Page 2 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Drone war: Remote and personal
By Pratap Chatterjee
Schei's film also reveals the name of the US Air Force unit that does the CIA killing - the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. "From what I was able to gather, it was pretty much confirmed they were flying missions almost exclusively in Pakistan with the intent to strike," Michael Haas, another drone pilot, told Chris Woods at the Guardian.
Thanks to the film, Bryant made an unusual connection in the world of drone pilots - to the victims of Washington's drone campaign, previously just so many pixels on a screen to him. Invited to Belgium and Norway to speak at the premieres of Schei's film, he met with Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who
runs the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and has been leading a campaign to put a face - quite literally - on the death and destruction CIA drone strikes have caused in his country.
Faces of the victims
Up in the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northern Pakistan, a giant image of an orphan girl is now laid out next to the mud houses of the locals. She is nameless, but according to her photographer, Noor Behram, she lost her parents in a drone strike in 2010 in the village of Dande Darpa Khel. Her picture, the size of a soccer playing field, is a product of Akbar's planning with the help of JR, a French street artist, and Clive Stafford-Smith, the founder of Reprieve, a British human rights organization.
Their intent: to create images of the victims of Washington's drone wars that could be seen from the sky. Smaller images have, in fact, been placed on rooftops in Waziristan. Their target audience: drone pilots like Bryant, Haas, and Lopez who, searching for targets to kill, might just see the face of the child of one of their previous victims. (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps a tally of drone victims in Pakistan, offers a provisional figure of up to 957 civilians, including as many as 202 children, killed between 2004 and the present day.)
For the last five years, Akbar and Smith have worked tirelessly on similar projects. One of their first efforts was to reveal the name of the CIA station chief in Pakistan: Jonathan Banks. In December 2010, they brought a US$500 million lawsuit against him in that country, causing him to flee. The next summer they put together a collection of Noor Behram's photographs of the dead, as well as their relatives and neighbors, that was exhibited in London.
Last year, Akbar even made plans to take the relatives of drone victims to testify before the US Congress. Though he himself was denied entry to the country, he succeeded. Rafiq-ur-Rehman and his two children, nine-year-old Nabila-ur-Rehman and 13-year-old Zubair-ur-Rehman, did speak at a special hearing arranged by Representative Alan Grayson.
Now, with the unexpected support of a small but growing group of former drone pilots, a campaign against "targeted killings" might well take on a new life in the US. At least six other drone pilots have already spoken anonymously to Woods, largely confirming what Bryant and Haas have said publicly.
The strain of long-distance war
There is evidence that other drone pilots are also beginning to crack under the pressure of drone war. Two recent studies by the Air Force strongly suggest that Bryant's PTSD diagnosis is no anomaly, that no matter how far you may be from the battlefield, you never quite leave it.
Published in June 2011, the first study by Wayne Chappelle, Joseph Ouma, and Amber Salinas of the School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio concluded that nearly half of the drone pilots studied had "high operational stress". A number also had "clinical distress" - that is, anxiety, depression, or stress severe enough to affect them in their personal lives. The study attributed this to long "flying" hours and erratic shifts, but did not compare drone pilots to those in combat aircraft fighting above the battlefield.
A second study by Jean Otto and Bryant Webber of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, published in March 2013, compared drone pilots to those performing standard military missions. The level of stress, it found, was almost the same, a surprising conclusion for those who assumed that drone pilots were essentially video gamers.
"Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days," Otto told the New York Times. "They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don't do that. They get out of there as soon as possible."
Some believe that drone stress is significantly related to a major shortage of pilots for such planes. A Government Accountability Office report released in April tersely notes that "high work demands on RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] pilots limit the time they have available for training and development and negatively affects their work-life balance".
Speaking from the heavens
There is, however, likely to be far more to it than that. After Bryant came forward, for instance, Heather Linebaugh, a former drone intelligence analyst, broke her silence, too.
Writing in the Guardian in late December, she summed up the largely unpublicized failure of Washington's drones this way: "What the public needs to understand is that the video provided by a drone is not usually clear enough to detect someone carrying a weapon, even on a crystal-clear day with limited cloud and perfect light. The feed is so pixelated, what if it's a shovel, and not a weapon? We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian's life all because of a bad image or angle." (And she didn't even point out that, in the areas being attacked in Pakistan and Yemen, carrying a weapon is commonplace and not necessarily a sign that you are a "terrorist".)
Linebaugh explained that, under these circumstances, a "mistake" had terrible consequences, and not just for those erroneously targeted, but even for the pilots.
"How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?" She added, "When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience."
And don't count on Linebaugh being the last drone analyst to speak out, either. Whether future Rene Lopezes ever actually look down from the computerized "heavens" and see the picture of that little Pakistani orphan girl, we already know that they will see horrors that are likely to prove hard to absorb.
It is this third face of war, along with those of the "enemy" and innocent victims, which provides the crucial evidence that the drone project, Obama's remote control campaign, is a failure; that it is not clinical but bloody and riddled with error; that it creates enemies even as it kills others; that it is, above all, no more a video game for those who fly the planes and loose the missiles than it is for those who die in distant lands.
Pratap Chatterjee, a TomDispatch regular, is executive director of CorpWatch and a board member of Amnesty International USA. He is the author of Halliburton's Army and Iraq, Inc.