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Confessions of a Drone "Warrior"

He was an experiment, really. One of the first recruits for a new kind of warfare in which men and machines merge. He flew multiple missions, but he never left his computer. He hunted top terrorists, saved lives, but always from afar. He stalked and killed countless people, but could not always tell you precisely what he was hitting. Meet the 21st-century American killing machine. who's still utterly, terrifyingly human

By Matthew Power

October 25, 2013 "Information Clearing House - "GQ" -  From the darkness of a box in the Nevada desert, he watched as three men trudged down a dirt road in Afghanistan. The box was kept cold—precisely sixty-eight degrees—and the only light inside came from the glow of monitors. The air smelled spectrally of stale sweat and cigarette smoke. On his console, the image showed the midwinter landscape of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province—a palette of browns and grays, fields cut to stubble, dark forests climbing the rocky foothills of the Hindu Kush. He zoomed the camera in on the suspected insurgents, each dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, long shirts and baggy pants. He knew nothing else about them: not their names, not their thoughts, not the thousand mundane and profound details of their lives.

He was told that they were carrying rifles on their shoulders, but for all he knew, they were shepherd’s staffs. Still, the directive from somewhere above, a mysterious chain of command that led straight to his headset, was clear: confirmed weapons. He switched from the visible spectrum—the muted grays and browns of “day-TV”—to the sharp contrast of infrared, and the insurgents’ heat signatures stood out ghostly white against the cool black earth. A safety observer loomed behind him to make sure the “weapon release” was by the book. A long verbal checklist, his targeting laser locked on the two men walking in front. A countdown—three…two…one…—then the flat delivery of the phrase “missile off the rail.” Seventy-five hundred miles away, a Hellfire flared to life, detached from its mount, and reached supersonic speed in seconds.

It was quiet in the dark, cold box in the desert, except for the low hum of machines.

He kept the targeting laser trained on the two lead men and stared so intently that each individual pixel stood out, a glowing pointillist dot abstracted from the image it was meant to form. Time became almost ductile, the seconds stretched and slowed in a strange electronic limbo. As he watched the men walk, the one who had fallen behind seemed to hear something and broke into a run to catch up with the other two. Then, bright and silent as a camera flash, the screen lit up with white flame.

Airman First Class Brandon Bryant stared at the scene, unblinking in the white-hot clarity of infrared. He recalls it even now, years later, burned into his memory like a photo negative: “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot. His blood is hot. But when it hits the ground, it starts to cool off; the pool cools fast. It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”

···

That was Brandon Bryant’s first shot. It was early 2007, a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, and Bryant was a remotely-piloted-aircraft sensor operator—a “sensor” for short—part of a U.S. Air Force squadron that flew Predator drones in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan. Beginning in 2006, he worked in the windowless metal box of a Ground Control Station (GCS) at Nellis Air Force Base, a vast sprawl of tarmac and maintenance hangars at the edge of Las Vegas.

The airmen kept the control station dark so they could focus on controlling their MQ-1B Predators circling two miles above the Afghan countryside. Bryant sat in a padded cockpit chair. He had a wrestler’s compact build, a smooth-shaved head, and a piercing ice blue gaze frequently offset by a dimpled grin. As a sensor, his job was to work in tandem with the drone’s pilot, who sat in the chair next to him. While the pilot controlled the drone’s flight maneuvers, Bryant acted as the Predator’s eyes, focusing its array of cameras and aiming its targeting laser. When a Hellfire was launched, it was a joint operation: the pilot pulled a trigger, and Bryant was responsible for the missile’s “terminal guidance,” directing the high-explosive warhead by laser to its desired objective. Both men wore regulation green flight suits, an unironic Air Force nod to the continuity of military decorum in the age of drone warfare.


The Air Force's go-to drone: The MQ-1 Predator.

Since its inception, the drone program has been largely hidden, its operational details gathered piecemeal from heavily redacted classified reports or stage-managed media tours by military public-affairs flacks. Bryant is one of very few people with firsthand experience as an operator who has been willing to talk openly, to describe his experience from the inside. While Bryant considers leakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for their principles, he’s cautious about discussing some of the details to which his top-secret clearance gave him access. Still, he is a curtain drawn back on the program that has killed thousands on our behalf.

Despite President Obama’s avowal earlier this year that he will curtail their use, drone strikes have continued apace in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. With enormous potential growth and expenditures, drones will be a center of our policy for the foreseeable future. (By 2025, drones will be an $82 billion business, employing an additional 100,000 workers.) Most Americans—61 percent in the latest Pew survey—support the idea of military drones, a projection of American power that won’t risk American lives.

And yet the very idea of drones unsettles. They’re too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection. Maybe it’s too soon to know what drones mean, what unconsidered moral and ethical burdens they carry. Even their shape is sinister: the blunt and featureless nose cone, like some eyeless creature that has evolved in darkness.

For Bryant, talking about them has become a sort of confessional catharsis, a means of processing the things he saw and did during his six years in the Air Force as an experimental test subject in an utterly new form of warfare.

···

Looking back, it was really little more than happenstance that had led him to that box in the desert. He’d been raised poor by his single mom, a public-school teacher in Missoula, Montana, and he struggled to afford tuition at the University of Montana. In the summer of 2005, after tagging along with a buddy to the Army recruiting office, he wandered into the Air Force office next door. His friend got a bad feeling and bailed at the last minute, but Bryant had already signed his papers. In short order he was running around at Lackland Air Force Base during Warrior Week in the swelter of a Texas summer. He wasn’t much for military hierarchy, but he scored high on his aptitude tests and was shunted into intelligence, training to be an imagery analyst. He was told he would be like “the guys that give James Bond all the information that he needs to get the mission done.”

Most of the airmen in his intel class were funneled into the drone program, training at Creech Air Force Base in the sagebrush desert an hour north of Las Vegas. Bryant was told it was the largest group ever inducted. 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. The missiles, packed with concrete, would punch through the derelict tanks and wrecked cars placed around the set. “It’s like playing Dungeons & Dragons,” says Bryant. “Roll a d20 to see if you hit your target.” His training inspector, watching over his shoulder, would count down to impact and say, “Splash! You killed everyone.”

Within a few months he “went off” to war, flying missions over Iraq at the height of the conflict’s deadliest period, even though he never left Nevada.

His opening day on the job was also his worst. The drone took off from Balad Air Base, fifty miles outside Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle. Bryant’s orders, delivered during a pre-shift mission briefing, were straightforward: a force-protection mission, acting as a “guardian angel” over a convoy of Humvees. He would search out IEDs, insurgent activity, and other threats. It was night in the U.S. and already daylight in Iraq when the convoy rolled out.

From 10,000 feet, Bryant scanned the road with infrared. Traffic was quiet. Everything normal. Then he spotted a strange circle, glowing faintly on the surface of the road. A common insurgent’s technique for laying IEDs is to douse a tire with gasoline, set it afire on a roadway, and dig up the softened tar beneath. The technique leaves a telltale heat signature, visible in infrared. Bryant, a fan of The Lord of the Rings, joked that it looked like the glowing Eye of Sauron.


Flying a drone can feel like a deadly two-person video game—with a pilot (left) and sensor (right).

Bryant pointed the spot out to the pilot, who agreed it looked like trouble. But when they tried to warn the convoy, they realized they couldn’t. The Humvees had activated their radio jammers to disrupt the cell-phone signals used to remotely detonate IEDs. The drone crew’s attempts at radio contact were as useless as shouting at the monitor. Brandon and his pilot patched in their flight supervisor to brainstorm a new way to reach them. They typed frantically back and forth in a group chat, a string of messages that soon included a cast of superiors in the U.S. and Iraq. Minutes passed, and the convoy rolled slowly toward the glowing circle. Bryant stared at the screen, heart pounding, scarcely breathing. The lead Humvee rolled across the eye. “Nothing happens,” says Bryant. “And we’re kind of like, maybe it was a mistake. Everyone’s like Whew, good on you for spotting it, but we’re glad that it wasn’t what you thought it was.” He remembers exhaling, feeling the nervous tension flow out of him.

“And the second vehicle comes along and boom.…”

A white flash of flame blossomed on the screen. Bryant was zoomed in as close as he could get, toggling his view between infrared and day-TV, watching in unblinking horror as the shredded Humvee burned. His headset exploded with panicked chatter from the ground in Iraq: What the fuck happened? We’ve got guys down over here! Frantic soldiers milled around, trying to pull people out of the smoldering wreckage. The IED had been tripped by either a pressure plate or manual detonation; the radio jammers would have done nothing to prevent it. Three soldiers were severely wounded, and two were killed.

“I kind of finished the night numb,” Bryant says. “Then you just go home. No one talked about it. No one talked about how they felt after anything. It was like an unspoken agreement that you wouldn’t talk about your experiences.”

···

The pace of work in the box unraveled Bryant’s sense of time. He worked twelve-hour shifts, often overnight, six days a week. Both wars were going badly at the time, and the Air Force leaned heavily on its new drone fleet. A loaded Predator drone can stay aloft for eighteen hours, and the pilots and sensors were pushed to be as tireless as the technology they controlled. (Bryant claims he didn’t get to take leave for the first four years he served.)

Even the smell of that little shed in the desert got to Bryant. The hermetically sealed control center was almost constantly occupied—you couldn’t take a bathroom break without getting swapped out—and the atmosphere was suffused with traces of cigarette smoke and rank sweat that no amount of Febreze could mask. One bored pilot even calculated the number of farts each cockpit seat was likely to have absorbed.

Mostly the drone crews’ work was an endless loop of watching: scanning roads, circling compounds, tracking suspicious activity. If there was a “troops-in-contact” situation—a firefight, ground troops who call in a strike—Bryant’s Predator could be called to the scene in minutes with its deadly payload. But usually time passed in a haze of banal images of rooftops, walled courtyards, or traffic-snarled intersections.

Sitting in the darkness of the control station, Bryant watched people on the other side of the world go about their daily lives, completely unaware of his all-seeing presence wheeling in the sky above. If his mission was to monitor a high-value target, he might linger above a single house for weeks. It was a voyeuristic intimacy. He watched the targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too. He once watched a man walk out into a field and take a crap, which glowed white in infrared.

Bryant came up with little subterfuges to pass the long hours at the console: sneaking in junk food, mending his uniforms, swapping off twenty-minute naps with the pilot. He mastered reading novels while still monitoring the seven screens of his station, glancing up every minute or two before returning to the page. He constructed a darkly appropriate syllabus for his occupation. He read the dystopian sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, about children whose violent simulated games turn out to be actual warfare. Then came Asimov, Bryant pondering his Three Laws of Robotics in an age of Predators and Hellfires. A robot may not injure a human being….

Bryant took five shots in his first nine months on the job. After a strike he was tasked with lingering over a site for several haunting hours, conducting surveillance for an “after-action report.” He might watch people gather up the remains of those killed and carry them to the local cemetery or scrub the scene by dumping weapons into a river. Over Iraq he followed an insurgent commander as he drove through a crowded marketplace. The man parked in the middle of the street, opened his trunk, and pulled two girls out. “They were bound and gagged,” says Bryant. “He put them down on their knees, executed them in the middle of the street, and left them there. People just watched it and didn’t do anything.” Another time, Bryant watched as a local official groveled in his own grave before being executed by two Taliban insurgents.


Keepsakes from Bryant's service are proudly displayed in his mother's classroom.

In the early months Bryant had found himself swept up by the Big Game excitement when someone in his squadron made “mind-blowingly awesome shots, situations where these guys were bad guys and needed to be taken out.” But a deep ambivalence about his work crept in. Often he’d think about what life must be like in those towns and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now. But at first, he believed that the mission was vital, that drones were capable of limiting the suffering of war, of saving lives. When this notion conflicted with the things he witnessed in high resolution from two miles above, he tried to put it out of his mind. Over time he found that the job made him numb: a “zombie mode” he slipped into as easily as his flight suit.

 

···

 

Bryant’s second shot came a few weeks after targeting the three men on that dirt road in Kunar. He was paired with a pilot he didn’t much like, instructed to monitor a compound that intel told them contained a high-value individual—maybe a Taliban commander or Al Qaeda affiliate, nobody briefed him on the specifics. It was a typical Afghan mud-brick home, goats and cows milling around a central courtyard. They watched a corner of the compound’s main building, bored senseless for hours. They assumed the target was asleep.

Then the quiet ended. “We get this word that we’re gonna fire,” he says. “We’re gonna shoot and collapse the building. They’ve gotten intel that the guy is inside.” The drone crew received no further information, no details of who the target was or why he needed a Hellfire dropped on his roof.

Bryant’s laser hovered on the corner of the building. “Missile off the rail.” Nothing moved inside the compound but the eerily glowing cows and goats. Bryant zoned out at the pixels. Then, about six seconds before impact, he saw a hurried movement in the compound. “This figure runs around the corner, the outside, toward the front of the building. And it looked like a little kid to me. Like a little human person.”

Bryant stared at the screen, frozen. “There’s this giant flash, and all of a sudden there’s no person there.” He looked over at the pilot and asked, “Did that look like a child to you?” They typed a chat message to their screener, an intelligence observer who was watching the shot from “somewhere in the world”—maybe Bagram, maybe the Pentagon, Bryant had no idea—asking if a child had just run directly into the path of their shot.

“And he says, ‘Per the review, it’s a dog.’ ”

Bryant and the pilot replayed the shot, recorded on eight-millimeter tape. They watched it over and over, the figure darting around the corner. Bryant was certain it wasn’t a dog.

If they’d had a few more seconds’ warning, they could have aborted the shot, guided it by laser away from the compound. Bryant wouldn’t have cared about wasting a $95,000 Hellfire to avoid what he believed had happened. But as far as the official military version of events was concerned, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The pilot “was the type of guy to not argue with command,” says Bryant. So the pilot’s after-action report stated that the building had been destroyed, the high-value target eliminated. The report made no mention of a dog or any other living thing. The child, if there had been a child, was an infrared ghost.

···

The closest Bryant ever got to “real” combat—the roadside bombs and mortar fire experienced by combat troops—was after volunteering to deploy to Iraq. He spent the scorching summer and fall of 2007 stationed at the airfield in Balad, flying Predators on base-defense missions—scanning the area for insurgents. Some troops thanked the drone crews for being “angels in the sky,” but more often they were the butt of jokes, mocked as “chair-borne rangers” who would “only earn a Purple Heart for burning themselves on a Hot Pocket.”

Bryant struggled to square the jokes with the scenes that unfolded on his monitors. On one shift, he was told by command that they needed coordinates on an insurgent training compound and asked him to spot it. There was a firing range, and he watched as a group of fighters all entered the same building. One of the issues with targeting insurgents was that they often traveled with their families, and there was no way to tell who exactly was in any given building. Bryant lasered the building as he was ordered. Moments later, smoke mushroomed high into the air, a blast wave leveling the entire compound. An F-16, using Bryant’s laser coordinates as guidance, had dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on the building—ten times the size of a Hellfire. “They didn’t actually tell us that they were gonna blow it up,” says Bryant. “We’re like, ‘Wow, that was nice of you to inform us of that.’ ”

In 2008, Bryant was transferred to a new post in “the shittiest place in the world,” a drone squadron out of Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico, where, Bryant says, “the air is not oxygen, it’s basically cow shit.” He continued as an operator for several more years, but his directive had changed. He was now mainly tracking high-value targets for the Joint Special Operations Command—the same secret-shrouded branch of the service that spearheaded the hunt for Osama bin Laden. “We were going after top dudes. They started showing us PowerPoint presentations on who these people are,” he says. “Why we’re after him, and what he did. I liked that. I liked being able to know shit like that.”

Bryant has never been philosophically opposed to the use of drones—he sees them as a tool, like any other, that can be used for good ends, citing their potential use to fight poachers, or to monitor forest fires. For him it’s about who controls them, and toward what ends. “It can’t be a small group of people deciding how they’re used,” he says. “There’s got to be transparency. People have to know how they’re being used so they’re used responsibly.”

Transparency has not been the defining feature of U.S. drone policy over the last decade. Even as Bryant was being trained to operate drones in our very public wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a parallel and clandestine drone war was being waged in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Since 2004, the CIA has carried out hundreds of strikes in Pakistani territory, cutting secret deals with Pakistani intelligence to operate a covert assassination program. Another covert CIA drone base was operated from Saudi Arabia, launching strikes against militants in the lawless and mountainous interior of Yemen. While Bryant never flew for the CIA itself, their drone operators were drawn directly from the Air Force ranks.

While stationed in Clovis, among the highest-value targets Bryant’s squadron hunted was Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Yemeni imam and Al Qaeda recruiter. Al-Awlaki was ultimately killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 (as was his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a few weeks later). But Bryant claims his Air Force squadron “did most of the legwork” to pinpoint his location.

By 2011, Bryant had logged nearly 6,000 hours of flight time, flown hundreds of missions, targeted hundreds of enemies. He was in what he describes as “a fugue state of mind.” At the entrance to his flight headquarters in Clovis, in front of a large bulletin board, plastered with photographs of targets like al-Awlaki, he looked up at the faces and asked: “What motherfucker’s gonna die today?”

It seemed like someone else’s voice was speaking, some dark alter ego. “I knew I had to get out.”

By the spring of 2011, almost six years after he’d signed on, Senior Airman Brandon Bryant left the Air Force, turning down a $109,000 bonus to keep flying. He was presented with a sort of scorecard covering his squadron’s missions. “They gave me a list of achievements,” he says. “Enemies killed, enemies captured, high-value targets killed or captured, stuff like that.” He called it his diploma. He hadn’t lased the target or pulled the trigger on all of the deaths tallied, but by flying in the missions he felt he had enabled them. “The number,” he says, “made me sick to my stomach.”

Total enemies killed in action: 1,626.

···


Since speaking out about drones, Bryant has been a target.

“After that first missile hit, I didn’t really talk to anyone for a couple weeks.” Bryant spoke to me while driving his beat-up black Dodge Neon in looping cursive circles around his hometown of Missoula. A yellow support-the-troops sticker on his bumper was obscured by a haze of road salt. The car’s interior was festooned with patches from the different units he’d served with; in the back seat was a military pack stuffed with equal parts dirty laundry and bug-out gear. The gray midwinter sky weighed on a procession of strip malls and big-box stores; the snowy crenellations of the Bitterroot Range stretched far away to the south. He stared ahead as though watching the scene of his shot on an endless loop. “I didn’t know what it meant to kill someone. And watching the aftermath, watching someone bleed out, because of something that I did?”

That night, on the drive home, he’d started sobbing. He pulled over and called his mother. “She just was like, ‘Everything will be okay,’ and I told her I killed someone, I killed people, and I don’t feel good about it. And she’s like, ‘Good, that’s how it should feel, you should never not feel that way.’ ”

Other members of his squadron had different reactions to their work. One sensor operator, whenever he made a kill, went home and chugged an entire bottle of whiskey. A female operator, after her first shot, refused to fire again even under the threat of court martial. Another pilot had nightmares after watching two headless bodies float down the Tigris. Bryant himself would have bizarre dreams where the characters from his favorite game, World of Warcraft, appeared in infrared.

By mid-2011, Bryant was back in Missoula, only now he felt angry, isolated, depressed. While getting a video game at a Best Buy, he showed his military ID with his credit card, and a teenage kid behind him in line spoke up. “He’s like, ‘Oh, you’re in the military; my brother, he’s a Marine, he’s killed like thirty-six dudes, and he tells me about it all the time.’ And I turn around and say, ‘If you fucking ever talk like this to me again, I will stab you. Don’t ever disrespect people’s deaths like that ever again.’ ” The kid went pale, and Bryant took his game and left.

At the urging of a Vietnam veteran he met at the local VA office, Bryant finally went to see a therapist. After a few sessions, he just broke down: “I told her I wanted to be a hero, but I don’t feel like a hero. I wanted to do something good, but I feel like I just wasted the last six years of my life.” She diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

It was an unexpected diagnosis. For decades the model for understanding PTSD has been “fear conditioning”: quite literally the lasting psychological ramifications of mortal terror. But a term now gaining wider acceptance is “moral injury.” It represents a tectonic realignment, a shift from a focusing on the violence that has been done to a person in wartime toward his feelings about what he has done to others—or what he’s failed to do for them. The concept is attributed to the clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who in his book Achilles in Vietnam traces the idea back as far as the Trojan War. The mechanisms of death may change—as intimate as a bayonet or as removed as a Hellfire—but the bloody facts, and their weight on the human conscience, remain the same. Bryant’s diagnosis of PTSD fits neatly into this new understanding. It certainly made sense to Bryant. “I really have no fear,” he says now. “It’s more like I’ve had a soul-crushing experience. An experience that I thought I’d never have. I was never prepared to take a life.”

In 2011, Air Force psychologists completed a mental-health survey of 600 combat drone operators. Forty-two percent of drone crews reported moderate to high stress, and 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. The study’s authors attributed their dire results, in part, to “existential conflict.” A later study found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews. These effects appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)

In the summer of 2012, Bryant rejoined the Air Force as a reservist, hoping to get into the famed SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), where he would help train downed pilots to survive behind enemy lines. After so much killing, he wanted to save people. But after a severe concussion in a training accident, he dropped out and returned once more to Missoula. He walked with a cane, had headaches and memory lapses, and fell into a black depression.

During the worst of it, Bryant would make the rounds of Missoula’s dozens of roughneck bars and drink himself to blackout on whiskey and cokes, vanishing for days or weeks on end. Many of those nights he would take his government-issued minus-forty-degree sleeping bag and pull into a parking lot in the middle of town next to the Clark Fork river. There’s a small park with a wooden play structure there, built to look like a dragon with slides and ladders descending from it. He would climb to the little lookout deck at the top, blind drunk, and sleep there, night after night.

He doesn’t remember much of that hazy period last summer, but his mother, LanAnn, does. Several times he had left a strange locked case sitting out on the kitchen table at her house, and she had put it back in the closet. The third day she woke to find the case open, with a loaded Sig Sauer P226 semi-automatic pistol lying out. Terrified that he might kill himself, she gave it to a friend with a locked gun safe. She’d only told her son about it a week earlier. He had no memory of any of it.

“I really thought we were going to lose him,” LanAnn Bryant says now.

Something needed to change. Bryant hoped that by going to the press, people would understand drone crews’ experience of war, that it was “more than just a video game” to them. In the fall, he spoke to a reporter for the German newsweekly Der Spiegel. The story was translated into English, and the British tabloid Daily Mail picked it up, posting it with the wildly inaccurate headline drone operator followed orders to shoot a child…and decided he had to quit. The story went viral.

The backlash from the drone community was immediate and fierce. Within days, 157 people on Bryant’s Facebook page had de-friended him. “You are a piece of shit liar. Rot in hell,” wrote a former Air Force comrade. In a sort of exercise in digital self-flagellation, Bryant read thousands of Reddit comments about himself, many filled with blistering vitriol and recrimination. “I read every single one of them,” he says. “I was trying to just get used to the negative feelings.” The spectrum of critics ranged from those who considered drone warfare a crime against humanity to combat veterans who thought Bryant was a whiner. He’d had death threats as well—none he took seriously—and other people said he should be charged with treason and executed for speaking to the media. On the day of one of our interviews, The New York Times ran an article about the military’s research into PTSD among drone operators. I watched as he scanned a barrage of Facebook comments mocking the very idea that drone operators could suffer trauma:

>I broke a fucking nail on that last mission!
>Maybe they should wear seatbelts
>they can claim PTSD when they have to do “Body Collection & Identification”

And then Bryant waded in:

>I’m ashamed to have called any of you assholes brothers in arms.
>Combat is combat. Killing is killing. This isn’t a video game. How many of you have killed a group of people, watched as their bodies are picked up, watched the funeral, then killed them too?
>Yeah, it’s not the same as being on the ground. So fucking what? Until you know what it is like and can make an intelligent meaningful assessment, shut your goddamn fucking mouths before somebody shuts them for you.

Bryant’s defense—a virtual battle over an actual war—left him seething at his keyboard. He says that when flying missions, he sometimes felt himself merging with the technology, imagining himself as a robot, a zombie, a drone itself. Such abstractions don’t possess conscience or consciousness; drones don’t care what they mean, but Bryant most certainly does. Now he plans to study to be an EMT, maybe get work on an ambulance, finally be able to save people like he always wanted. He no longer has infrared dreams, no longer closes his eyes and sees those strange polarized shadows flit across them.

Bryant closed his laptop and went out into the yard, tossing a tennis ball to his enormous bounding Japanese mastiff. Fingers of snow extended down through the dark forests of the Bitterroot, and high white contrails in the big sky caught the late-afternoon sunlight. The landscape of western Montana, Bryant observed, bears a striking resemblance to the Hindu Kush of eastern Afghanistan—a place he’s seen only pixelated on a monitor. It was a cognitive dissonance he had often felt flying missions, as he tried to remind himself that the world was just as real when seen in a grainy image as with the naked eye, that despite being filtered through distance and technology, cause and effect still applied. This is the uncanny valley over which our drones circle. We look through them at the world, and ultimately stare back at ourselves.  

Originally published on GQ

© 2013 Condé Nast. All rights reserved

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