A former US air force drone operator has described how he is haunted by his time as a "remote killer" functioning in "zombie mode" in missions over Afghanistan and Iraq that claimed more than 1,600 lives. Brandon Bryant, a retired airman who operated remote-controlled Predator aircraft from US bases in Nevada and New Mexico, offers a rare military insider's perspective on the US drone programme in an interview with GQ magazine.
In one episode that will increase controversy about allegations of civilian casualties, he described monitoring a drone strike on a mud compound in Afghanistan and seeing the figure of what he was certain was a child just before it was struck by a Hellfire missile. When he expressed those concerns to an intelligence observer overseeing the operation, the response came back: "Per the review, it's a dog". Bryant replayed the shot repeatedly on tape and said that he was certain it was a child, not a dog. The years of directing missiles by laser in so-called "terminal guidance" operations and watching their impact on the ground left him a broken man, he told the magazine in the profile entitled "Confessions of a Drone Warrior". When he quit the air force in 2011 after six years' service, he was presented with a list of achievements for his squadron's missions that counted the number of enemies killed in action as 1,626. "The number made me sick to my stomach," he said.
GQ called him a "21st century American killing machine". But Bryant has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that has been found to affect as many drone operators as in-combat aircrews. In grisly detail, he recalled the first time, aged 21, he targeted a lethal strike in early 2007 shortly after starting his deployment at Nellis air force base near Las Vegas as a "sensor operator". The three victims were walking along a dirt road in the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan when the instruction to fire came through from a commander who concluded that they were insurgents carrying weapons. After the Hellfire missile struck the three men, he followed the aftermath "in the white-hot clarity of infrared" on the screen in front of him. "The smoke clears, and there's pieces of the two guys around the crater," he said in the article to be published in the November issue. "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 colour as the ground he was lying on."
The publication of the interview comes amid renewed scrutiny on the human cost and legality of the American drone programme. The US this week rejected claims by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that some strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years could amount to war crimes. Washington has repeatedly defended the role of drones in targeting Islamist insurgents and terrorist groups.
While that international debate rages, the interview with Bryant throws a spotlight on the military personnel who conducted the programmes in Iraq and Afghanistan from US air force bases some 7,500 miles away. Bryant said he became numb to the remote-controlled killing as he operated from a padded cockpit chair, wearing a green flight suit while never taking off. He said his life has been plagued by drinking and depression since leaving the air force. But to the scorn of some former colleagues, he said he wanted to speak out about his experiences to show that the role of drone operators in war is "more than just a video game".
Asked to comment on the article, an American defence official said: "US counter-terrorism operations are precise, lawful and effective and the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists. "We take extraordinary care to make sure that our counter-terrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law and that they are consistent with US values and policy."