What I Learned While Hunting Humans

And how our drone policy led to the deaths of seven children

Illustration of clouds forming a skull shape
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Hunting wasn’t a part of my childhood. The closest I got was the time my uncle taught my brother and me to shoot a .22 at the windows of some decrepit building on his land in Georgia. He showed us how to put the stock in the crook of our shoulder so the kick wouldn’t surprise us (though it still did; I’d have sworn my shoulder was dislocated); how to focus on the front sight, not the target; and how to softly squeeze the trigger to shoot. Between the two of us and half a box of ammo, I think we took out a single window. But he had planned for this: The building was at the back of his property, with only woods behind it, so in the (evidently) likely event that we missed, no harm would come from the stray bullets.

I didn’t learn to actually hunt until I was an adult. I was taught how much patience it requires, how important it is to stay calm, how if you let the adrenaline take over, it’ll probably screw up your aim. I was taught that missing is bad, shame-worthy even, and that being a marksman is something to be proud of. And I was taught to count my kills, to make sure I recorded them, so that others would know and celebrate my accomplishments.

I was taught these things in my training in the Air Force. I was taught these things so that I could hunt humans. On August 29, when the United States fired a missile that was supposed to stop an ISIS-K attack at the Kabul airport during our withdrawal—but turned out to be an error that killed 10 civilians—this is what it was doing: hunting.

I’ve never operated a drone, but I have hunted from on high, in gunships, thousands of feet above the earth. I was an airborne cryptologic linguist, tasked with providing threat warning to the planes I was on and to the troops on the ground. Threat warning takes many forms, but it often results in the elimination of that threat. Sometimes that meant being a part of a team effort to kill, one crewmember among many who collectively contributed to death. Sometimes I simply confirmed information so that the order to fire could be given. Sometimes I gave the order. I don’t know if all of these kills belong to me. I just know that I belong to all of them.

Like the operator of the drone on August 29, I’ve hunted for hours on end, collecting information, searching for a target, hoping it would come out of hiding. On all of these missions, once we found our target, we needed permission to engage it. Sometimes that permission had to come from a colonel at a base hundreds of miles away, over the Afghan mountains. Other times, it only had to come from the joint terminal attack controller, or JTAC, the guy on the ground who was being shot at and who had been entrusted with the power to kill those who were threatening him.

Ostensibly, drone strikes also require permission. The Obama administration liked to say that every drone strike needed the White House’s approval. That’s not true. During my time in the Air Force, only drone strikes in certain places—such as Somalia, Yemen, and sometimes Pakistan—required a presidential green light. Strikes in Afghanistan could be approved at much lower levels.

I’d like to take a moment to address the language used here. A drone “strike.” A strike being an attack, a hit, a use of force. How innocuous. The name of the missile that was used on August 29, a Hellfire, is a little scarier, perhaps, but these terms have become such a part of modern life that we’ve grown inured to any fear they were intended to invoke.

On one of the missions I flew in Afghanistan, a Hellfire was launched into a building. After the dust cleared, the JTAC went inside to assess the damage. When he got on the radio to tell us what had happened, he was laughing so hard he could barely talk, but he managed to choke out a description of what he saw.

“Oh man, the guy’s leg is stuck to the wall!”

Apparently, the Hellfire had blown a man to pieces, and the heat from the explosion had melted his leg to the side of the building.

On August 29, someone, or more likely a few someones, approved the firing of one of these missiles into the middle of a city, where it killed seven children. I wonder if Armin, or Ayat, or Binyamen, or Faisal, or Farzad, or Malika, or Sumaya, wound up with one of their legs stuck to a wall.

My Air Force record says I’ve killed 123 people, officially designated as “123 insurgents EKIA” (enemy killed in action). This might sound like a lot, but I assure you, when it comes to Afghanistan, it isn’t. As far as I know, none of them was a child. The men I most vividly remember killing, the ones I could see and hear before making the decision that ended their lives, were clearly just that: men. Adults. Most of them were actively fighting coalition forces. But some of the people I killed, the ones we couldn’t see clearly, could in fact have been kids—at least by the modern, Western definition of a kid as someone under the age of 18. Were they the enemy? When I killed them, were they in action?

The U.S. government has not, to my knowledge, ever publicly defined the criteria for a military-age male, or MAM. Some sources say 16 and older, some say 15, but in reality, during combat, a MAM is any male deemed to be a threat. This definition isn’t unreasonable: If someone is threatening you in a war zone, then trying to get them before they can get you is a reasonable reaction. But it also has the added convenience of turning children into men. Under the counting system that the Obama administration used during the time I served, virtually any male who died in a strike was counted as a combatant.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tells a different story, using different math. It reports that since January 2015, there have been at least 13,072 strikes in Afghanistan alone. The bureau estimates that 4,000 to 10,000 individuals were killed in these strikes, and that at least 300 of them were civilians. Somewhere from 66 to 184 of those 300 are estimated to have been children. I’m sure that some of these children were military-age males who were active combatants. This happens. Some 15-year-old Afghan boys can shoot a Kalashnikov as well as any adult. But this is the exception, not the rule; most of the Taliban are grown men.

The seven children killed on August 29 were not in this category. We now know that none of them, nor the three adults also killed in the strike, was even remotely associated with the enemy. No—these people were killed because of an age-old combination of fear and faith.

When we make the decisions to carry out these strikes, we do it based on what we call “intelligence.” But our intelligence is all too often heavily reliant on our fear of the enemy and our faith in our prowess as hunters. We have convinced ourselves that we know who’s good, who’s bad, and who deserves to die. We trust that we can’t miss. When we inevitably do, then fine, we say our mea culpas and promise to be more careful. But we know, deep down, that the ends justify the means. We wholeheartedly believe that our intelligence is so good, our weapons so accurate, and our mission so righteous that anyone who gets caught in the crossfire, or the Hellfire, is worth it. Even kids.

Now, I’m not some peacenik naïf alleging that we should never kill anyone without 100 percent confidence that they’re scheming to kill us. I understand just how rare that level of assuredness is, having killed my fair share of people without anything approaching certitude that their death would save anyone else. I also understand that figuring out who, precisely, in a city of 6 million people, is not only plotting to detonate a second bomb that will kill another 200 people but also intending to carry out this mission in the next two days is unfathomably difficult. And I believe General Mark Milley’s assertion that this attack took place because “in a dynamic high-threat environment, the commanders on the ground had appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid.”

But maybe we should be asking for more than reasonable certainty, a condition that requires the suppression of reasonable doubt. Yes, the stakes were high—higher than they’ve been in a long time. But is firing a Hellfire—a 100-pound missile with a 20-pound warhead, a missile that melts legs to walls—into a city ever going to be worth it when we don’t truly know who’s on the receiving end of it?

It is when you’re afraid. And we, as a nation, are very afraid. We’re afraid of preteens. We’re afraid of men firing guns into the air at weddings. We’re so afraid of our own fear, so successfully terrorized, that the two key pieces of information we relied on to proceed with this strike were that the driver of the targeted vehicle might have talked with people in what we think was an ISIS safe house, and that he was driving a white Toyota Corolla, one of the most common cars in Afghanistan. When you’re as scared as we are, anyone can be threatening, even when you’re making that determination from a control room 7,000 miles away.

I still don’t know much about hunting, but this is what the government taught me: When you hunt humans for the U.S. military, there is no season, no expiring license, no maximum number of tags that you’re limited to. There is no concern about minimizing the suffering of legitimate targets, and there is no need for a clean kill. And while officially it might matter who else you accidentally hit, if the choice is between one American life or any number of Others, you take the shot, even if that means that for the rest of your life you’ll have to wonder how many kids you’ve killed.

The Pentagon has admitted the mistake we made on August 29 and announced plans to conduct a review of the botched strike to determine “the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future.” I hope that this investigation will lead to change. I’d like to believe that America will conduct fewer strikes like this in the future. But the truth is, I have reasonable certainty that the review, like the ones before it, won’t change a thing.