The Guilty Conscience of a Drone Pilot Who Killed a Child

By Conor Friedersdorf

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?"

As I argued yesterday, criticizing Obama's speech in Newtown, it is often appropriate to choose freedom rather than minimize the number of innocent deaths in a society. Nearly all of us benefit from living in a country where we enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and many of us use it to drink alcohol, drive cars, collect guns, and allocate some of our antibiotics to growing beef that's made into delicious double-cheeseburgers.

We accept that properly valuing freedom sometimes lessens our safety.

Yet our zeal to minimize deaths from terrorism -- something far less likely to kill any one of us than cars or booze or guns -- is so great that our government unintentionally but predictably kills many hundreds of innocents abroad, including scores of children, so that we may kill the "militants" in their midst. How many innocents die? What is the likelihood the average "militant" we kill would successfully do us harm if left alive? The executive branch refuses to give us the best information it has pertaining to those questions, and we don't much care to press for it. Nor do we care to create more powerful disincentives to avoid dead innocents by being more transparent. Forget giving up drone strikes. We aren't even willing to conduct them in accordance with previously held ideas about how to ensure lethal force isn't unaccountable and abused.

Moreover, it is possible that America's drone strikes create more enemies than they kill. Most of the potential blowback will unfold over a longer time horizon than the average politician ever considers.

But we already know that the number of terrorists created isn't zero:

A Pakistani-born man wanted to avenge the deaths of U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan by blowing up a New York City landmark but lacked the money and materials to carry out the plan, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert said at a bail hearing that Raees Alam Qazi, 20, researched bomb-making techniques on Internet sites affiliated with al Qaeda, including one using Christmas tree lights, and the FBI recorded phone calls and conversations linking Qazi to a purported "lone wolf" plot. "He fully intended to do this, and thankfully he didn't have enough money," Gilbert said. Referring to casualties in U.S. drone attacks, she added: "He wants to avenge those deaths and kill people."

Arguing against waterboarding, Jim Manzi once wrote, "We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage -- not foolhardy and unsustainable 'principle at all costs,' but reasoned courage -- from its citizens." We ought to be courageous enough to "risk" reforms to our drone program that make it subject to military rules; more transparent; and less likely to kill several times more children than were slain in a massacre we properly regard as horrific. Foreign children are no less deserving of life than our own.

Of course, the same is true of innocent foreign adults ...

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/the-guilty-conscience-of-a-drone-pilot-who-killed-a-child/266453/