Portrait of a Drone Killer: 'I Have a Duty, and I Execute My Duty' (William Grigg)
Monday July 30th, 2012
One wonders if drone pilot Col. D. Scott Brenton listens to Louis Armstrong in the suburban Air National Guard Base in Syracuse from which he murders people 7,000 miles away.
"I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer," Brenton tells the New York Times. Drone operators see their intended targets "wake up in the morning, do their work, go to sleep at night," explains Dave, another high-tech murderer who killed from an office cockpit at Nevada's Creech Air Force Base and who now trains new recruits to the cyber-killer corps at New Mexico's Holloman Air Force Base.
When instructed to kill someone he has stalked from the air for a prolonged period, "I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy," Brenton insists. I have a duty, and I execute my duty." When the deed is done, he points out, nobody "in my immediate environment is aware of anything that has occurred."
"There was a good reason for killing the people that I did, and I go through it in my head over and over and over," insists another drone operator named Will, who -- like Dave -- served a deskbound "combat" tour at Creech and now trains others to do likewise at Holloman Air Base.
Like the soldier Bates in Henry V, it's sufficient for Will -- and others of his ilk -- to render obedience to their Leader, confident that "if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." The more concise and notorious formula, of course, is: We are only obeying orders. Besides, drone operators (who insist on being called "combat pilots") are carrying out an indispensable function by picking off Afghan "militants" -- or at least those "suspected" of such tendencies -- who unreasonably resent the presence of foreign military personnel in their country.
The New York Times profile is part of a campaign by the state-aligned media to "humanize" the state functionaries who murder by remote control -- and to normalize this mode of mass murder as drones become part of the domestic apparatus of surveillance, regimentation, and repression. Readers are invited to share the anguish of these conflicted people, who for reasons of duty have to do terrible but necessary things.
In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt offered a glimpse into the mindset of SS personnel who were given a somewhat similar assignment. To carry out their killing errand, she explained, something had to be done "to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering."
"The trick used by Himmler ... was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around, as it were, in directing them toward the self," Arendt recounted. "So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!"
Not everybody attached to the Regime's Cyber-Killing Corps is haunted by the horrors he has inflicted on defenseless people halfway around the world. In a 2009 U.S. Naval Academy lecture, Dr. P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution made reference to what he called "predator porn" -- footage of drone attacks proudly circulated by the people who committed those acts. In a typical offering, Dr. Singer relates, "A Hellfire missile drops, goes in, and hits the target, followed by an explosion and bodies tossed into the air." Singer described one clip of that kind, sent to him by a joystick-wielding assassin, that "was set to music, the pop song 'I Just Want to Fly' by the band Sugar Ray."
"It's like a videogame," one deskbound drone jockey told Singer. "It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it's f****g cool."
Singer describes asking a drone pilot "what it was like to fight insurgents in Iraq while based in Nevada. He said, 'You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants, and then you get in the car and you drive home. And within 20 minutes, you're sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework." Meanwhile, somewhere in Iraq (or Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, or another country yet to be identified), other families are desperately looking through the rubble of their own homes in search of survivors.
Although drone strikes occur daily, most Americans pay little heed to them -- beyond occasionally taking inconsolable offense when a dissident publicly describes them as acts of murder, and insults the Dear Leader by daring to compare him to less prolific killers.
This may change soon: As the Times points out, the Pentagon -- driven by "a near insatiable demand for drones" -- is training hundreds of operators to join the corps of more than 1,300 currently stationed at more than a dozen bases across the country. Surveillance drones operated by domestic police agencies are already plying the skies above us. Those robot aircraft can be upgraded to airborne weapons platforms, and they soon will. The people being trained to feel "no emotional attachment" to foreigners designated enemies of the state will feel no particular burden when ordered to kill fellow Americans on that list. I'm sure that the "combat pilots" who murdered U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman would testify to that fact -- that is, if the "heroes" who committed those acts were man enough to acknowledge their deeds in public.