The Guilty Conscience of a Drone Pilot Who Killed a Child

May his story remind us that U.S. strikes have reportedly killed many times more kids than died in Newtown -- and that we can do better.

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Reuters

This isn't an argument against drone strikes -- it is a critique of the way that they're presently carried out.

It begins with a tragedy.

The German newspaper Der Spiegel has published a moving profile of an American drone pilot who flew armed, remotely piloted missions over Afghanistan, one country where the War on Terror is actually declared. Drone strikes there are run under the supervision of Air Force officers operating under military procedures. For those reasons, it is better hedged against abuse than the drone program run elsewhere by the CIA. The subject of the profile nevertheless lamented the fact that he sometimes had to kill "good daddies," that he watched targets so thoroughly via drone surveillance that he even attended their funerals -- interesting, that -- and that as a consequence of the job he collapsed with stress-induced exhaustion and developed PTSD.

One traumatic incident stands out in his memory:

There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs .... 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... 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?

The United States kills a lot of "dogs on two legs." The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported last August that in Pakistan's tribal areas alone, there are at least 168 credible reports of children being killed in drone strikes. Presidents Bush and Obama have actively prevented human-rights observers from accessing full casualty data from programs that remain officially secret, so there is no way to know the total number of children American strikes have killed in the numerous countries in which they've been conducted, but if we arbitrarily presume that "just" 84 children have died -- half the Bureau's estimate from one country -- the death toll would still be more than quadruple the number of children killed in Newtown, Connecticut.

Yet Obama has never remarked as he did Sunday that "as a nation, we are left with some hard questions" as a result of those deaths. He has never mused that "if there's even one step we can take to save another child or another parent... then surely we have an obligation to try." He's never asked, "Are we really prepared to say that dead children are the price of our freedom?"

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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