“Chew ‘em up and Spit ‘em out”: The Drone Operator Edition

CianWestmoreland

Any sober look at the recent history of veterans in the United States can only lead one to wonder why men and women continue to enlist in the armed forces in the twenty-first century. There was Agent Orange in Vietnam, the effects of which were denied for decades by military administrators, despite an abundance of scientific evidence that many veterans’ illnesses were linked to exposure to the poison. Then there was the Gulf War Syndrome, a horrifying range of problems, many neurological, which arose among veterans subsequent to the 1991 Gulf War. Soldiers in that mission were told to bomb chemical factories, after which everyone on the ground was assured that when toxin alarms went off, they were malfunctioning.

During the protracted occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, many troops were redeployed against their will and in spite of the fact that they had already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of them took their own lives. National Guardsmen, who had enlisted to defend the homeland in the homeland, were sent abroad as well, and record percentages of them also committed suicide.

The problems suffered by veterans engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan persist. The PTSD victims continue to be plied with in some cases deadly cocktails of drugs officially intended to alleviate their psychological troubles but which have not in fact stemmed the tide of suicides. It is plainly written in black and white on the labels of many of the antidepressants and SSRIs being prescribed by the VA that such drugs lower the threshold to violence, yet possible connections between the drugs and the epidemic of veteran suicides are doggedly ignored.

StephenLewis

The latest episode in this scandalous chronology involves the young persons enlisted to work as assassins at a distance, lured in by generous salaries to kill people who never threatened them with death, under cover of what is dubiously claimed to be “just war”. There is currently a recruitment crisis in the drone program. Why? Because the US government cannot find enough people ready and willing to kill on command by pushing buttons on computer consoles on the other side of the planet from the so-called battlefields where the allegedly evil targets—suspected of possibly plotting a future possible terrorist attack—are said by anonymous analysts to hide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of the detainees were eventually exonerated of any connection whatsoever to violent extremist groups. How many of the suspects dispatched under authorization by President Barack Obama, whose policy it is to “kill don’t capture”, have also been innocent? They are fingered by the same forms of intelligence: HUMINT and SIGINT. Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. You do the math.

The government makes it sound as though the sole reason for the shortage of drone operators is that the job itself is taxing: the “long hours” and “fast pace” of the job are supposed to be the explanation for why remote-control killers are not re-enlisting once their initial contract term has expired. Needless to say, the government ignores claims to the effect that the true reason for some of these operators’ refusal to reenlist is that they have painfully learned what the job really entails and want nothing further to do with it. Some now claim that they wish they had never enlisted. If only they could travel back in time…

Thanks to the testimony of brave men such as Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, Cian Westmoreland, and Brandon Bryant, future prospective drone operators have been warned in no uncertain terms: you, too, may later conclude that you made an irrevocable mistake in doing what you were persuaded to do by commanding officers under cover of “just war”. (Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority?) Nothing is free, and if not now, perhaps later, the next generation of drone operators may, too, pay a heavy toll for acting against their conscience and suppressing the questions which arose in their minds before killing people who did not deserve to be summarily executed without trial.

Given all of this, each and every young person who is considering the career of professional killer in the service of the US government needs to view the below video before signing a contract which they may come later deeply to regret. Friends don’t let friends sign contracts which may burden their conscience for the rest of their lives:

MichaelHaas

http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=a_orig_dronepilots_151207

 

cropped-img_20150814_065628.jpg

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue

A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.