Power Players

Drone brain: Inside the psychological costs of pulling the trigger in drone warfare

Power Players

A new military thriller puts its audience in the shoes of the U.S. military personnel who face complex ethical and psychological struggles in waging the country’s drone war.

“The idea is: Where are we going with drone warfare and what is the cost - not only the cost of collateral damage, but how about the psychological costs to the people who are flying the drones?” Rick Rosenthal, the director of “Drones,” told “Power Players.”

“Drones” follows the story of two fictional airmen operating a drone from a base in the United States as they close in on a high-level terrorist target in the Middle East. But when the order comes to pull the trigger, one of the airmen resists executing the mission with the understanding that the strike will also come at the cost of killing innocent civilian bystanders.

“I think that combat's really changed and suddenly we're at a point where we can conduct warfare without risk,” Rosenthal said. “And that's a very, sort of, controversial concept - because if there's no risk, what keeps us from making some very foolish mistakes, because the consequences don't appear to be immediate.”

The two airmen find themselves at war with their own sense of moral righteousness, each other, and their military superiors in their struggle to carry out the mission. And in the course of working through their personal, moral dilemmas, the soldiers end up swapping positions.

“What's interesting about their change of heart is that it comes about because of the revelation of new material, new information, and that's one of the things that disturbs me a little bit,” Rosenthal said. “Decisions are being made on imaging that is not as crystal clear as we might think it is.”

Rosenthal said his motivation in making the film was not only to look at the potential unintended consequences of drone warfare and its collateral damage, but also at the less-explored psychological impact that the long-distance warfare has on the soldiers tasked with the job.

“What I did learn was the amount of PTSD that our pilots and personnel are facing because of this new technology,” Rosenthal said.

And while Rosenthal said the film is not meant to take a position on drones as a matter of policy, he hopes that it makes the audience consider the issue.

“I wanted to make a thriller that made the audience think about the issue but didn't push them one way or the other - and I don't think the film is pro-drones and I don't think the film is anti-drones,” Rosenthal said.

"Drones" will be available On Demand starting June 27.

For more of the interview with Rosenthal, including how his own political interests that factored into making the film, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Melissa Young, and Vicki Vennell contributed to this episode.

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