From his computer console here in the Syracuse suburbs, Col. D. Scott Brenton remotely flies a Reaper drone that beams back hundreds of hours of live video of insurgents, his intended targets, going about their daily lives 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan. Sometimes he and his team watch the same family compound for weeks.
“I see mothers with children, I see fathers with children, I see fathers with mothers, I see kids playing soccer,” Colonel Brenton said.
When the call comes for him to fire a missile and kill a militant — and only, Colonel Brenton said, when the women and children are not around — the hair on the back of his neck stands up, just as it did when he used to line up targets in his F-16 fighter jet.
Afterward, just like the old days, he compartmentalizes. “I feel no emotional attachment to the enemy,” he said. “I have a duty, and I execute the duty.”
Drones are not only revolutionizing American warfare but are also changing in profound ways the lives of the people who fly them.
Colonel Brenton acknowledges the peculiar new disconnect of fighting a telewar with a joystick and a throttle from his padded seat in American suburbia.
When he was deployed in Iraq, “you land and there’s no more weapons on your F-16, people have an idea of what you were just involved with.” Now he steps out of a dark room of video screens, his adrenaline still surging after squeezing the trigger, and commutes home past fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to help with homework…
Who is then this inexplicable being who has preferred to all the pleasant, lucrative, honest, and even honorable jobs that present themselves in hundreds to human power and dexterity that of torturing and putting to death his fellow creatures? Are this head and this heart made like ours? Do they not hold something peculiar and foreign to our nature? For my own part, I do not doubt this. He is made like us externally; he is born like us but he is an extraordinary being, and for him to exist in the human family a particular decree, a FIAT of the creative power is necessary. He is a species to himself. Look at the place he holds in public opinion and see if you can understand how he can ignore or affront this opinion! Scarcely have the authorities fixed his dwelling-place, scarcely has he taken possession of it, than the other houses seem to shrink back until they no longer overlook his. In the midst of this solitude and this kind of vacuum that forms around him, he lives alone with his woman and his offspring who make the human voice known to him, for without them he would know only groans. A dismal signal is given; a minor judicial official comes to his house to warn him that he is needed; he leaves; he arrives at some public place packed with a dense and throbbing crowd. A poisoner, a parricide, or a blasphemer is thrown to him; he seizes him, he stretches him on the ground, he ties him to a horizontal cross, he raises it up: then a dreadful silence falls, and nothing can be heard except the crack of bones breaking under the crossbar and the howls of the victim. He unfastens him; he carries him to a wheel: the shattered limbs interweave with the spokes; the head falls; the hair stands on end, and the mouth, open like a furnace, gives out spasmodically only a few blood-spattered words calling for death to come. He is finished: his heart flutters, but it is with joy; he congratulates himself, he says sincerely, No one can break men on the wheel better than I. He steps down; he stretches out his blood-stained hand, and justice throws into it from a distance a few pieces of gold which he carries through a double row of men drawing back with horror. He sits down to a meal and eats; then to bed, where he sleeps. And next day, on waking, he thinks of anything other than what he did the day before. Is this a man? Yes: God receives him in his temples and permits him to pray. He is not a criminal, yet it is impossible to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is estimable, and so on. No moral praise can be appropriate for him, since this assumes relationships with men, and he has none.
And yet all grandeur, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner: he is the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.