The international community is outraged over the careless devastation and lack of accountability of the U.S.’s drone program. At least part of this uproar results from the institutionalized mystery surrounding these flying killing machines. However, one former member of the U.S. military knows the drone program all too well… and he’s harshly critical of it, too.
According to an NPR report, Brandon Bryant joined the military fresh out of college in 2006 so that he could pay back his student loans. The U.S. Air Force assigned Bryant to its Predator program where he was a sensor operator. Rather than piloting traditional jets, however, Bryant captained drones.
Yes, you read that right: drones DO have pilots. While no one is actually inside a drone, the technology is not yet so advanced that it can carry out actions entirely by itself. As a result, Bryant found himself taking the helms – from a computer located in a trailer in Las Vegas.
During his first mission, Bryant witnessed American troops dying via the drone’s camera. He was helpless to do anything from his remote location, in part due to the combatants’ proximity to U.S. soldiers. Instead, he was instructed to fire a missile on a group of men away from the fighting.
“After the smoke clears, there’s a crater there and you can see body parts from the people,” explained Bryant. And as powerful as the drone’s weaponry is, death is not always instantaneous for its targets. “[One] guy… his left leg had been taken off above the knee, and I watched him bleed out.”
Worst still, Bryant suspected these deaths were unnecessary. Although the men were armed, their inactivity in the local fight led him to believe they had weapons to defend themselves while living in a warzone. “These guys had no hostile intent,” Bryant said. “In Montana, everyone has a gun. These guys could have been local people that had to protect themselves. I think we jumped the gun.” He noted that the official report later labeled these men as “enemy combatants.”
When Bryant attempted to talk about what he experienced, he was met with silence. In general, he reported, drone operators avoid discussing their work even with each other.
The second time Bryant manned a drone attack, he fired on a house with militants inside. As the missile cruised toward its target, Bryant watched a child run next to the house. After the impact, Bryant saw no sign of the child. This time, instead of getting emotional about his part in the casualties, he went numb.
This numbness persisted for his remaining years of service. Bryant detached himself from his work, adopting a perspective that, in warfare, “good guys can die, bad guys can die, and innocents can die.”
Finally recognizing his unhealthy attitude toward killing, Bryant opted to quit the Air Force. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I stopped myself, and I said that’s not me. I was taught to respect life, even if in the realities of war we have to take it, it should be done with respect.”
Alas, the drone program has only grown since Bryant’s resignation. Obama’s onetime counterterrorism adviser Michael Boyle recently suggested that the administration may favor drone strikes over detention centers given the controversies surrounding places like Guantanamo Bay. Of course, the U.S. government has got to be kidding itself if it thinks critics’ objections to torturing and holding potential terrorists indefinitely without trial are assuaged by just outright killing suspects (and innocent bystanders) with no questions asked. The only reason drone usage has not turned into the full-scale scandal of Guantanamo Bay is due to the relative lack of information.
As for Bryant, he is now a member of a veterans’ group where he says he is finally experiencing the camaraderie he hoped the military would offer but was unattainable in a Las Vegas trailer. Like many veterans, Bryant is currently undergoing treatment for PTSD. Also like many veterans, Bryant is still waiting to receive his benefits to cover this treatment.