Drone Operators Rebel

Attacks Kill Civilians, Inspire Terror, Cause PTSD in Own Ranks

MQ-1 Predator Drone Photo credit: United States Air Force
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a scathing attack on President Barack Obama’s drone war, four former operators of the remote-controlled killing machines declared that this kind of  warfare is actually fueling terrorism.

Meanwhile,  the soldiers who pull the triggers are cast aside when they break down under the incessant stress of long-distance killing.

“This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world,” the quartet of former Air Force service members wrote in a letter to Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Director John Brennan.

“We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay.”

Staff Sergeant Brandon Bryant, Senior Airman Cian Westmoreland, Senior Airman Stephen Lewis and Senior Airman Michael Haas said they felt compelled to speak out because staying silent “would violate the very oaths we took to support and defend the Constitution.”

“We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay,” they wrote.

Nothing Surgical about Drone Strikes

An in-depth report by The Intercept, which relied on a “cache of secret slides,” found that the drone program fails miserably in its stated goal of of eliminating only the carefully selected targets.

The US military’s own records reveal that innocents die during the strikes — routinely. During one particular five-month stretch, 90% of the victims of drone attacks were not the intended target.

The public, however, has been led to believe that the drone program works with a high degree of precision.

President Obama certainly gave that impression in April, when he implied that two American hostages killed in a drone strike represented a sadly unavoidable if rare accident: “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur,”

The four former drone operators painted a very different picture. “We witnessed gross waste, mismanagement, abuses of power, and our country’s leaders lying publicly about the effectiveness of the drone program,” they wrote. (For a devastating picture of the drone war in just one country, Pakistan, see here.)

The veterans explained why they chose to become whistleblowers: “We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home.”

Killing the Innocent Leads to PTSD

Obama’s reputation as a reluctant warrior has remained largely intact despite the intensive drone campaign that has become an integral part of his anti-terrorism strategy. But the men and women pulling the trigger from thousands of miles away are paying a high price.

“When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD,” the drone operators wrote.

“We were cut loose by the same government we gave so much to — sent out in the world without adequate medical care, reliable public health services, or necessary benefits. Some of us are now homeless. Others of us barely make it.”

WhoWhatWhy contacted the Air Force to get a statement on the letter but did not hear back by the time this article was published. If the Air Force does reply, this report will be updated accordingly.

The quartet of former Air Force service members said they hoped that Obama, Carter and Brennan would pay attention to what they had to say.  But the veterans added that their insiders’ plea to reconsider drone warfare may be “in vain given the unprecedented prosecution of truth-tellers who came before us like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden.”

We will be watching carefully to see what happens with this plea, and to those who made it — and we will keep you informed.

Related front page panorama photo credit: President Barack Obama and CIA Director John Brennan (Pete Souza / White House), Drones and drone strike (Department of Defense / YouTube), Predator drone  sensor operator (United States Air Force / Wikimedia)

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39 responses to “Drone Operators Rebel”

  1. Stephan Larose says:

    These poor men were made to commit horrific crimes that have literally destroyed them with grief and guilt–all for policies that were criminal in the first place. Why don’t Obama and Bush go to jail for their war crimes? None of these innocent young soldiers would have to commit murders of children and innocents like this had their presidents not ordered them to do so. If we want to spare our soldiers the life-destroying guilt and pain of executing war crimes in the future we have to jail the war criminals that came before and deter that abuse being made again.

  2. (Comment by reader ‏@MellowMuslim) “Ya Lateef” (Mercy Lord). Drone Operators: This is cruel. Can’t sleep by night.

  3. Mohammad Ali Salih says:

    MemoirProject,Ch6,2000’s (9/11). Americans in denial; “Why They Hate
    Us?” Ch8,2010’s (America Update). Americans in denial; “Why They Hate Us?”

  4. Dee says:

    I wish life was as simple and morality as clear cut as some seem to think it is.. I wish everybody could forsee the consequences when they get themselves in to situations that lead to such moral quandaries. Some times the awareness comes slowly.. sometimes it never comes, sometimes the “right answer” is grabbed early and people avoid the moral delimit for all the wrong reasons, but then fall back on it when convenient or it makes them feel superior to others , even if they never went through the dark night of the soul that it sometimes takes to get there.

    What weapon can be so morally correct that the human behind it never makes a mistake and innocents are never killed.. the drones are new , the moral quandary goes back to the sling and a rock.

  5. King David says:

    While Obama has obviously earned his title, The Drone Ranger, it’s good that Bush isn’t absolved of responsibility. He is the original after all. That being said, this letter, although courageous, will affect nothing.

    • JAM says:

      It is interesting that the Las Vegas Review Journal recently came out with an article about how the guys up at Creech AFB (just north of Vegas, home of the drone program) are all proud of what they do, etc. It’s like something like this came out, so they had to come up with an article to “refute” it.

    • Strider73 says:

      The base PR flacks trotted out some handpicked troops who are indeed proud of the death & destruction they cause, and were happy to say so. Either that, or they picked some troops at random and ordered them to smile and parrot a prepared script. The Army did the same thing in Quagmiristan when the war turned sour.

    • lee says:

      You are wrong. Unless Bush administration was around during WW1.

    • lee says:

      It’s called the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. And they needed Arabs to help in the war and promised them independence which they never received. Know your history…..

    • King David says:

      I think the Bushes were working for Germany back then.

    • lee says:

      Oh course you do. Stop the blame game and know your history. Alternative energy would probably be a lifesaver as it could lessen the desire and need for oil. As long as that oil (money) is there it will be a focal point for everyone. However, the Presidents who also want this are trying to impose Socialism on America, and that is a slippery slope to totalitarianism. The more we give up rights (like gun control) the more powerful it becomes, and then we Americans can’t lead a revolution if necessary. This is written in the Constitution and Jefferson would be the biggest supporter of it…

      Pulling troops out of Iraq was the biggest mistake Obama made. Bush warned him about this. And everyone is all up in arms about refugees and how un-American it is to put a ban, yet those same people condemn Bush for going into Iraq and Afghanistan saving countless lives that were oppressed by tyrannical leaders. America is known for being humanitarian, and turning our backs to people who are suffering is also un-American. Not to mention we had over 80% of the people in favor of retaliation after 9/11.

    • King David says:

      Do you really believe that bombing water treatment plants and hospitals is saving the oppressed? I was joking about the Bushes in WWI. It’s a well known fact that Prescott Bush was helping the Nazis finance WWII though. No one who wasn’t killed in Afghanistan or Iraq is better off now than before we bombed them. You’re delusional. As far as retaliation, maybe we should have retaliated against who attacked us on 9/11. Here’s a hint. It wasn’t Afghanistan or Iraq. Btw. Look up Rothbardian.

    • lee says:

      I didn’t say that I did. Did you know the founder of planned parenthood was an extreme racist who wanted to be rid of black people?

    • lee says:

      You’re too dumb to argue with. End of convo. God save us

    • King David says:

      You believe in God too and are hoping he’ll save you? Figures.

    • lee says:

      …. And Obama and his evil potus planned the terrorists attack in San Bernardino to aid their gun control agenda. Come on Michael Moore get a clue.

    • King David says:

      You really are a moron.

    • lee says:

      Was that rhetorical??… Shut your pie hole with sold fetuses.

    • King David says:

      No, not rhetorical. Definitive. That’s your second post since you said you were done. . You still never looked up Rothbardian.

    • Slvrizgold says:

      You mean the other “Semites” (who aren’t really genetically Semetic at all!)

    • King David says:

      That’s the trillion dollar question. What we do know is that the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t do it.

  6. biljay says:

    The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 shows uniforms give one power. Cops and soldiers are attracted to the power given by wearing uniforms. Cops are now wearing more ribbons and symbols to portray the illusion of power. Power corrupts. The more power cops and soldiers have, the more the jobs attract people who have a need for power. As long as men compete for power, the world will remain a violent place. As long as women prefer men in uniform, the world will remain a violent place. As long as we glorify war and its participants, the world will remain a violent place. “The pioneers of a war-less world are the youth who refuse to fight.” Albert Einstein

  7. L Garou says:

    Yes but rest assured .. God is on their side.
    My Zio-pastor tells me so..

  8. Bill Gradwohl says:

    These people should be prosecuted for murder. They admit they murdered people. Why is it that gov’t murder is not only not punished, but is celebrated?

    • ssohara says:

      They thought they were joining the military to fight America’s enemies, then learned that the intel was wrong and sometimes innocent people were getting killed. They are trying to speak out against this program and that is brave of them. It’s like if a Nazi was drafted as a young man to fight what he thought were enemies of Germany, then learned that in reality innocent people were being killed – and started to speak out against Nazism. The Nazis that did that of course all ended up dead, but at least they did the right thing before they died.

    • Bill Gradwohl says:

      Your logic doesn’t work. They knew when they killed their first innocent person and then kept killing. They are murderers by their own admission.
      Killing people in a foreign land that have no possible capability to inflict harm on American soil should be reason enough to consider every death they caused as a case of murder, regardless of the US’s labeling of any victim as an enemy.
      Blindly following orders is absolutely never the right thing to do. The entire concept behind military protocol is amoral and anyone with any common sense and decency should know that.

    • thee says:

      I work with really nice people who were brainwashed by the military to do what they were told. It is chilling to hear what they have done and they know that it was questionable however the techniques used to program a human to do such things has been finely honed over the years.
      Read the book On Killing by Lt. David Grossman to understand the processes used to brainwash and also to discover that they do suffer for the rest of their live with what they have done. It doesn’t make it right I know but at least a bit of light will shine on the underlying story.

    • Bill Gradwohl says:

      I was drafted in the early 70’s for the Vietnam war. I refused to go. No amount of brainwashing was going to convince me to do something against my conscience. People allow themselves to be brainwashed as that process provides them with the future excuse that they were maneuvered into doing what they did. That just adds lying to their crimes.
      Today, people volunteer to become murderers. No amount of excuses changes that fact. Today’s volunteers know that they are being hired to kill people that have done nothing to them personally. These are amoral people and the entire world would have been better off if they had never been born.

    • thee says:

      I agree.
      Most of these guys, now in their 40s – 50s will admit to feeling the urge to >notdid<. At the moment of performing these killings they could feel the programming kick in and the rationalizations started to flow.
      Even though they may seem nice and such now, I know that they are weak in moral fortitude and actually, at that time, wanted to "belong" to something bigger than themselves, no matter what it was.
      The world is full of weak minded individuals who can be and allow themselves to be used.
      Like you, I too refuse to go along with group think/supra-patriot mind games.

      Take care.

    • King David says:

      Thank you for your service. (And by “service” I mean refusing to go.)

    • David Horace says:

      Bill, you served humanity by refusing to go. Bravo, my friend.
      And now the media takes an active role in the brainwashing. What a shame.

    • FiuToYou says:

      I was 18 years old in 1966. I’d been on my own for, various reasons, since I was 14. I learned a hell of a lot in those four years, especially from the ‘anti war movement groups’. My father who was a Captain in the medical corps in WWII, got me all the papers I needed, starting back when I was 16, showing that I had ‘grand mal seizures due to ‘Epilepsy’. I actually started having ‘seizures’ in public places and taken to hospitals. When I got a permanent 4-F, ‘not eligible for any military service’ what do you know. The seizures stopped. I asked my dad why he helped me like that when the population was spitting on ‘hippies’, draft dodgers, etc. He said that war was wrong and he didn’t want his son going to a place that never did this country wrong and fight and possibly die so the high-ups could make money, lot’s of money. I’ll never forget what he did for me and he was right. I lived by the saying; “What if they gave a war and no one showed up”. That’s what everybody should live by, but unfortunately the powers that be won’t allow that, so they do Pearl Harbors, Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, etc to make the population feel they’ve been ‘attacked’. And it’s all bullshit. And the hits just keep on coming!

    • ssohara says:

      I’m not sure you understand human nature. They did an experiment a while back that I remember shocked me but it shouldn’t have – a university professor asked a volunteer to push a button giving a subject an electric shock. Even when the shock was potentially lethal, the volunteers usually did what the authority figure told them to do. At the time I thought – how could someone do something so immoral? But the reality is that most people do blindly follow orders. What is unique and special is the person who doesn’t. That it sometimes takes people time to figure that out does not take away from the fact that these people still figured it out, and that makes them different from 90% of the population.

      This is why we have had groups like the KKK for so long – because even though many people realized what they did was wrong, few had the courage to make waves. This is why Islamic groups like ISIS do the evil they do – because even though many Muslims are moderates who would normally get along fine with Christians, Jews, etc., they do not have the courage to stand up to the crazed militants and they don’t want to go against the group they grew up with. This is why visionaries like Semmelweiss, whose breakthrough in maternal medicine would eventually save millions of lives ended up dying in an insane asylum – because even though he had the facts on his side, the medical establishment persecuted him for going against the dogma.

    • Strider73 says:

      Semmelweiss was the Galileo of his era.

    • King David says:

      If your soon to be ex-wife hires a hit-man to “quicken” the divorce and the guy kills you but gets caught and rats out your ex, she is going to prison for murder right along with him. That’s why these crimes will never be prosecuted. The people who hired the hit-men would be just as guilty as the killers themselves. We can’t have that now, can we?

    • Strider73 says:

      Many states have amended their laws to make everyone equally guilty of a violent crime, regardless of their role in the crime or who gets hurt or killed. That means the lookout and getaway car driver are as guilty of murder as the punk who pulled the trigger in an armed robbery. It also means that if the intended victim kills the robber instead, the others are guilty of murder. The fact that the dead person was their accomplice is irrelevant. They took part in a crime that resulted in loss of life.

      The purpose of such laws, of course, is to preclude everyone in the gang pointing fingers at someone else and saying “He did it, not me.” Now the law says “You all did it.”

    • King David says:

      So I guess if you vote, you’re guilty. You’ve agreed that the person who wins the election is the ruler whether it’s the one you chose or not. By voting you agree to the outcome. Another reason not to vote.

    • Stephan Larose says:

      That’s probably why they got PTSD. They either follow orders and destroy thousands of innocent lives or get court-martialed or worse. Now they’re all living homeless or impoverished; their psyches absolutely crushed with guilt for all the horrible things they did. PTSD is paralyzing, I can’t imagine having to live with guilt like that.

    • philip.dennany says:

      Every US war since and including Vietnam was fraudulently justified by lies and by manufactured intelligence.

    • Slvrizgold says:

      Your going to have to include both World Wars too. The same tribe controlled the Yellow Press and pulled all the strings then too.

    • ssohara says:

      sure, no arguments with you there. there is an argument to be made that we should not have gotten into WWI either, for that matter. Or the Spanish American war…

  9. Paul says:

    Where is Code Pink and all the other anti-war protesters? I guess it’s okay for a Democrat to wage unnecessary wars and kill/murder indiscriminately.

  10. Montgomery Granger says:

    So Obama’s drone war is compromised. What a shame. Will he need to finally put boots on the ground?

    • Mark Plummer says:

      Obama is not The King! He does not rule by decree! He is just the current spokesman for the Military Industrial/Wall Street Axis. They give him the script for every single thing he says and everything he does – and he must follow their script or his family will be harmed – this was what he was told in the top level Presidential briefing just minutes after he took his Oath of Office… As every President has been told since at least JFK – The [current] president is just the figurehead for a cabal of corporations who are engaged in carbon extraction (fossil fuels to you), weapons manufacturing and banking. If you still believe the “problem” is Liberals vs Conservatives then you are a brainwashed tool. Enjoy your Kool-Aid!

    • snowiegeorgie says:

      Please tell me when Obama is returning his ill-advised Peace Prize ?

      Since he did nothing to earn it in the first place, – do you think the honorable thing to do is to give it back ?

      How does he live with himself and sleep ?


    • Susan says:

      He’s a psychopath—no conscience.

    • haifisch8587 says:

      Do you really think he operates alone? Obama is a willing dupe and happily dances to his handlers’ tune.

    • Susan says:

      I know that. Regardless, he’s a psychopath.

    • Mark Plummer says:

      What the ****** do you care? It didn’t cost you anything!

    • haifisch8587 says:

      Do the honorable thing? Short of resigning, there is nothing honorable that he can do

    • News Nag says:

      Hey, Montgomery! Let’s put YOUR boots on the ground, or someone important to you. If you’re against that, then just be quiet.

    • Montgomery Granger says:

      Been there, done that, Nag. Your turn. Follow your leader!