In the US's shadow war against terrorism, drone warfare is still largely cloaked in secrecy and takes place out of the spotlight, in remote areas of faraway countries. We normally know little of the victims, but even less about the people who remotely pull the triggers on these deadly robot weapons.
But in a profoundly disturbing profile in the German magazine Der Spiegel, we get to meet a drone operator, and see the toll this type of conflict takes on those who do the killing.
Brandon Bryant was a US air force drone operator who remotely piloted unmanned aircraft from a base in New Mexico. Drone aircraft have become the signature – and most controversial – weapon in the US's ongoing "war on terror".
One incident seared into Bryant's memory was the time he was copiloting a Predator drone more than 10,000 km away, above Afghanistan. He got an order to destroy a mud house he had on his live infrared video display. He pointed a laser sight while the pilot fired a Hellfire missile, and counted down the 16 seconds till impact. Just before the missile hit, he says, he saw a child walk around the corner of the house.
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?
Bryant says he remembers the first time he fired a missile, killing two men.
As Bryant looked on, he could see a third man in mortal agony. The man's leg was missing and he was holding his hands over the stump as his warm blood flowed onto the ground – for two long minutes. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, and he called his mother.
"I felt disconnected from humanity for almost a week," he says.
He preferred to work night shifts, because it was daytime in Afghanistan.
In the spring, the landscape, with its snow-covered peaks and green valleys, reminded him of his native Montana. He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children.
When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. "I saw them having sex with their wives. It's two infrared spots becoming one," he recalls.
He observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
"I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot." He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. "They were good daddies," he says.
Bryant has left the air force and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He's out of work, living with his mother and too broke to pay the fees to get his remaining possessions out of storage. He's having trouble sleeping, but claims a minor victory: "I haven't been dreaming in infrared for four months."
Learn more: Read the entire chilling Der Spiegel article here.
Sources: Avaaz, Spiegel