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 information, few 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.