• Brian Becker

Where’s the outrage? NY Times exposé glosses over criminal essence of U.S. drone warfare


Photo Source: AiirSource Military [YouTube Channel]


The following is a lightly edited transcription from In the News, the weekly Tuesday show on The Socialist Program. Subscribe here.


Brian:

There's a story that was on the front page of the New York Times this weekend on the untold and psychological costs on drone pilots engaging in drone warfare.


It's an interesting way into the topic: What's actually happening in the lives of drone operators who are watching people for months, watching them with their kids, getting the order to shoot, and at a certain day and a certain hour, killing them? Sometimes they kill the targets, but sometimes they’re misnamed.


These operators are going through a profound crisis. But when you think about drone warfare in general, who's actually getting attacked? How many people are getting attacked? How many countries are being attacked?


The nature of war-making and war-fighting itself is a huge issue. This is one interesting way into the conversation, but it's a limited way of discussing it. Let's just talk about the story.


Nicole:

The article starts, "Capt. Kevin Larson was one of the best drone pilots in the U.S. Air Force. Yet as the job weighed on him and untold others, the military failed to recognize its full impact. After a drug arrest and court martial, he fled into the California wilderness."


This whole article really paints the picture of how awful, how soul-crushing, soul-wrenching it is to operate these drones. But of course, the reason that that's the case is because of the way that these drones are being used -- and it doesn't really address that. But let's talk a little bit about the psychology of it first.


They interviewed Neal Scheuneman, he was a drone sensor operator who retired as a master sergeant from the Air Force in 2019. He said, "In many ways, drone warfare is more intense. A fighter jet might see a target for 20 minutes. We had to watch a target for days, weeks, even months. We saw him play with his kids. We saw him interact with his family. We watched his whole life unfold. You're remote, but also very much connected. Then one day, when all the parameters are met, you kill him. Then you watch the death. You see the remorse and the burial. People often think that this job is going to be like a video game. And I have to warn them there's no reset button."


The article goes on “Under unrelenting stress, several former crew members said, people broke down. Drinking and divorce became common. Some left the operations floor in tears. Others attempted suicide.” The main person profiled, Captain Larson, tried to cope with the trauma by using psychedelic drugs, which became another secret he had to keep. Just to be clear: these drone operators are going home every day. These aren't fighter pilots who are stationed overseas and flying a plane. These are people who are going into an office, monitoring people, and then once someone else tells them it's time, then they shoot.


Brian:

The language they use is revealing in some ways. The people who ordered the killing are called “customers.”


Nicole:

It is. And the “customer” is named in the article -- could be a ground force commander, could be the CIA, could be a classified special operations strike cell.


I have some examples of the way this looks. One drone operator was pressed to fire on two men who were walking by a river in Syria. The “customer” said they were carrying weapons over their shoulders. The weapons turned out to actually be fishing poles. The crew member was told that the men could still be a threat, but he actually was able to persuade the customer in this case not to strike.


But another was ordered to attack a suspected Islamic State fighter who was pushing another man in a wheelchair on a busy city street. And the strike in that case killed one of them and killed three passersby.


Meanwhile, these drone operators are filing civilian casualty reports. But The New York Times says "the investigative process was so faulty that they rarely saw any impact; often they would not even get a response."


There's more than 2,300 people who are currently assigned to these roles. By 2012, The New York Times says, "the Pentagon had developed a seemingly insatiable appetite for drones" and the Air Force was struggling to keep up training people. You're not just pushing a button. In 2012 the Air Force started turning out more drone pilots than traditional fighter pilots, but still wasn't meeting the demand.


Obviously, this is taking a huge toll on people. The main figure who was profiled, Captain Larson--his marriage fell apart. He was put on trial facing a possible prison term of more than 20 years. But these roles aren't considered combat, because you're not physically there. Though if you're a fighter pilot, you're not physically on the ground either, so these are really blurred lines. But because these drone operators aren't considered to have combat experience, there's no required psychological evaluation to see what influence this might have on any misconduct.


So at Larson's trial, no one mentioned that he ran 188 classified missile strikes or that he was instructed to target a funeral, which we know in the U.S. military is a common place to target and kill people. So Larson was convicted. And then he escaped and ran away.


Brian:

And the police chase him as he's escaping. He doesn't want to go to prison and he's sure he's about to, following this conviction. The police corner him in a forest. He takes his own life; he takes a gun and shoots himself.


And they see that on a drone because he hears the drones overhead as he's running from the cops. He knows the drones are after him. And so he shoots himself. And what he didn't know, as it turns out, is that the officers were coming to tell him that his sentence had been suspended.


Nicole:

I think the important part of talking about this is to show just how horrendous and widespread these killings are that the “customer” — which is really the state — is making these people do. You see some stories here and there of people pushing back, a lot of people quitting (there's a ton of turnover), or that one crew member who was able to persuade the customer not to go through with the strike.


But I think in the large sense what this is showing us is the result of the policy changes that happened at the end of 2016. A lot of this was ramping up in 2012, and then in 2016, the Obama administration loosened the rules around who can make these decisions to target and kill. The Obama administration allowed people way lower in the ranks to approve airstrikes – not high-ranking officials like generals or the president, but people who are far lower in the hierarchy – which hugely increased the number of drone attacks.


And then the next year, in 2017, the Trump administration secretly loosened these even further. So by that point, people who are essentially enlisted special operations soldiers were the people telling drone operators to shoot and kill targets.


The scale of this drone warfare is one point here. Another important point to talk about is that as this was ramping up, as the Air Force was seeing this happen, their response wasn't to say, "Maybe we shouldn't be operating this many drones, maybe we shouldn't have this many drone operators, maybe we shouldn't be killing this many civilians, maybe we shouldn't have drones at all."


The Air Force response, according to the New York Times, was to begin "embedding what it called human performance teams in some squadrons, staffed with chaplains, psychologists and operational physiologists offering a sympathetic ear, coping strategies and healthy practices to optimize performance."


Brian:

It's very interesting: counseling for assassins. The drone operators are assassins, and being an assassin is a stressful job. And so they're going to give you counseling, and bring in chaplains.


But, just think, if we found out that the Chinese or Russian government had 2,300 drone operators killing people, Chinese and Russian “customers” decided who should be killed, and they could be people like in this article where the people who were killed just had the wrong name. Just think how differently the story would be told.


The New York Times continues, "in 2017, [Captain Larson's] father pressed him about his work. And Captain Larson described the mission in which the customer told him to track and kill a suspected al Qaeda member.” Interesting use of the word “suspected,” right?


Continuing from the article, "Then, he said, the customer told him to use the Reaper’s high-definition camera to follow the man’s body to the cemetery and kill everyone who attended the funeral." I'm sorry, this is The New York Times and their perspective is just, wow, isn't that stressful?


Let's put the shoe on the other foot. If Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia, or China had thousands of people who are part of drone missions and doing this kind of killing of individuals or at the funerals of the people who had just been killed by Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, or Nicaragua, this would be an indication that these governments had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.


We're talking about this article because we wanted to share some of the information, but also because it doesn't get to the heart of the matter: that this is a criminal enterprise. That this is not legal, that this is not moral, it's not ethical. It's 100% an indicator of the crimes of imperialism and U.S. imperialism in particular.


And it doesn't rise to the level of outrage from the media, including the writers who are writing the story or the editors who are editing and allowing this story to be published. Maybe the authors were angry but by the time the article goes through all these edits, it's written in a sort of non-emotive way.


Nicole:

One drone operator, Bennett Miller, and his team "tracked a man in Afghanistan who the customer said was a high-level Taliban financier. For a week, the crew watched the man feed his animals, eat with family in his courtyard and walk to a nearby village. Then the customer ordered the crew to kill him, and the pilot fired a missile as the man walked down the path from his house. Watching the video feed afterward Mr. Miller saw the family gather the pieces of the man and bury them.


“A week later, the Taliban financier’s name appeared again on the target list. 'We got the wrong guy. I had just killed someone’s dad...I had watched his kids pick up the body parts. Then I had gone home and hugged my own kids.'"


They got the wrong name. That's it. And he's dead.


Brian:

Yeah. And the operator feels bad about it; it’s stressful. But again, the people of the United States have to call this out for what it is. This is war crimes committed by a government that speaks in our name, by a government that's using our tax dollars. It's obviously a violation of international law and national law.


It's murder. Even if they had the right guy, it would still be murder. It would still be illegal. But the fact that they can kill the wrong guy and watch his children pick up the body parts that are strewn about and bury them -- again, where's the outrage? Where's the demand to stop this?


Nicole:

That operator went on to say, “What we had done was murder, and no one seemed to notice...We just were told to move on.” And then, and from the article this seems like this is possibly common, he got home from a 15-hour shift in 2020, "locked himself in his bedroom, put a cocked revolver to his head and through the door told his wife that he could not take it anymore. He was hospitalized, diagnosed with PTSD and medically retired."