Public Lives

Drones

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One can imagine the bewilderment of the Filipino fishermen when they saw a “drone” floating off the coast of Masbate recently. Four meters in length, it had the shape of a plane, but it was too small to carry a pilot. Also, it looked menacing, and too big to be merely a toy. They eyed it warily. One of the men might have gently poked it with his paddle, and, when it didn’t stir or make a noise, they towed it to shore.

The US Embassy in Manila has since identified the object as “an unexpended BQM-74E Aerial Target drone… launched from the USS Chafee during exercise Valiant Shield 2012, off the coast of Guam.” The subtext of this statement may be summed as follows: (1) This particular drone belongs to the US military, but it is neither a weapon nor a spying device; (2) It was launched in Guam, which is American territory, and not in Philippine waters; and (3) Its discovery in Philippine waters poses no sovereignty issues, and suggests no violation of the terms of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

These assertions will likely be confirmed by Philippine authorities. But maybe it would not hurt for us to know exactly what drones are capable of doing, and how they figure in America’s wars.

Just the other day, the former head of the Nato forces in Afghanistan, the outspoken retired US Gen. Stanley McChrystal, criticized the increasing reliance on drones by US forces. “What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” he told Reuters. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes… is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

McChrystal, who was forced to resign in 2010 by President Barack Obama after he spouted unguarded remarks in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, has been critical of Washington officials and military top brass who wage war without much thought of the far-reaching human consequences. The extensive use of drones, McChrystal said, has encouraged a view of American arrogance that seems to tell the world: “Well, we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.”

If we can picture a remote-controlled unmanned aircraft, equipped with powerful infrared cameras and laden with deadly missiles, hovering quietly and unseen over hostile territory, then we have an idea of the kind of war the United States is shifting to as it prepares to pull out its ground forces from Afghanistan. It will be closer to a video game than to a real war. The order to shoot will come from an air force base somewhere in the United States, where technicians scan the images transmitted by the drones on their computer screens and launch missiles with joysticks. Those who have the misfortune to live below the aerial space patrolled by the drones will not know what or who hit them. They will know only terror.

I have not come across written accounts of what it is like to live 24 hours under the terror of an all-seeing yet unseen Predator drone. But there is a remarkable report of what it is like to be a drone pilot operating from an air-conditioned trailer van in an air force camp in New Mexico, firing off real missiles from a computer screen. It appeared in the Dec. 14, 2012, online international issue of the German publication Der Spiegel. Here’s the link: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,872726,00.html

Ironically titled “The Woes of an American Drone Operator,” the article tells the story of Brandon Bryant, a 27-year-old US Air Force pilot, who quit his job as a drone operator after spending six years in the air force. His story, written by Nicola Abé, reads like a postmodern Neal Stephenson novel. It opens with an incident that Bryant vividly recalls. A Predator drone was circling the Afghan sky; its movement was being tracked and controlled by computers 10 thousand kilometers away.

“There was a flat-roofed house made of mud… in the crosshairs, as Bryant recalls. When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact…. With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says…. Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.

“‘Did we just kill a kid?’ he asked the man sitting next to him. ‘Yeah, I guess that was a kid,’ the pilot replied. ‘Was that a kid?’ they wrote into a chat window on the monitor. Then someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. ‘No. That was a dog,’ the person wrote. They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?”

Bryant had a hard time erasing these images from his consciousness. They kept reappearing in his dreams. The distance separating him from the actual attack could not insulate him enough from the feelings of guilt that assaulted him. Yet this new mode of conducting war does not seem to affect the top brass in the same way.

“It’s the war of an intellectual,” Abé writes, “a war United States President Barack Obama has promoted more than any of his predecessors.”

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