Joystick warfare hell 

An American drone operator recovers in Missoula

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“We save lives”

Col. 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 U.S. Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft 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.

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  • Photo by Gilles Mingasson
  • Former drone operator Brandon Bryant, 27, in Missoula.

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.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Drone operators work in an oblong, windowless container about the size of a trailer, controlling aircraft like the one below.

“I saw men, women and children die”

A yellow house stands on the outskirts of Missoula, 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.”

After graduating from high school, Bryant wanted to become an investigative journalist. He used to go to church on Sundays, and he had a thing for redheaded cheerleaders. By the end of his first semester at college, he had already racked up thousands of dollars in debt.

He came to the military by accident. One day, while accompanying a friend who was enlisting in the army, he heard that the Air Force had its own university, and that he could get a college education for free. Bryant did so well in tests that he was assigned to an intelligence collection unit. He learned how to control the cameras and lasers on a drone, as well as to analyze ground images, maps and weather data. He became a sensor operator, more or less the equivalent to a co-pilot.

He was 20 when he flew his first mission over Iraq. It was a hot, sunny day in Nevada, but it was dark inside the container and just before daybreak in Iraq. A group of American soldiers were on their way back to their base camp. Bryant’s job was to monitor the road, to be their “guardian angel” in the sky.

He saw an eye, a shape in the asphalt. “I knew the eye from the training,” he says. To bury an improvised explosive device in the road, the enemy combatants place a tire on the road and burn it to soften the asphalt. Afterwards it looks like an eye from above.

The soldiers’ convoy was still miles away from the eye. Bryant told his supervisor, who notified the command center. He was forced to look on for several minutes, Bryant says today, as the vehicles approached the site.

“What should we do?” he asked his coworker.

But the pilot was also new on the job.

The soldiers on the ground couldn’t be reached by radio, because they were using a jamming transmitter. Bryant saw the first vehicle drive over the eye. Nothing happened.

Then the second vehicle drove over it. Bryant saw a flash beneath, followed by an explosion inside the vehicle.

Five American soldiers were killed.

From then on, Bryant couldn’t keep the five fellow Americans out of his thoughts. He began learning everything by heart, including the manuals for the Predator and the missiles, and he familiarized himself with every possible scenario. He was determined to be the best, so that this kind of thing would never happen again.

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