The White House sells drones strikes as legal, ethical and targeted to protect our military and innocent civilians from harm. These are questionable claims, made more dubious by the administration’s selectively leaking details of the drone program to assuage the public when reports arise of flawed legal reasoning, mistaken strikes or vastly underestimated civilian deaths.
CIA director John O. Brennan also told the American public that drones "can be a wise choice because they dramatically reduce the danger to U.S. personnel, even eliminating the danger altogether.” Director Brennan is wrong.
I know because I am a veteran of the drone program. I served as an Air Force imagery analyst. What I know of drone warfare is that it has dangerous, sometimes devastating, consequences for too many service members participating in the program.
As the Obama administration increased its reliance on the drone program, the pressure came from the top to increase missions and strikes. We were encouraged to fly missions – at great taxpayer expense – even when there was nothing of consequence to see, no targets to strike and no American ground forces to protect. Performance evaluations highlighted an airman’s number of “enemy kills.” I asked, “Why does it matter how many people we killed?” Is that truly the definition of success – death? I joined the Air Force to save lives, not take them.
As an imagery analyst, I was the only line of defense between keeping someone alive and providing the intelligence for a strike using technology not accurate enough to determine life and death. The psychological pressure of not knowing if strikes were accurate was debilitating at times.
Our team worked between 12- and 14-hour shifts in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, sometimes flying for hours seeing nothing, sometimes seeing unspeakable carnage. Then we returned home to spouses and families, where our security clearances prevented us from sharing our experiences in an effort to decompress from what we had witnessed. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and received some treatment in the military. After leaving the military, though, the VA failed to treat me adequately. It took months to find a psychologist with the necessary clearance to treat me. (At first, I struggled to get PTSD treatment approved because I was not “boots on the ground.”) Unable to get the support they needed, other team members and veterans of our career field “self-treated.” Alcohol and even drug abuse was rampant in our unit and was swept under the rug in order to preserve the clean image the Air Force tried to uphold in Intelligence communities. In my unit of less than 100 people, there were six drunk-driving charges in as many months. There was at least one incident each of domestic violence and DUI that ended in courts-martial. Two of my former team members have committed suicide.
This is more proof than we need that the drone program produces causalities long after a strike is done. The casualties are the substance abuse victims, the emotional trauma victims, the spouses who suffer a life with isolated individuals. These are the unreported and ignored casualties that our military and government like to hide from us, because they are not impaired to the naked eye. Using drones does not, as Brennan says, “eliminate altogether” the danger to American service members; rather, it damages us in an entirely different way, ripping at the fabric of our psyches, and we carry this weight home to our families, friends and into our communities.
We must reconsider the military’s reliance on drones strikes. They are not as legal, targeted or accurate as the government makes them out to be, and they are not without consequences for our troops.