

I didn’t expect to feel any sympathy for these guys, but I sort of do. Given my basic problem with anyone being willing to kill on command, whether it be Raymond strangling his buddy with a white scarf in The Manchurian Candidate, Civil War soldiers standing toe to toe and bayonetting one another, or pulling a trigger, or pushing a button on a joystick, the warriors of the “chair force” do have a pretty sucky job in the great scheme of things.

Tom Englehardt is all over this subject, and has been for years. Here is a collection of articles on

The Chair Force

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