Remote Warfare and the Erosion of the Military Profession

‘Kill the enemy and don’t forget to buy milk on the way home.’

By Group Captain

By Gp Capt





Chief of Staff, Australian Defence College

 June 2020

‘… all our fine new technologies and fine new legal theories were blurring the boundaries of ‘war’, causing it to spread and ooze into everyday life.’

Rosa Brooks1

‘I’d literally just walked out on dropping bombs on the enemy, and 20 minutes later I’d get a text – can you pick up some milk on your way home?’

Jeff Bright (retired pilot)2


As Brooks and Bright highlight, the emergence of technology that enables the conduct of armed conflict from ‘home’ has led to the disappearance of a clear dividing line between war and peace. Contemporary and future combatants using remote warfare technologies in support of the NATO mission are essentially caught in a state of permanent liminality – of being caught ‘betwixt and between’ war and peace.

Such technology affords us the major advantage of removing our own forces from areas of danger, yet the conduct of strike missions from afar creates a dangerous context that may likely result in the erosion of ethical paradigms held by the profession of arms. This is exacerbated by the unending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have been in progress for almost two decades and currently show little sign of abating. These wars largely occur out of sight – in the cloisters of Defence headquarters, in air operations centres, and ground control stations – whether in operational areas or at home. Even in this context, the combatant ‘privilege’ of killing in armed conflict must retain its extraordinary place in the legal and ethical canon of nations with professional standing military forces. This demands the construction of clear ritualised transitions between war and peace that are established and enforced by national leaders and military commanders. The ritual can be something as simple as changing clothes into a particular uniform worn only on duty at that place, coupled with detailed pre and post mission briefs that mark a handover of shifts. The challenge in secular and multicultural military forces is to find a ritual that addresses the psychological or spiritual aspects required by a workforce from diverse backgrounds. It is easy to be transfixed only on the capabilities offered by emerging technologies such as next generation aircraft, artificial intelligence, and remote weapons platforms. However, for war to have meaning within society – as a means for human societies to achieve strategic objectives – then we must examine and acknowledge the price of emerging technologies on the humans who use or ‘team’ with these new capabilities.

The Danger of Permanent Liminality

The persistence of contemporary conflict has split Clausewitz’s aphorism. The politics of war are no longer clear or transparent and war continues indefinitely.3 The blurring of this distinction is further exacerbated by the persistent presence and reach offered by airpower – particularly Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). Those who bear the burden of fighting these wars remain caught in a state of ‘permanent liminality’, which is an anthropological concept that is defined as meaning ‘betwixt and between’.4 This concept originated from the 1909 publication Rites de Passage by French anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep, who undertook a taxonomy of existing rites within different social groups that marked the passage of individuals from one status to another.5 Van Gennep identified ‘rites of passage’ as a particular type of ritual that consisted of three sub-categories of rites: rites of separation, transition rites (‘liminal rites’), and rites of incorporation.6 Van Gennep’s work was re-discovered in the 1960s by Victor Turner, who advanced the concept of liminality by examining the importance of these transitory periods, the human reaction to such experiences, and how they are shaped by liminality.7 The key point is the place that transitional rites or liminal rites hold as a transformative experience from one status to another. Thomassen’s paper considers ‘permanent liminality’, which occurs when the rites of incorporation do not occur and the transformative experience is not complete. In the context of extant conflicts, when the framework of liminality is applied to the experience of RPA operators, it may be possible to obtain some insight into what these dangers may be in that particular context.

In the context of today’s persistent wars, the concept of liminality can be used to describe the state of being caught between war and peace. The state of liminality exists because the reach of modern military capability has provided a bridge between two planes of existence that overlap: a physical state of ‘peace’ and a psychological state of ‘war’. When coupled with the mental intimacy that the sensors of RPAs provide, there is a significant jarring effect for the operators as they move quickly between these states. What is needed to mitigate these effects are overt ‘rituals of war’ that traditionally marked a rite of passage between war and peace. This is necessary to counter the erosion of the special status of ‘war’ and the dilution of the privileges and obligations that accompany it. The erosion of these traditional rituals of war, which is the gateway between war and peace, may be accompanied by a significant risk of ethical or professional degradation caused by war becoming routine and ‘normal’. Strong, principled, and ethically conscious leadership is necessary to maintain a warfighting ethos, accompanied by an ethical framework for coherence in which these operators can mentally place their wartime experiences. Many NATO countries have had RPAs in service for some time, and the issue of remote warfare has been discussed for almost a decade.8 The time to address these issues related to preparing and building resilience in the personnel caught in a state of permanent liminality is long overdue.

Former RAF chaplain, Dr Peter Lee, conducted research into the experience of RPA operators by spending periods of time with operators from the 39 Squadron (Royal Air Force) at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, United States; and XIII Squadron at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom. He recounts his experience in his book, Reaper Force – Inside Britain’s Drone Wars, which provides vivid accounts of the firsthand experiences of RPA operators of the MQ-9 Reaper RPA.9 A significant point that arises throughout Lee’s work is the disjointedness of their experience. The practical effect of the operators’ state of permanent liminality is that diametrically opposed ideas attempt to occupy the same psychological space at the same time. The operators can concurrently exist in a state of war and peace. Lee relates one particularly poignant example. A Mission Intelligence Coordinator (MIC) named ‘Jamie’ relates an incident from 2011 where a strike in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, resulted in civilian casualties (‘civcas’) including children.10 Jamie’s account of his thoughts as he drove home after this incident demonstrates the liminal nature of his existence:

How did I find myself in this situation? … How did my first weapon event turn into a nightmare, an awful nightmare? What have I got myself into? Then a reality check: What time do I need to pick up Jane and the kids from the barbecue? (emphasis in original).11

Although the operators physically exist in a location far from the operations area in which the physical consequences of their actions manifest, their psychological existence occupies both war and peace. One minute they are at war; the next they are at church or picking up their kids from school’.12 Existing within a state of permanent liminality probably has significant jarring effects on the mental state of these operators, as Lee attests: ‘The normality of events immediately after they exited the GCS seemed abnormal’.13

Warfighting Ethos and Ethical Frameworks Essential

The acquisition of RPAs have provided states with the ability to project force into the relevant operational area, well beyond their geographic boundaries. However, the human cost of the capability must be brought to the forefront of the minds of military and civilian leaders. From a purely capability perspective, preserving the force that operates the Reaper is just as important as routine maintenance on the RPA system itself. Most importantly, however, the state is under a moral obligation to look after the very citizens in the military forces that are the means for protecting itself or advancing its strategic interests. As Phil Klay commented, ‘(j)oining the military is an act of faith in one’s country – an act of faith that the country will use your life well.’14 To discharge this obligation to the operators, commanders take action in two ways: (1) use overt rituals to mitigate the effects of permanent liminality and establish a strong military ethos in the unit; and (2) create an ethical framework that can form the foundation on which the operators can situate their experience, and form an anchor for military professionalism and ethical decision-making.

Codes of behaviour have been a significant part of any profession, including the profession of arms. These codes are generally the foundation for ethical conduct of the fighting classes throughout history and form the starting point for guiding ethical conduct.15 However, more is needed for those caught in a state of permanent liminality and who have a psychologically intimate connection with the individuals they see and kill via RPA capabilities. When these operators are on duty, they require strong anchors to the world of war as a means to preserve it as an extraordinary space that sits outside the ordinary world that awaits the operator at the end of shift, beyond the GCS door. Operators require ongoing, focused, education in the fundamental philosophies, values and ethical frameworks of the profession of arms that are for a number of important reasons: to gain a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of their privileged status as combatants, that they are imbued with this privilege for the purposes of their duty to the nation and not for their personal reasons; and the reasons why they must kill others as part of their duty.


RPAs offer an effective capability to a nation’s military force that allows for these prolonged wars to be waged from home. Such systems place the people who operate them in a state of permanent liminality as they move across insufficient boundaries between war and peace on a daily basis. The blurring of the distinction between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ places an obligation on military leaders to ensure that warfare is not normalised, and to preserve the status of warfare as ‘special’ or ‘sacred’. This can be achieved by the creation of rituals that form rites of passage to ease the transition of operators between war and peace as they conduct their daily duties. Rituals have been a central part of warfare for centuries.16 These rituals may include enhancing current practice such as mandating operators to change into and out of uniform form civilian clothes at the beginning or end of shift. Further the delivery of more detailed pre-and post mission briefs that include discussion of significant personal ethical challenges faced by crew members during that shift. This enables the crew members to metaphorically ‘leave behind’ their concerns at the end of the shift. The challenge is in finding rituals that address individual psychological and spiritual needs within a diverse and multicultural workforce. The inculcation of a practical understanding of the philosophical foundations of warfare via professional military education programs and mission specific training can be a means for preserving the status of war as being ‘extraordinary’.

Brooks, Rosa. How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything – Tales from the Pentagon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016): p. 4.
Eyal Press, ‘The Wounds of the Drone Warrior,’ New York Times, 13 Jun. 2018 (accessed 21 May 2019). Available at
von Clausewitz, Carl, statement: ‘war is not entirely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried out by other means.’ Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984): p. 87.
Beech, Nic, ‘Liminality and the practices of identity construction,’ Human Relations 64, no.2 (2011): p. 286.
Thomassen, Bjorn, ‘The Uses and Meanings of Liminality’, International Political Anthropology 2, no. 1 (2009): p. 6.
Thomassen, ‘The Uses and Meanings of Liminality’, p. 6.
Ibid., p. 14.
See National Public Radio, ‘War by Remote Control: Drones Make it Easy’, 26 Nov. 2011 (accessed 26 Feb. 2020). Available from
Lee, Peter. Reaper Force – Inside Britain’s Drone Wars (London: John Blake, 2018).
Ibid., p. 93-113.
Ibid., p. 107.
Press, ‘The Wounds of the Drone Warrior’.
Ibid. 9., p. 106.
Klay, Phil. ‘The Citizen-Soldier. Moral Risk and the Modern Military’, The Brookings Essay, 24 May 2016 (accessed 28 May 2019).
See Shannon E. French. The Code of the Warrior. Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017); and Nathan K Finney and Tyrell O. Mayfield (eds). Redefining the Modern Military. The Intersection of Profession and Ethics (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018).
See brief discussion by Ruddy Canno, ‘5 Rituals Warriors Used to Prepare for Battle’, We Are The Mighty online, posted 14 Dec. 2018: (accessed 4 Apr. 2020).
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Group Captain
Chief of Staff, Australian Defence College

Group Captain Jo Brick is a Legal Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and is currently the Chief of Staff, Australian Defence College. Previous appointments include Legal Advisor to the Chief of the Defence Force, and Legal Advisor to the Chief of Air Force.

Information provided is current as of June 2020

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