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12/14/2012
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Dreams in Infrared

The Woes of an American Drone Operator

By Nicola Abé

A soldier sets out to graduate at the top of his class. He succeeds, and he becomes a drone pilot working with a special unit of the United States Air Force in New Mexico. He kills dozens of people. But then, one day, he realizes that he can't do it anymore.

For more than five years, Brandon Bryant worked in an oblong, windowless container about the size of a trailer, where the air-conditioning was kept at 17 degrees Celsius (63 degrees Fahrenheit) and, for security reasons, the door couldn't be opened. Bryant and his coworkers sat in front of 14 computer monitors and four keyboards. When Bryant pressed a button in New Mexico, someone died on the other side of the world.

The container is filled with the humming of computers. It's the brain of a drone, known as a cockpit in Air Force parlance. But the pilots in the container aren't flying through the air. They're just sitting at the controls.

Bryant was one of them, and he remembers one incident very clearly when a Predator drone was circling in a figure-eight pattern in the sky above Afghanistan, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) away. There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats 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.

"These moments are like in slow motion," he says today. Images taken with an infrared camera attached to the drone appeared on his monitor, transmitted by satellite, with a two-to-five-second time delay.

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.

Second zero was the moment in which Bryant's digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.

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?

Invisible Warfare

When Bryant left the container that day, he stepped directly into America: dry grasslands stretching to the horizon, fields and the smell of liquid manure. Every few seconds, a light on the radar tower at the Cannon Air Force Base flashed in the twilight. There was no war going on there.

Modern warfare is as invisible as a thought, deprived of its meaning by distance. It is no unfettered war, but one that is controlled from small high-tech centers in various places in the world. The new (way of conducting) war is supposed to be more precise than the old one, which is why some call it "more humane." It's the war of an intellectual, a war United States President Barack Obama has promoted more than any of his predecessors.

In a corridor at the Pentagon where the planning for this war takes place, the walls are covered with dark wood paneling. The men from the Air Force have their offices here. A painting of a Predator, a drone on canvas, hangs next to portraits of military leaders. From the military's perspective, no other invention has been as successful in the "war on terror" in recent years as the Predator.

The US military guides its drones from seven air bases in the United States, as well as locations abroad, including one in the East African nation of Djibouti. From its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the CIA controls operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

'We Save Lives'

Colonel William Tart, a man with pale eyes and a clear image of the enemy, calls the drone a "natural extension of the distance."

Until a few months ago, when he was promoted to head the US Air Force's Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) Task Force in Langley, Tart was a commander at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, near Las Vegas, where he headed drone operations. Whenever he flew drones himself, he kept a photo of his wife and three daughters pasted into the checklist next to the monitors.

He doesn't like the word drone, because he says it implies that the vehicle has its own will or ego. He prefers to call them "remotely piloted aircraft," and he points out that most flights are for gathering information. He talks about the use of drones on humanitarian missions after the earthquake in Haiti, and about the military successes in the war in Libya: how his team fired on a truck that was pointing rockets at Misrata, and how it chased the convoy in which former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his entourage were fleeing. He describes how the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan are constantly expressing their gratitude for the assistance from the air. "We save lives," he says.

He doesn't say as much about the targeted killing. He claims that during his two years as operations commander at Creech, he never saw any noncombatants die, and that the drones only fire at buildings when women and children are not in them. When asked about the chain of command, Tart mentions a 275-page document called 3-09.3. Essentially, it states that drone attacks must be approved, like any other attacks by the Air Force. An officer in the country where the operations take place has to approve them.

The use of the term "clinical war" makes him angry. It reminds him of the Vietnam veterans who accuse him of never having waded through the mud or smelled blood, and who say that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

That isn't true, says Tart, noting that he often used the one-hour drive from work back to Las Vegas to distance himself from his job. "We watch people for months. We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns like we know our neighbors' patterns. We even go to their funerals." It wasn't always easy, he says.

One of the paradoxes of drones is that, even as they increase the distance to the target, they also create proximity. "War somehow becomes personal," says Tart.

'I Saw Men, Women and Children Die'

A yellow house stands on the outskirts of the small city of Missoula, Montana, against a background of mountains, forests and patches of fog. The ground is coated with the first snow of the season. Bryant, now 27, is sitting on the couch in his mother's living room. He has since left the military and is now living back at home. He keeps his head shaved and has a three-day beard. "I haven't been dreaming in infrared for four months," he says with a smile, as if this were a minor victory for him.

Bryant completed 6,000 flight hours during his six years in the Air Force. "I saw men, women and children die during that time," says Bryant. "I never thought I would kill that many people. In fact, I thought I couldn't kill anyone at all."

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