A Day in the Life of a Drone Pilot
According to AFP, between August of 2008 and last week, 37 U.S. drone attacks killed 360 people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The pilots who operate the drones that kill insurgents along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border commute to work from subdivisions in southeastern Nevada. They might sit down to breakfast with their families before going to war; they might take their kids to school, discussing Hannah Montana or bullies or Twilight or multiplication tables on the way. The pilots have offices in air-conditioned single-wide trailers on Nellis or Creech Air Force bases. Their shifts are twelve hours long. The incongruity between the pilots’ quotidian lives and their sensory and psychic transportation to combat zones 7,500 miles away is so vertiginously stark that some drone squadron commanders use tricks to keep the realities from mingling: they make their pilots wear flight suits and impose a communications blackout during missions.
At the beginning of their shifts, in front of screens, in their specially outfitted trailers, the drone pilots watch their robot planes take off, mainly from Afghan airbases. The drones—the Predator or the Reaper—continuously transmit live video: pilots will see the granular details of local topography and geology; they will see not just villages and social gatherings but faces, expressions. As the drones fly over tribal areas in, say, Waziristan or the Northwest Frontier Province, the pilots may see terrain that no American has seen before. They should be able to precisely end human life there: the drones’ laser-guided hellfire missiles can reportedly kill groups of people chatting in the street without damaging surrounding buildings.
Drones fly several kinds of missions. A lone pair may be charged with finding and killing individual insurgents. Some drones linger for consecutive days over a certain area to discern “pattern of life” that will expedite future kills. (The pilot or pilots who document the pattern may themselves kill the people who have lived according to it.) Drones also fly in support of infantry soldiers who are tracking down and engaging insurgents. Then the polarities of experience become impossible to assimilate. The soldiers are there, in mortal danger, holding their own guns. The drone pilots are specters, not even inferable from their actions. For them, the sun is in the wrong place.
During hostilities, pilots or their commanders speak in real time to senior officials and international-law specialists at command centers around the world. Authorization to strike can be obtained in several minutes or less. This hierarchy is known as the “kill chain,” and in the last decade it has been drastically shortened (during the first Gulf War, authorization often took hours).
After drone pilots engage the enemy—after they “put a missile on a target”—their aircraft do something that is historically odd: they hover, inertly. Manned fighter planes make a lethal pass or two and then turn around; ground troops kill the enemy and secure territory or engage and retreat. Drones just stay there, aloft: their streaming images remain valuable.
The virtual pilots, meanwhile, stay seated in the conditioned air of their Nevada trailers, observing people and buildings and cars exploding and burning. They may see their victims disintegrate, bleed, burn, writhe, die. The military says that hellfire missiles fired by drones cause very few civilian casualties, but it happens: drone pilots may watch their missiles kill children. They may also see U.S. soldiers getting hurt or dying. They can’t help; they can’t turn away. The action in their offices is internal: chemical changes in bloodstreams, elements of future nightmares collecting themselves.
After combat, fighter pilots and infantry soldiers go back to their bases. They remain in the region of the killing, surrounded by the people who have done it with them. Drone operators close the trailer door and drive home.
“You see Americans killed in front of your eyes,” a drone pilot recently told the author P.W. Singer, “and then you have to go to a PTA meeting.” “You are going to war for 12 hours,” another pilot told Singer, “shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car, drive home, and within twenty minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”
Air Force commanders have said that it is harder, psychologically, to lead a squadron of drone operators fighting remotely than to lead a squadron of fighter pilots in a theater of war. Combat at a 7,000-mile remove reportedly results in more PTSD than fighting on the ground. Some commanders have asked chaplains, psychologists, and psychiatrists to counsel drone pilots. But the pilots don’t get enough help, at least in part because, despite the Bronze Stars they earn, they feel unentitled to it.