What it’s like to be a drone operator


Heather Linebaugh is someone who operated killer drones in Afghanistan and she writes about what it was like.

Whenever I read comments by politicians defending the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator and Reaper program – aka drones – I wish I could ask them a few questions. I’d start with: “How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?” And: “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?” Or even more pointedly: “How many soldiers have you seen die on the side of a road in Afghanistan because our ever-so-accurate UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] were unable to detect an IED [improvised explosive device] that awaited their convoy?”

Few of these politicians who so brazenly proclaim the benefits of drones have a real clue of what actually goes on. I, on the other hand, have seen these awful sights first hand.

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.

But here’s the thing: I may not have been on the ground in Afghanistan, but I watched parts of the conflict in great detail on a screen for days on end. I know the feeling you experience when you see someone die. Horrifying barely covers it.

The UAVs in the Middle East are used as a weapon, not as protection, and as long as our public remains ignorant to this, this serious threat to the sanctity of human life – at home and abroad – will continue.

It should not be surprising that she reports colleagues who have committed suicide.

War dehumanizes people.

Comments

  1. says

    I notice that she took a very very cowardly route to avoid owning any of the war crimes she committed – she writes about seeing people crawling with their legs blown off as if it’s some kind of misfortunate thing that just sort of, you know, happened but the implication is that she pulled the fucking trigger. I read it as an article written by a monster, asking us to feel sympathy for what a tough time she’s having with what she did. Well, there are probably other jobs she could have taken. Or been unemployed and not killed anyone. Then, maybe, she’d be a bit entitled to my sympathy.

    As I commented once in Brayton’s blog: the hippies who spat on returning soldiers and called them “Baby Killers!!” were right. But many of them were draftees and arguably did not choose to wear the uniform. That is not the case with the current crop of killers. We should not be cheering these people on – they are traitors to their class, and to their species.

  2. says

    I just have to spit this out of my mouth: “UAV analysts” is Orwellian… You know, as if the people who fly killer robots, line up the crosshairs on people, and pull the trigger are – “analysts” It sounds so…. un-threatening. Seeing these awful sights firsthand, if you happen to be on the ground during one of them, is a whole lot different than seeing it through a television screen while you’re sitting in a comfortable chair drinking a Starbucks. Pooooooooooooooor cowardly killer!!!! And now they’ve got psychological trauma?! Quick, someone call the WHaaaaaaaambulance!!!

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus Ranum @1 and @2: Wow, talk about perspective. You apparently only see a monster, asking to be cheered on (?), or asking for sympathy (?). I see someone (monster or not) providing valuable information, not just about the horror of drones, but also about their severe limits as weapons, contrary to the government bullshit. We need more like her speaking out.

  4. Al Dente says

    It’s popular among certain liberals to condemn anyone with the slightest connection with the military. This outrage allows them to feel superior to people about whom they know next to nothing. Posts 1 and 2 are prime examples of this phenomenon.

  5. says

    I see someone (monster or not) providing valuable information, not just about the horror of drones, but also about their severe limits as weapons, contrary to the government bullshit. We need more like her speaking out.

    There are plenty of people who are speaking out against the geopolitical side-effects and lack of military effectiveness of drone warfare. They don’t need to be war criminals in order to gain their credibility, nor does an “insider” view of a military disaster substantially help, when it’s already been more than adequately explained from the outside.

  6. says

    It’s popular among certain liberals to condemn anyone with the slightest connection with the military. This outrage allows them to feel superior to people about whom they know next to nothing. Posts 1 and 2 are prime examples of this phenomenon.

    Are you perhaps referring to my military experience? Please, say on. This could be amusing.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    There are plenty of people who are speaking out…

    And who’s listening apart from the choir? An “insider” might reach people who reflexively dismiss arguments from others. I’ve met plenty of those on some supposedly progressive sites. The more voices from more sources, the better.

  8. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    An “insider” might reach people who reflexively dismiss arguments from others.

    Until she can at least take responsibility for what she’s clearly done, rather than hiding behind the passive voice, she’s no better than Hugo Schwyzer profiting off tales of sleeping with students and attempting to murder his girlfriend.

  9. lanir says

    It’s my personal opinion that the path to making this stop is going to have to involve talking to monsters. It’s very satisfying to think that the day will come when all the monsters pay for what they’ve done but in reality that doesn’t appear possible. If you focus too much on punishing monsters, you end up creating other monsters to do it. Oh sure they’re “good” monsnters but they aren’t knights in shining armor.

    I realize this excuse seems overused to let any manner of villain off without consequences (the Bush and Obama presidencies have been littered with examples of this) but I think the reality is more like a mob prosecution. You need to get some of the middle guys to turn so you can get all the big fish. I think one of our greatest problems currently as a country is we’re letting all the big fish get away no matter what they do because they’re too “important”. Certainly “nobility” often sees itself this way.

    It’s enough to make me entertain thoughts of being a member of the “voting peasantry”. It’s a better lot than earlier peasants but it highlights that equality isn’t based on documents signed before your grandparents were born. It’s based on the constant struggle to keep anyone with flexible morality and an advantage from using you to get ahead while offering nothing in return.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    dysomniak @8:

    Until she can at least take responsibility for what she’s clearly done, rather than hiding behind the passive voice, she’s no better than Hugo Schwyzer profiting…

    So what she has to say is worthless unless it’s accompanied by…what? A level of contrition acceptable to you? I don’t think this sentence was particularly passive;

    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.

    Should she have written ‘I’ instead of ‘we’? Would that have sufficed?

  11. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    I take it then that you think Professor Schyzer has been treated horribly unfairly? And of course you’ll be campaigning to let other serial killers profit off their memoirs?

  12. richardrobinson says

    Evil isn’t something someone is, it’s something someone does. We are all capable of it, and we all cause some measure of harm throughout our lives. And, fun fact, good and evil don’t cancel out. Doing evil does not in any way hinder a person’s capacity to do good.

    Let’s put Heather, here, into a little more context. The economy sucks right now for anyone who isn’t already rich. She got a job that probably pays reasonably well, doesn’t require too much training, and was probably sold to her as a chance to help protect her country. She could quit, but the position would be quickly filled, and she’d be out of a job, likely with few other prospects in sight. Or she could tell us about what she’s doing and maybe, just maybe, this story will be part of the conversation that ends this program.

    But if it makes you feel better to paint this in black and white, and to dehumanize still more people, fill your boots.

  13. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Fuck the economic argument. I’ve been dirt poor my entire life, and I managed not to become a mass murderer.

  14. richardrobinson says

    Reading the article, it turns out she was a soldier and has since been discharged. And part of her job was to look out for troops on the ground.

    Still, that horrible thing that makes war possible: dehumanizing people. You are doing it.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    dysomniak @11: WTF? If you want her prosecuted as a war criminal I have no objections, though you really should start with Obama. We should listen to her anyway. As for profit, does she have a book deal? Really, I don’t know.

  16. Greg says

    Sorry about the small text. Anyone know how to make the text larger?

    Ground combat has been long described as “Long periods of boredom surrounding moments of sheer terror.” Drone operations can be described as “Long periods of boredom surrounding moments of nervousness”. Drone operators do not launch or land the drones–that is done by the people at the drone’s location. Drone operators rarely make the actual decision to fire the drone’s weapons. Drone operators are in no physical danger, but they can end the lives of dozens of people.

    In all US military operations, the list of goals are:
    1) Accomplish the mission
    2) Minimize US casualties
    3) Maximize enemy casualties/enemies captured
    4) Minimize collateral casualties (the military term for non-combatants that are hurt or killed. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these people are in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

    As long as drones accomplish the mission, keep pilots out of danger, and kill or capture a lot of bad guys, the US is willing to accept innocents getting killed, as long as the numbers don’t grow too large.

  17. Nick Gotts says

    I see someone (monster or not) providing valuable information, not just about the horror of drones, but also about their severe limits as weapons, contrary to the government bullshit. We need more like her speaking out. – Rob Grigjanis

    And what will the powers that be take as the message from this? “We need better tech!”, of course. The fundamental evil of drones (and the robot ground forces the military-industrial complex is developing just as fast as it can) is that they make it possible for the USA, and potentially other technoligcally advanced states, to launch aggression against much weaker countries while minimising the risk of politically expensive casualties to their own troops.

    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. – Heather Linebaugh

    Well, Heather, you could have said: “We can’t be sure that’s a group of enemy fighters, they might be non-combatants, don’t fire.”

    Also from the article:

    • Editor’s note: Heather Linebaugh does not possess any classified material and has honored her non-disclosure agreement since the time of her discharge.

    Well let’s all praise Heather Linebaugh! After all, honouring your non-disclosure agreement is so much more important than not participating in war crimes, or telling the full truth about them.

  18. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    And while we’re cheering for Heather Linebaugh, let’s not forget to to condemn Edward Snowden for not staying in the US to face charges. Whatever you do, don’t think about Chelsea Manning, who gave up her freedom to reveal war crimes she didn’t even commit.

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