A reader, Robert Green, has recommended Confessions of a Drone Warrior, “the amazing feature in the latest issue of GQ magazine. It’s 12 pages long, but well worth reading”:
As a Fleet Air Arm Observer (Navigator), Robert flew in Buccaneer carrier-borne nuclear strike aircraft and became Staff Officer to Commander-in-Chief Fleet at Northwood HQ in charge of intelligence support for Polaris and the rest of the Fleet. The murder of his aunt Hilda Murrell, an anti-nuclear energy campaigner in 1984, led him to challenge the hazards of nuclear electricity generation. The break-up of the Soviet Union followed by the Gulf War caused him to speak out against nuclear weapons. He is now Co-Director of the Peace Foundation’s Disarmament & Security Centre in New Zealand, using his military experience to promote alternative thinking about security and disarmament.
Confessions of a Drone Warrior – not for the sensitive . . . by Matthew Power
Brandon Bryant, 27, from Missoula, Montana, spent six years in the Air Force operating Predator drones from inside a dark container. But he knew he couldn’t keep doing what he was doing and quit the military.
He was an experiment, really. One of the first recruits for a new kind of warfare in which men and machines merge. He flew multiple missions, but he never left his computer. He hunted top terrorists, saved lives, but always from afar. He stalked and killed countless people, but could not always tell you precisely what he was hitting. Meet the 21st-century American killing machine. who’s still utterly, terrifyingly human . . .
From the darkness of a box in the Nevada desert, he watched as three men trudged down a dirt road in Afghanistan . . . He zoomed the camera in on the suspected insurgents, each dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, long shirts and baggy pants. He knew nothing else about them: not their names, not their thoughts, not the thousand mundane and profound details of their lives. He was told that they were carrying rifles on their shoulders, but for all he knew, they were shepherd’s staffs. Still, the directive from somewhere above, a mysterious chain of command that led straight to his headset, was clear: confirmed weapons . . .
But a deep ambivalence about his work crept in. Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now. But at first, he believed that the mission was vital, that drones were capable of limiting the suffering of war, of saving lives. When this notion conflicted with the things he witnessed in high resolution from two miles above, he tried to put it out of his mind. Over time he found that the job made him numb: a “zombie mode” he slipped into as easily as his flight suit . . .
Bryant has never been philosophically opposed to the use of drones—he sees them as a tool, like any other, that can be used for good ends, citing their potential use to fight poachers, or to monitor forest fires. For him it’s about who controls them, and toward what ends. “It can’t be a small group of people deciding how they’re used,” he says. “There’s got to be transparency. People have to know how they’re being used so they’re used responsibly” . . .
By the spring of 2011, almost six years after he’d signed on, Senior Airman Brandon Bryant left the Air Force, turning down a $109,000 bonus to keep flying. He was presented with a sort of scorecard covering his squadron’s missions. “They gave me a list of achievements,” he says. “Enemies killed, enemies captured, high-value targets killed or captured, stuff like that.” He called it his diploma. He hadn’t lased the target or pulled the trigger on all of the deaths tallied, but by flying in the missions he felt he had enabled them. “The number,” he says, “made me sick to my stomach.”
Total enemies killed in action: 1,626 . . .
In 2011, Air Force psychologists completed a mental-health survey of 600 combat drone operators. Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq . . .
There are several other accounts, see especially Der Spiegel: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/pain-continues-after-war-for-american-drone-pilot-a-872726.html and
David Sirota’s analyis: http://www.salon.com/2013/05/09/how_drones_deceive_us/