I was praised for saving imaginary lives, but 13 people I killed were real - ex-drone operator

The US military is relying more and more on drone warfare but could this modern weapon do more harm than good? Brandon Bryant, former drone operator in America's armed forces, shares his experience.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Brandon Bryant, who served in the U.S. Air Force as a drone operator, welcome to our show. It’s really great to have you with us, Brandon. 

Brandon Bryant: Hi, thank you for having me. 

SS: Brandon, both Obama and Trump have embraced drone warfare with strikes in Somalia and Yemen tripling in numbers in Trump’s first year in office. But the situation in these countries - Afghanistan is a prime example - never seems to improve. Can drones really change the course of a campaign? 

BB: No, drones definitely cannot change the course of anything, especially if they’re being misused as a tool. And that’s simply all that they are. And if we take away our ability to interact as human beings with one another we are never going to solve this crisis. 

SS: During your time in U.S. Air Force drones were tested as a new form of warfare. Now, even Islamic State have been using them in Iraq and Syria to devastating effect. Do drones have a potential to be as commonplace airplanes and helicopters, and will everyone embrace them at some point? 

BB: As this technology gets easier to manufacture you are going to see a lot more people utilising it. You can go to Best Buy in America and buy a quadcopter drone for less than a thousand dollars and you can watch YouTube videos of people putting stuff on these drones to make them even deadlier. So, you know, it really just takes a more moral, righteous and virtuous person to utilise this technology properly. But, obviously, what we’ve been seeing that none of these people who are using these things in warfare understand what virtuous or morals actually are. 

SS: Are we going to have, like, a  drone-on-drone combat from now on? Is this how wars are going to look like in the future? 

BB: Well, if you look at what’s happening with Japan and China, they’re already utilising this technology to fight over resources in the ocean. So it’s not unheard of that we are going to have cowards fighting cowards behind computer screens. 

SS: The biggest plus for using drones is that it saves American lives, nobody is put in the firing line. So how can this technology be bad when your side suffers no losses? 

BB: That’s actually the thing about warfare that people need to understand is that there’s a price to pay with going to war and if we take the human component out of it then there’s no actual price. And then we’ll just continue the cycle. It’s an endless cycle. And there needs to be men and women who train with honour and integrity who are willing to go onto the battlefield and interact with humans because that’s actually how battles are prevented. Usually we had people posturing one another. Back in World War II people didn’t fire to kill one another, only 20 percent people did. In today’s conflicts we have a 95% fire-and-kill rate and we wonder why we have people with psychological and mental problems that are coming back home from war and killing themselves. So this is just going to make this s*** even worse. 

SS: You have described the use of drones as a “cowardly” action , I get the view that distance warfare as dishonourable… 

BB: Correct. 

SS: But you can hardly describe homemade IEDs suicide attacks or children suicide being recruited to carry them honourable, right? Won’t you back drones knowing that your enemy would resort anything to inflict damage or kill your soldiers? 

BB: Just because our enemy does something dishonorable doesn’t mean that we need to continue being dishonorable ourselves. This is actually why codes of conduct and codes of honour were required for warriors back in ancient days. It wasn’t so our enemies could know what exactly we were doing but so that we had a structure and boundaries in what we were going to do. Wars aren’t fought against one another, they are fought for the people. And if you can set an example for the people as being better and noble and more honorable person people are going to side with you and then the enemy will lose their power. And that’s really what it comes down to: take away their ability to recruit, give the people who are suffering under these conflicts the ability to recover and feel safe. That’s the idea to win this war, not creating better weapons to kill one another. 

SS: But the point is that there have always been wars and there will always be wars and there’s nothing we can do about it really. So is winning the war less important than being honorable? 

BB: That is a poor excuse. Look at the leadership that we have today. Trump is a f*****g idiot and every single person of his administration are f*****g idiots. And all they ever do is just sit there and posturing and saying that we need to go to war and we need to go to war. Obama did the same f*****g thing. We need people who are actual decent human beings saying ‘enough is enough’. We have the ability to stop this. We are conscious living human beings, we are not f*****g animals. We need to stop acting like animals and actually be human with one another. 

SS: I salute you on this statement and I wish you run for President one day. I want to go back to how you become a drone operator. I’m just interested in the whole process. What’s the process for becoming one? What kind of people does this role attract? Or are soldiers just told that they are being transferred? 

BB: When I was in the service I was just transferred because of my aptitude scores. Let’s just take a look at the people that I worked with. Many of them were the lowest common denominator. When the U.S. military needed people to fill this positions they just asked a bunch of different careers to send us people and so the other careers sent us crème de la mediocrity, if you will, the worst of the worst, people who were rejected from other career fields because they couldn’t function in leadership positions. Pilots were moved into drones because they were medically unfit to fly their aircraft. They either couldn’t be aircraft commanders or squadron leaders so they were shoved into the programme. There were very few people that actually volunteered to be in this programme that were of any actual worth as human beings. So this type of society, I guess, within the military culture is sick and degraded. They are actually looked down upon by people who fly aircraft because we are flying remotely, they get to wear flight suits. It’s a mess. The whole thing is a mess. And they are just putting people there to fill positions because they don’t need qualification. 

SS: What is the training like? Do drone operators get taught just to kill or are they supposed to be able to tell when to pull the trigger and when to stay stealth? 

BB: It’s a three-months thing. We are told that we get the time to look at our target to make the discernment of whether we kill them or not. But the reality is that if you refuse to pull the trigger they’ll just take someone out of the seat and put someone in the seat who’s going to pull it for them anyway. And how the training works - we’re flying over the Nevada desert and we’re looking at rocks and than they’re saying: “Hey, we are going to pretend this rock over here is an enemy. Shine your laser at this enemy. Ok, three, two, one, rifle! 16 seconds - time of flight, alright, missile splashes, enemy’s killed, you’ve just won the war on terror. Let’s pack up and go home”. It’s just a bunch of imagination bulls***, that doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than to teach people basic toddler skills of hand-eye coordination. 

SS: I read that the operators schedules are pretty tough, and that most of the time you just spent hours looking at nothing - with the messed up sleep cycles and boredom, how sharp are the operators when the time comes to make a crucial decision? 

BB: This is kind of where the people that I used to work with were pissed off at me because I exposed the mental difficulties that we were having. We flew in my squadron eleven-and-a-half hour days because we couldn’t fly longer than the required crew rest according to Air Force regulations. And in a sense, many of us broke crew rest because we had due office work or even some of us couldn’t sleep. I was one of those people that couldn’t sleep so I really stopped sleeping. I did this thing called ‘the easy man sleep schedule’ where you sleep every four hours for 20 minutes and it really screwed me up. Physically I was tired all the time, I was exhausted. We had people drinking. We had this one guy who got into a car accident. He rolled his vehicle after drinking and he used the excuse that we was just tired from work and he got away with it. It’s just a mess, like, people in this world are incredibly messed up and they refuse to look at themselves and the problems that are going on with them and addressing them. 

SS: And then there’s, of course, the million-dollar question. You have first-hand experience of directing warheads at the desired objectives, tell me this - are drone strikes really that precise and surgical? 

BB: Well, if you’re looking at the accuracy of where the missile can hit, then yes. If you’re looking at the intelligence behind it and how we discern the information that we’re given and what targets are correct, then no.  In fact that’s we call secret compartmentalised information. The three-letter agencies that are working as customers behind the scenes don’t give the people who actually swing the metaphorical sword all the information. So they tell us where to swing the sword but when things go wrong and wrong people get killed we’re the ones who get blamed because they have all the intel and it’s just a big blame game. 

SS: Brandon, where does the drone operator intel come from? Who is giving you the instruction? How can soldiers be sure the information is on point - does anybody ever question it? 

BB: No, people don’t question it because that’s why it’s called compartmentalised. There are all sorts of different pieces of the puzzle and none of pieces are actually talking to one another except for what’s required. Knowledge is the modern currency. And so like dragons they hoard this currency and only give it out whenever they think it’s necessary for them to complete their mission and get more of that currency. It’s a weird kind of cycle. It doesn’t really get anywhere, especially with the agencies who have this rivalry with one another and they argue back and forth over who’s the better person or better agency or who’s cooler instead of getting the mission done and accomplishing it and finding an endgame for the whole thing. 

SS: Brandon, if you receive intel documenting terrorists but you look at the screen and think they aren’t terrorists, in most cases will that be down to faulty intelligence, or do you think drone operators are being deliberately misled? 

BB: That’s another part of the compartmentalised thing. Like, they only give us the information that we need in order to give them the best picture possible and to swing the sword - again, the metaphorical sword. While we can look at the person and they’ll say “follow this person” or “strike this person” we don’t get any more detail than that really. We can, but the details don’t really matter and we aren’t really sure of sources of anything. Though we’re being told that sources come from two places - either signals intelligence, imagery intelligence or human intelligence - we are not the ones who interact with that information. 

SS: How are these extrajudicial killings justified legally? Is it ok to kill someone on suspicion just because you’re at war, and can the war on terror be used in an instant, redefining your enemy to keep in those legal parameters? 

BB: This is where we get to the grounds of legality vs. morality. Everything the Nazis did was legal to them. Slavery in the United States was legal. The genocide of the native Americans in my country was legal, right? So where we have to come to the point is where’s the moral boundary we want to draw the line at. And that’s something that shouldn’t be left to the law. Law is just the framework for us to play and not black-and-white, yes or no, and every case is different. I don’t think that we should utilise any sort of technology or glorify any sort of technology that is utilised to kill another human being. We still need to see these people as humans, not as demons, because there is a reason why these people are angry and hateful. It’s not because of anything other than we’ve created this monster ourselves and we’ve become the monster they hate. 

SS: In case of civilian deaths of a result of a drone strike  - who’s held responsible? The drone operator, the commander who gives the order or the intelligence guys? 

BB: Really no one inside hold each other accountable. If someone screws up they just get a slap on their wrist and everything is ok. And that’s why you would see in the past, when drone strike happened someone like Obama or Brennan would blame the drone operators themselves for things that had gone wrong rather than the intelligence that was given because the CIA and all other agencies that are out there don’t want to take responsibility, they just want to point their fingers at other people and place the blame on others because they are perfect, they don’t make mistakes. It’s the operators that make mistakes. And that’s actually one of the reasons I started speaking out because the operators are just soldiers, and just following orders is not a good excuse of doing it. We aren’t the ones who have the ultimate responsibility in this, though, we do have responsibility in what we do. 

SS: Do you feel more responsible and more traumatised over your experience than soldiers who serve in artillery? And why is that? I mean, they launch missiles in the warzone, they have feelings, what’s so different about being a drone operator? 

BB: Well, here’s what you get in combat scenario vs. distant killing. And if we really want to take a look at it, violence and sex affect the same part of the human brain in the exact same way. And hand-in-hand combat is the most intimate you can get with someone. But as you increase distance from long-range assault rifles or small arms fire and you get into artillery you cease seeing a human target and see a target location, a target building and you forget about the human being that is a part of it. And if we look at something like WWII in the bombing of Dresden a lot of those guys just pushed bombs out of their aircraft and they were just hitting targets. But when they saw the devastation they caused and human beings that suffered many of them were institutionalised and the instances of PTSD amongst those people were severe. And when it comes to differences between an artillery operator and a drone operator, we see our victims. In fact, when we fire a missile, the missile sonic booms about 1.2 seconds after it comes off the rail. As the kinetic energy is lost through missile the sonic boom hits the target first so we can actually see the reaction of the target before the missile strikes. And I think, that does something to a human being and I’m speaking from experience and reflection rather than any sort of higher intelligence. So, you can draw you own conclusions in this but really when it comes down to a scene with people reacting in a very human way knowing that they are about to die, and killing them with the finger of God from half-a-world away is a very disturbing feeling. I would say that trauma is different across the board. Soldiers on the ground experience trauma like an earthquake or volcano erupting while we experience trauma as a form of erosion of ourselves in a very definitive sense. Even though it may be a slower process it is very effective in degrading who we feel like we should be. 

SS: You said that you were on Islamic State’s hit list, as well as on the hit list of a right-wing group in the United States. What makes a drone operator a target for extremes at home and abroad? 

BB: See, this is the strange thing. I was told that I was on the ISIS hit list by the FBI and Air Force Office of Special Investigation. And I’m not sure how true that is because I hope that people who see what I’m doing - I’m trying to build a bridge between us so that we can come to an endgame solution and stop killing one another. And this comes from a guy who did it, who’s made very grievous mistakes. And I think that the people back home those who hate me they don’t want to see anything other than the fear that they’re told. So they are just a bunch of idiots who want to be idiots. Even though I am the guy with the experience and I am the guy who’s done the reflection and I’ve done the work in order to get this information out there, they still think that I’m a traitor. Well, I can also say that the left call me a monster. So I’m not getting any preys from any group anywhere except for the people who’re actually doing the reflection of their job and are trying to come up with the solution to this issue. And I think, people who want to be violent they just want to be violent, they are just stupid. You know, any idiot can kill another idiot. It takes a better person to stop hurting another person ‘cause that’s where love and kindness come in. That’s where all these things are supposed to be utilised that you give love to someone when they are unlovable, you are kind to someone when they are not kind to you. It’s easy to be kind and loving to someone who’s kind and loving to you. But it really takes something special and a lot of effort to give that to people who, you thin, are not worth it. 

SS: Now, the Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as well as Faisal Shahzad who attempted a car bombing in Times Square back in 2010 justified their criminal actions with civilian casualties from American drone strikes in the Middle East. Do you feel that this drone war has produced more terrorists than it has killed? 

BB: Of course, it has produced more terrorists than it’s killed. A lot of these cultures over there are warrior cultures. They face their opponents on the battlefield. I grew up as a wrestler. And I know that in Iran at least wrestling is a sacred sport. In fact it’s the world’s oldest sport. So there’s a sense of honour and accomplishment with being at face with your opponent at the battlefield and even if you’re beaten there’s still a sense of honour. But when you’re utilising a technology that no one can fight back they are going to have to find another way to punish us in a sense that they feel is necessary. Even though they are wrong, I don’t agree with anything they are doing, but they are responding in a way that they feel like they can respond. And that’s the cycle of violence. Violence only begets violence. 

SS: Right now a drone is guided by operators, and you were one of them. But could the technology will be fully automated? Do you believe there will be robots that can kill humans? 

BB: Of course. When I was in Geneva I was the only American who showed up to this conference. We were determining the laws that are going to be created for the autonomous  warfare. And one of the guys who was a proponent of autonomous warfare said that robots can kill better than people can because there’s no emotion. And I’m thinking as someone who’s done it - do we really want faultless unemotional things that are able to just end a human being’s life indiscriminately? That’s the question for the people and that’s something that we we need to consider, because no matter what technology we use against someone else that technology can always be reversed and used against us. And that’s the balance of things, that’s the cycle. 

SS: I understand that you are not against drones as a tool, but you say that their use should be transparent. How can this be possible when you are at war, and keeping information classified may mean thousands of lives saved? 

BB: That’s one of the things that people are confused about where we have this possibility of things. But the reality of situation is that lives are being ended. When someone comes to me like ‘thank you for all the American lives you saved’ - that’s an invisible number, that’s imaginary. You know, if people want concrete actual fact I can tell you - I’ve killed thirteen people with missile strikes and there are 1626 unnamed enemies that we were killed in all the missions that I completed and I know that. I know that for a fact and I know. Each of these persons was a human being, they had a family, they had friends, they had lives and we ended them. Possibilities are endless when you come to the reality of things. And I’m not going to rely on a possibility when the actual evident truth of this technology being abused is sitting right in front of our goddamn faces. 

SS: Oh, well, Brandon, thanks for this amazing interview. Truly amazing interview. I wish you all the best with all your future endeavors. We were talking to Brandon Bryant who used to fly drones for the U.S. Air Force discussing the rising use of drones by the U.S. military and the dangerous implications of long-distance warfare. 

BB: Thank you.