war on the rocks

Killing and the Drone Warrior

November 6, 2013

My friend Steve took a great video of it.

You can’t see much, just a tree line with AK fire for background noise. In the distance, a Hellfire comes off the rails and the slow freight train of ordinance plows through the sky. Seconds perch upon seconds until the low dud and black cloud erupt from the earth.

It is 2010 and Rampage the Reaper just killed two Taliban fighters from an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada and I’m swatting at two fat flies that won’t stay off my upper lip in the IED ridden town of Marjah, Afghanistan.

War made new, they said.

The guy driving that Reaper from Nevada could have been Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, who GQ just profiled in a feature called “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.”

I won’t pretend that I know what it’s like to operate a drone. However, where Bryant and I intersect is in the business of killing. Although killing from Nevada and killing from two hundred yards away are two distinctly different flavors—it’s something neither of us are strangers to.

Killing—no matter what way you skin it, see it, feel it, hear it, and smell it—is killing. The end result is always physically the same, but the moral weight tends to be ambiguous depending on the method used. Whether it is the bayonet or the guided missile, different methods carry different moral ramifications.

Every factor in ground combat, whether it is physical or mental feeds into how killing is perceived and digested. Am I in danger? Are my men in danger? Does this person need to die so I may live? The gear you wear grounds you and the feel of a rifle reminds you of the authenticity of the situation. Combat can be an alternate universe ensconced in layers that give a participant the feeling of a much different reality.  Many veterans talk of combat like an out of body experience, and upon returning home, readjust to society by rectifying their two selves: the one who fought and the one who changes diapers and does the grocery shopping. In this regard, the infantryman is given a luxury of sorts—his killing is immediate, but through the deployment cycle he can distance himself after combat operations are completed and he returns home.

On the flipside, the drone pilot’s killing is done distally, but it is more morally immediate because it is carried out in the midst of a daily routine that involves the sights and sounds of a normal American life. Wake up, go to work, kill, shutdown the monitor, sleep, etc.  Bryant’s dilemma is born from this environment. The trailer from which he kills has no risk; he has no skin in the game. While the infantryman has the physical act of combat and the “luxury” of the morally righteous “kill or be killed” scenario, Bryant has to use abstraction to kill from a computer. The man in the seat to his left or right has the option to view and justify his job in a completely different manner than Bryant does because there is no shared sacrifice or common thread to unite them. Bryant kills alone, and bares the weight accordingly.

Bryant signed up to be like “the guys that give James Bond all the information that he needs to get the mission done.” GQ author Matthew Power writes, “the airmen in his intel class were funneled into the drone program…His sensor-operator course took ten weeks and led into ‘green flag’ exercises, during which airmen piloted Predators and launched dummy Hellfires at a cardboard town mocked up in the middle of the desert.” After ten weeks of shooting cardboard boxes, Bryant went off to start killing real people.

He didn’t train with a unit, and why should he? He’s pushing a button and guiding a missile at a target. He doesn’t feel the heat of the desert sun, the smell of the cordite, the recoil of a rifle. His comrades are not beside him bleeding and yelling. There is no struggle, nothing anchoring him to the reality of war. There is only the killing.

Then he drives home and sleeps in his own bed.

When an infantry unit deploys, it goes through distinct stages of preparation. There is the pre-deployment work-up where you begin at the individual level: “This your rifle…”, etc. From there, squad tactics give birth to platoon attacks, platoon attacks transform to the company level, and so on. The final exercises are as realistic as possible at the battalion level. They include live artillery, mass casualty exercises, coordinated air support, and more. If war is a symphony, then these battalion level exercises are the final rehearsal.

Then, it’s off to war and real-life combat, but you’ve trained for it. You’ve crawled, walked and run as a unit, and the first time a real silhouette fills your crosshairs, you know that you have arrived at the moment you’ve been honed to execute.

That moment will be etched both in an individual infantryman’s memory and the collective memory of a unit. Every platoon remembers its first firefight, its first casualty, and its first round of beers upon redeployment. Yet in Bryant’s realm he only has himself. The memories of his actions are his and his alone.

“No one talked about how they felt after anything. It was like an unspoken agreement that you wouldn’t talk about your experiences.” Bryant told GQ.  And for Bryant it seems his inability to discuss these events with others who shared the experiences and memories only ended up propelling him further into a realm where his job was so morally ambiguous that he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If the Air Force wants to avoid more morally damaged drone pilots, it should consider incorporating facets of infantry training into its work-up cycle. Ground training would give much needed perspective and insight for pilots supporting infantry units remotely and the shared sweat in training could help foster a greater sense of camaraderie amongst the pilots themselves, as well as a potentially shared perspective. If an organization is going to ask people to kill, they need to be trained properly and emotionally prepared. Bryant probably isn’t the first soldier to be mentally incapacitated by remote killing, but there’s no reason that he can’t be the last.

 

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a columnist at War on the Rocks. He served as an infantryman with 1st Battalion 6th Marines from 2007-2011 and participated in two deployments to Afghanistan. He is a student at Georgetown University and a deputy editor at The Hoya.

 

Photo credit: Fg Off Owen Cheverton/MOD