“Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator” – US’ remote-control killers suffer psychic damage just like those on battlefield [Spiegel Online / Sweet & Sour Socialism Essential Archives]

One of my favorite progressive articles of 2012, kills the myth of the antiseptic-ness of drone strikes – Zuo Shou

By Nicola Abé

December 14, 2012

— 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. T he 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…

…At some point, Brandon Bryant just wanted to get out and do something else. He spent a few more months overseas, this time in Afghanistan. But then, when he returned to New Mexico, he found that he suddenly hated the cockpit, which smelled of sweat. He began spraying air freshener to get rid of the stench. He also found he wanted to do something that saved lives rather than took them away…

…On uneventful days in the cockpit, he would write in his diary, jotting down lines like: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”

If he could just get into good enough shape, he thought to himself, they would let him do something different. The problem was that he was pretty good at his job.

At some point he no longer enjoyed seeing his friends. He met a girl, but she complained about his bad moods. “I can’t just switch and go back to normal life,” he told her. When he came home and couldn’t sleep, he would exercise instead. He began talking back to his superior officers.

One day he collapsed at work, doubling over and spitting blood. The doctor told him to stay home, and ordered him not to return to work until he could sleep more than four hours a night for two weeks in a row.

“Half a year later, I was back in the cockpit, flying drones,” says Bryant, sitting in his mother’s living room in Missoula…

…Bryant posted a drawing on Facebook the night before our interview. It depicts a couple standing, hand-in-hand, in a green meadow, looking up at the sky. A child and a dog are sitting on the ground next to them. But the meadow is just a part of the world. Beneath it is a sea of dying soldiers, propping themselves up with their last bit of strength, a sea of bodies, blood and limbs.

Doctors at the Veterans’ Administration diagnosed Bryant with post-traumatic stress disorder. General hopes for a comfortable war — one that could be completed without emotional wounds — haven’t been fulfilled. Indeed, Bryan’s world has melded with that of the child in Afghanistan. It’s like a short circuit in the brain of the drones.

Why isn’t he with the Air Force anymore? There was one day, he says, when he knew that he wouldn’t sign the next contract. It was the day Bryant walked into the cockpit and heard himself saying to his coworkers: “Hey, what motherf*cker is going to die today?”

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Excerpted by Zuo Shou

Article link: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/pain-continues-after-war-for-american-drone-pilot-a-872726.html

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