The cubicle warrior: the marionette of digitalized warfare – Royakkers and van Est

This article on ‘cubicle warriors’ became a key text early in the debates on drones, particularly regarding the pilots themselves. The idea of them being morally disengaged and nobody really thought about those on the ground who are subject to drone strikes was a powerful part of early debates. Thoughts on drones have since moved on a little to consider the idea that responsibility is dispersed through a large network of decision-makers, rather than simply being absent. Still, we thought it important to review this piece.


It’s available here.


Here’s what we discussed about this piece in our reading group:

  • This article was an early investigation into the drone pilot mentality. The high levels of PTSD experienced by drone pilots and operators show that this is not simply a game, it has real psychological impact upon the pilots themselves.
  • However, the targeted recruitment of gamers for drone operations does indicate that the ‘playstation mentality’ has become a significant meme in the minds of almost everybody who thinks about drones. This recruitment could be seen as playing on this idea and manipulating recruits into performing real life acts. Indeed, ISIS use the same tactics in their propaganda ‘Just like in GTA, but in real life’.


  • Thoughts on individual responsibility for drone strikes seems to have changed from the idea that the technology and distance removes real responsibility from the pilot/operator to diffusing responsibility throughout the network of people watching drone operations across the world.
  • The bureaucracy involved in drone operations could be seen as providing an alibi for wrongdoing, purposeful blurring and obscuring of those responsible for actions.
  • The diffusion of responsibility and the significant bureaucracy involved in targeted killing arguably makes effective accountability impossible.
  • The massive bureaucracy of targeted killing implies that ‘tactical generals’ who are above drone operators in the chain of command may have access to greater sources of intelligence than the operators themselves. This makes it difficult for operators to deny the requests of superiors if there is an assumption that they have greater knowledge. This fundamentally alters the relationship between the operator and the moral decisions they are required to make. They no longer take the role of moral agent themselves, if partially direct by a superior. Yet, if an operation went wrong, they could be forced to take all responsibility.
  • This raises the question of if a soldier would be willing to die for a successful operation, and is required to trust in their superiors that they would not die in vain, would they also be willing to go to prison if a commander asked them to knowingly commit a crime for the same reasons?


  • The use of drones in targeted killing can be seen as an attempt to get towards ‘perfect’ distinction and individualised targeted. The fact that bad intelligence has often been used, and poor decisions have resulted in bad outcomes such as civilian deaths do not make targeted killing unlawful per se, nor something that should not be pursued.
  • Perceptions of a ‘cowboy’ mentality amongst drone operators is present amongst almost all critics of drone strikes.
  • The secrecy of the US targeted killing programme has meant that the US ‘got away with’ mistakes for years, they are now being exposed as wrongful.


  • The fact that all data from drones is recorded can not only potentially create retrospective responsibility, but also retrospective morality.


  • The fact that drones are used is not surprising. People sue the technology available to them. Indeed, the principle of precaution could be seen as requiring drone use, as there is no legal reason to risk personnel on your own side.
  • The ‘reach’ of the Western militaries to kill on the other side of the world without full-scale deployments is disturbing, but not a new issue, considering the history of colonialism and counter-insurgency wars following the colonial period.
  • Lack of accountability is the real issue with drone strikes, in that nobody has been brought to book for an apparently high number of civilian deaths. The public understand and accept secrecy when required, but do demand accountability for wrongdoing.
  • McNeal suggests that there is accountability in the drone programme, but it is a mixed bag of political, professional, public, and legal accountability that is unconvincing to some as there are no transparent and distinct legal sanctions for wrongdoing. Greater transparency does not necessarily create greater accountability, but displays the accountability that is present for the public to believe in.
  • Although accountability would not necessarily prevent drone strikes from happening, it would prevent poor decision making, and use of bad intelligence which seems to be the reason for most of the questionable strikes.


  • It can be argued that location results in accountability. A drone strike in the Middle-East is uncontroversial due to moral distance. A US drone strike in Belgium, where counterterrorism police have not been 100% competent would be seen as an atrocious breach of sovereignty despite being performed for identical reasons.
  • The images and context of something happening in a nearby country, whether a drone strike or terror attack can be seen as a ‘selfish connection’ to nearby countries because people often do not care as much about events far away.
  • Yet, for people in Britain, 9/11 is still a major event that is memorialised annually despite being far away. 7/7 is almost a footnote in the Britain memory of terror attacks. Although one would expect feelings of ‘it could have been me’ to be more prevalent in relation to 7/7, 9/11 was so iconic and changed everything. Perhaps this is why it is remembered in a larger way than 7/7.


  • The article seems to be from a moral/ethical perspective. Yet, states will almost always only use legal arguments to justify their actions.


  • Drone operators are often seen as displaying less courage than ground troops, as they are not at risk of physical harm during operations. They are, however at risk of being singled out for terrorist assassination, and at significant psychological risk. Perhaps drone operators should be required to perform a role with inherent risk first in order to instil the memory that operations really are life and death, and in no way a game. However, it is the responsibility of commanders to make sure their subordinates understand what they are doing and what the ramifications of their actions are.
  • The high turnover of drone pilots through psychological burnout could suggest that whilst troops at physical risk can be seen as sacrificing themselves physically , drone operators could be seen as sacrificing themselves psychologically.
  • This continuing psychological injury that could be caused to all drone pilots and operators creates a greater burden for the state following conflict as they should provide care for them, unlike a physical military confrontation where man personnel do not return.


  • Use of the term ‘marionettes’ in the article implies those involved in drone operations are just puppets with a lack of agency. This raises the question of who is really in control. Ian Shaw suggests in his book Predator Empire that no one is really in control of the US targeted killing programme.
  • There is a lack of trust towards drone pilots who are assumed to be video game players without much aeronautical experience, Yet we trust 19-year olds to go to a front line with a rifle and only basic training.
  • The potential training of drone operators thorugh simulations can be seen as extending the ‘gamification’ of warfare. Potentially, this would be desirable for states who would rather employ cold-blooded killers to achieve policy aims, rather than real people with weaknesses, whether psychological or physical.
  • People who do exactly what they are told may as well be robots, increasing the desire of states to possess autonomous weapon systems in the future.
  • This raises issues of whether military personnel require empathy with their targets. The moral distance of drones reduces the potential for empathy, which would be further reduced through autonomous weapons. Yet, even through a completely human system Adolf Eichmann was still able to remove empathy and ‘just follow instructions’, as autonomous systems would.



This excellent article explores some of the issues surrounding the responsibility (or not) of drone operators – what the authors call ‘cubicle warriors’. Here, the authors argue that responsibility can only be tied to control and whether the operator is ‘in control’ of his or her behaviour. With the increasing depersonalisation of warfare through a computer screen, the authors argue that the operators cannot be held reasonably responsible due to their moral disengagement (295).

This is a powerful argument, and one that really requires much further scrutiny both in terms of the actions of drone pilots, and also soldiers on the ground. Can any warrior be truly responsible for his or her actions? If a warrior is trained (or ‘programmed’) to behave in a certain way, is any error or moral disengagement then not a product of their training or indoctrination, rather than their own personal failings? After all, they did not design the rule, and hindsight is often a wonderful thing. There is also then the danger associated with technology driving use. Philosophically speaking, we can see here how the tool (the weapon) becomes an extension of the body such that the two are in a reciprocal relationship. The warrior controls the weapon, but the weapon also controls the warrior in turn.

Finally, I’d like to add here brief mention of the use of drones and their association with systems analysis in assessing the ‘success’ or otherwise of a mission. When there is no possible way to effectively determine the ‘guilt’ or otherwise of a target and any collateral casualties, it seems to me here the only way of judging success is through body count. And yet US experience in Vietnam tells us that such an approach is only ever destined for failure. While it may certainly be more publicly palatable to think of far off drones ‘killing the terrorists’ while friendly forces remain safe from harm, the long term impact of judging success based on body count is surely only ever going to encourage killing for killing’s sake – an excess of violence where it may not strictly be necessary to protect the State from harm.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

I find that this article spawned the idea of the ‘playstation mentality’, that drone operators treat piloting an armed aircraft like it is a game. This all seems to come from one quote from Peter Singers book ‘Wired for War’: ‘‘It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool’’ – Unfortunately this quote from one young pilot appears to have started off a massive assumption amongst academia, the public, and policy that the ‘playstation mentality’ is real and true.

Yet, whenever I have read or seen an interview with a drone operator, when questioned about the ‘gamification of war’, they respond that this is a serious business and most definitely not a game. The larger mass of evidence about the mentality of drone operators does not agree with Royakkers and van Est’s claims that:


“[the knowledge condition that pilots know what they are doing] is not fulfilled if the depersonalization of war by dehumanizing the enemy incites cubicle warriors to subconsciously believe that they are playing a video game. Consequently, cubicle warriors neither are able to reliably identify targets, nor are they able to comprehend what happens to the targets when lethal force is deployed…”


Indeed, in an interview with, a current RAF drone pilot ‘Justin Thompson’ answered this question from Chris Cole:


CC: What about the ‘PlayStation mentality’ idea that the remoteness and the distancing makes it easier for pilots to launch weapons?


JT: “There is the potential for you to feel that what you are doing isn’t real and there are no direct consequences. But I think that would only occur for someone who had not themselves sat in an aircraft and been shot at.

For me, what I was seeing on the screen was very real. In addition to that for me it was more than just two-dimensional. My mind very easily perceived a three-dimensional scene that extended out of the side of the image. Whether that was because I was used to sitting in a cockpit and seeing that sort of picture I don’t know. Someone whose only background is flight simulators or playing computer games may have a different view. I relate it to sitting in an aircraft and flying it, others may relate it slightly differently. It’s difficult to say.”


Additionally, this short documentary gives the same view (here)

As Beth Maundrill points out, even drone pilots who have never before piloted a conventional manned military aircraft are required to do so before piloting a drone. The aeronautics of flying an aircraft unmanned are the same as flying one manned, so the idea that drone pilots and sensor operators just turn up having played some video games and then start killing people is such a misconception, it is frankly, laughable.

Clearly, Royakkers and van Est are trying to get to something much deeper than this shallow ‘video game drone killers’ idea, but it does seem to have caused a great misconception for many people who really should know better.

Also, you can find out a bit more about the work of Dr. Peter Lee and his research on drone pilots here. Book out next year.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

As always, please join in. Check the about tab if you want ot find out more.

2 thoughts on “The cubicle warrior: the marionette of digitalized warfare – Royakkers and van Est

  1. For me there’s something here not just about whether or not the operators of drones treat killing targets as a ‘game’, but also, importantly, what the impact of games has on our own responses to targeting enemies from distance. Do video games serve to normalise futuristic warfare, and make us more willing to accept casualties if we can never see their (human) faces?


  2. Hi Mike, there’s definitely something fascinating about the impact of gaming on modern warfare. Indeed, the USAF are attempting to recruit gamers to drone squadrons to stem the tide of drone operators leaving the service. However, it doesn’t seem much different to me to the practice of aerial bombing as a form of sport just before WWII – sort of a very rich and engineering minded gentleman’s alternative to shooting birds. It does seem that there are many things that are not war which relates to war and raise issues within us of devaluing human life in warfare. Certainly interesting stuff, I suppose it all links in with the dehumanisation of the enemy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s