Drone pilot life isn’t just lampooned as not real combat, it’s so mind-numblingly mundane that “One bored pilot even calculated the number of farts each cockpit seat was likely to have absorbed,” wrote Matthew M. Power in his epic GQ profile of Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant.
The profile is pretty stunning and definitely worth your time.
Prior to Power’s GQ piece, the common conclusion about reports of drone operators getting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was that they just got it from pulling the trigger and watching people die.
But that simple explanation appears not fully to convey their path toward mental anguish.
First, read the harrowing account of one of the strikes:
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.”
Just like real combat, with real grunts, for drone pilots there are long stretches of boredom, punctuated by “brief moments” of excitement. That’s where a split occurs.
Grunts, or special operators, or anyone on the ground for that matter, often come home and try to recreate that feeling of excitement. Or they find themselves “hyper vigilant” at three in morning for no reason at all.
Drone pilots, though, their problem seems to be in those moments of boredom. Because, in those moments, they’re watching people closely and getting to know them intimately.
Power refers to it as “voyeuristic intimacy:”
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.
At this point, a drone operator’s brand of anguish has officially entered into the truly bizarre. It’s one thing for a ground pounder to pull a trigger at the enemy during an ambush and then return to base. It’s quite the other when that enemy is recognizable, when he has a wife and kids.
The strike itself is where most journalists seem to dedicate their time, that along with the mundane nature of a drone pilot’s life in comparison to an average grunt — killing from an easy chair, sleeping at home every night, etc.
“You shoot a missile, you kill a handful of people,” Missy Cummings, an MIT drone developer and former pilot, told Salon. “And then — this is what is strange — you go home. Your shift is over.”
But that’s not the whole truth.
Drone pilots don’t pull the trigger and leave, they pull the trigger and then linger to watch the results.
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.
Power then covers how operators developed the same kind of detached sense of the world necessary to do the job.
“Over time he found that the job made him numb,” writes Powers. “A ‘zombie mode’ he slipped into as easily as his flight suit.”