Former drone operator: “I lost that respect for life”

This story originally appeared on aoav.org.uk.

Predator operators at Balad Camp Anaconda, Iraq.

Predator operators at Balad Camp Anaconda, Iraq.

“I’d become heartless… I felt like a sociopath… I wanted to kill these people.”

Guilt-ridden confessions one would expect from a serial killer, trying to ease a haunted conscience. But these are the words of an employee of the US government, sitting comfortably in an interview with NBC’s Richard Engel.

In a rare first-person account, former Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant describes in painful detail how he watched the bloody results of his actions. How his targets lost limbs. How they bled out. And how the thermal images showed their bodies turn as cold as the ground they died on.

“People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,” Bryant said. “Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.”

During his time guiding unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, more than 1,600 people died at the hands of Bryant and his team. He remembers being told this fact in a memo that he was given.

Upon leaving his post, Bryant descended into the abyss – swallowed up with self-hatred. He now suffers from PTSD. This has “manifested itself as anger, sleeplessness and blackout drinking”.

But what we know is that Bryant’s story cannot be unique. There must be others out there suffering the same demons.

In Pakistan alone, at least 371 drones strikes have been reported since 2004. They have caused the deaths of at least 2,564 people, a large share of whom are civilians.

These numbers, collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, reveal the shocking extent of the American drone war. In addition to strikes on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, the Bureau also recorded further US led covert attacks in Somalia and Yemen.

These were attacks that, by definition, were unmanned. But attacks that all had an operator working on a glowing screen in an American city thousands of miles away.

Brandon Bryant’s admission should serve as a wake-up call. They should ram home the point that, even though executed via an system that might seem more video game than weapon, the act of killing is not even remotely virtual.

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