Last December Brandon Bryant, a six-year USAF veteran, told Der Spiegel of his experiences as a sensor operator in a team controlling a Predator over Iraq and Afghanistan from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and then Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. One day he wrote in his diary:
“On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”
When he left the Air Force he was handed a sheet informing him that all the missions in which he been involved had killed a total of 1, 626 people. This morning he appeared on NBC’s Today programme to describe in detail one of those missions.
You can watch the interview with Richard Engel here, but since no transcript is available here is the substance of what he said:
‘I operated the camera, so like zoom in, zoom out, make sure that everyone can see a good picture, make sure it’s in focus, guide the laser, shoot the spot-tracker…
‘We’re just sitting there and like OK, it’s obvious these guys are obviously bad guys…
‘The guy in the back hears the sonic boom [from the missile] when it reaches him, and he runs forward. We’re actually told to get the two guys in front, worry about the guy in the back later, follow him to wherever he goes. The guy in the back runs forward between the two and we strike all three of them. And the guy that was running forward, when the smoke clears, there’s a crater there, he’s missing his right leg.
‘And I watch this guy bleed out and it’s clear enough that I watch him and he’s grabbing his leg and he’s rowing, like, I can almost see the agony on this guy’s face and eventually this guy becomes the same colour as the ground that he bled upon…
‘You know how people say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks, artillery, well, artillery doesn’t see this, artillery doesn’t see the result of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us because we see the before action and then after.
‘And so I watched this guy bleed out, I watched the result of, I guess collectively it was our action, but ultimately I’m the responsible one who guides the missile in.’
He was also interviewed on CBC Radio earlier this year: listen here. From 6.20 Bryant describes what happens in the 14-16 second interval between firing a missile and hitting the target: he says that if something happens – like a child running into the frame – there’s an 8 second window to use the laser to divert the missile. From Spiegel:
With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.
Second zero was the moment in which Bryant’s digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.
Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
“Did we just kill a kid?” he asked the man sitting next to him.
“Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the pilot replied.
“Was that a kid?” they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
Then, someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. “No. That was a dog,” the person wrote.
They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?