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The Real Story of a Drone Operator

Heather Linebaugh knows something few people do: What it’s really like to carry out a drone strike that results in extraordinary destruction and death. She shares that story in The Guardian, wishing that legislators who speak so casually about the program could understand the psychological impact it has.

I knew the names of some of the young soldiers I saw bleed to death on the side of a road. I watched dozens of military-aged males die in Afghanistan, in empty fields, along riversides, and some right outside the compound where their family was waiting for them to return home from the mosque.

The US and British militaries insist that this is an expert program, but it’s curious that they feel the need to deliver faulty informationfew or no statistics about civilian deaths and twisted technology reports on the capabilities of our UAVs. These specific incidents are not isolated, and the civilian casualty rate has not changed, despite what our defense representatives might like to tell us.

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. This makes it incredibly difficult for the best analysts to identify if someone has weapons for sure. One example comes to mind: “The feed is so pixelated, what if it’s a shovel, and not a weapon?” I felt this confusion constantly, as did my fellow UAV analysts. We always wonder if we killed the right people, if we endangered the wrong people, if we destroyed an innocent civilian’s life all because of a bad image or angle.

It’s also important for the public to grasp that there are human beings operating and analysing intelligence these UAVs. I know because I was one of them, and nothing can prepare you for an almost daily routine of flying combat aerial surveillance missions over a war zone. UAV proponents claim that troops who do this kind of work are not affected by observing this combat because they are never directly in danger physically…

Recently, the Guardian ran a commentary by Britain’s secretary of state for defence, Philip Hammond. I wish I could talk to him about the two friends and colleagues I lost, within a year of leaving the military, to suicide. I am sure he has not been notified of that little bit of the secret UAV program, or he would surely take a closer look at the full scope of the program before defending it again.

This is little different from the experiences of soldiers on the ground, especially those who are in close combat operations. Many of them never recover from the experience.

Comments

  1. says

    Yet there are people who will step up to defend the use of drone strikes, touting how effective they are. Trust the government. Civilians shouldn’t criticize bc they don’t know what the government knows. They’re able to target just the terrorists.
    Riiiight.

  2. seraphymcrash says

    I read recently that studies of PTSD found that it isn’t necessarily danger that causes PTSD; it can also be caused by “moral injury”.

    This is very concerning to me as my brother just started his training to become a drone operator, and he’s super excited about it.

  3. John Hinkle says

    I don’t support drone usage, but I wonder why, with today’s high def camera technology and the high price tag of these drones, they can’t get clear pictures/video.

  4. The Other Lance says

    @John Hinkle. I have no data to go on, but I’d guess it has to do with bandwidth between the UAV and ground station. No matter how high def the camera, you gotta push the bits through a probably narrow communications channel.

  5. tbrandt says

    @John Hinkle: Also, no amount of technology can repeal the laws of physics. The resolution of the camera is set by either the size of the aperture or by atmospheric turbulence (the same physics that makes the stars twinkle). For a drone a couple of km away, and using rough assumptions about the quality of the optics and atmosphere, that sets the top resolution as a few, maybe as many as 10, cm. It would certainly be worse on a hot day in the desert (imagine the air shimmering above a road). It could be hard to tell the difference between a gun and a shovel if you blur it out like that.

  6. Michael Heath says

    I think we need to be very skeptical and demanding of information regarding the use of drones. However I also think we need to be constantly evaluating how our actions compare to prior results in terms of reducing overall violence, including parsing out trends in collateral casualties.

    In addition we should also measure the blowback effect; we know that certain actions now increase the likliehood of bad results later. Creating new blowback effects might be the best option of a set of only bad options, but we shouldn’t ignore this but instead measure it.

    One compelling reason to consider drones is if this approach results in a net reduction in violence and the demand for blowback. I don’t know if drones reduce these rates or not, I think they might. But I also strongly suspect we’re undercounting the damage done by drones now and in the long-term. But it is a compelling alternative to other violent methods of conflict resolution.

    I’m just finishing up a biography on Woodrow Wilson, where his voice still cries out in the wilderness. And that’s the best diplomatic approaches to avoiding armed conflicts altogether, where his arguments remain prescient.

  7. Wylann says

    I thought all they had to do was say ‘enhance’ to the computer, and the image becomes magically crystal clear and they can identify the exact person with a drone at 40k feet.

    You mean Hollywood lied to us?

    Bloody liberals lying to cover the military.

    Waitaminnit…..

  8. John Hinkle says

    TO Lance:

    I have no data to go on, but I’d guess it has to do with bandwidth between the UAV and ground station. No matter how high def the camera, you gotta push the bits through a probably narrow communications channel.

    Yeah, but couldn’t they use an error-correcting modem? :)

    tbrandt:

    For a drone a couple of km away, and using rough assumptions about the quality of the optics and atmosphere, that sets the top resolution as a few, maybe as many as 10, cm.

    If that were the case, wouldn’t they make drone strikes contingent on better optical resolutions? But then, this is the U.S. we’re talking about, so scratch that.

  9. Konradius says

    I’ve often compared the drone program with the terminator from the movies.
    Now, in addition to being completely underpowered and ludicrously immobile we also learn the terminator is the best in recognizing friend or foe and in minimizing collateral damage.

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