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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 1°C
AP/Press Association Images 2010 file photo, an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan.

'I watched this man bleed out. He was rolling on the ground and I imagined his last moments'

The drone programme has been referred to as a “global assassination campaign” that has murdered over 4,000 people, writes Julien Mercille.

LAST MONTH, BRANDON Bryant (30), Michael Haas (29), Stephen Lewis (29), and Cian Westmoreland, (28), decided to take a risk that could land them in jail for years.

But they took the plunge. It’s a great story of courage.

They are four US drone war veterans. The first three were responsible for the visual sensors that guide drone missile to their targets and the last one was a technician who helped to build a station in Kandahar, Afghanistan to relay drone data.

Having seen too many atrocities perpetrated and a political leadership regularly spewing lies and half-truths about the programme, they decided to go public and wrote a letter to President Obama denouncing his global drone campaign. They stated, “We have seen the abuse first-hand, and we are horrified”.

Brandon describes drone operators as “the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate peeping Toms. I’m watching this person, and this person has no clue what’s going on. No one’s going to catch us. And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives”.

All four say they have suffered PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and feel abandoned by the US military.

In speaking out, they face prosecution under the Espionage Act. The attorney who represents them, Jesselyn Radack, says that “they’re taking an enormous and very brave public risk”. Indeed, the Obama administration has taken a harsh stance against whistleblowers (look at what happened to Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden).

The veterans tell their stories in the film Drone and in this excellent interview. Some of them had never even been on television before. The weight of their actions on their conscience is visible.

In one of many gripping passages, Brandon describes his first kill.

“The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But, of course, the first time sticks with you the longest.”

As the Hellfire missile hit its human target, he watched the screen monitoring global drone operations from a military base in the United States.

“I watched this man bleed out. The missile had taken off one of his legs right above the knee. And I watched him bleed out of his femoral artery. And he’s rolling on the ground, and I can—I imagined his last moments. I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew that I had ended something that I had no right to end.”

“I killed 13 people with a total of five Hellfire missile shots, and only three of them were actual combatants.”

Who were the others? “We don’t’ know. I don’t know. I would like to know.”

Brandon says he may now be picked up for war crimes. But for him, the morality of speaking out outweighs that consideration.

Mideast Iraq Islamic State AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

“I think it’s completely unfair that we helped prosecute German Nazis in World War II who were just following orders, and we can’t put ourselves under that same umbrella… we are unable to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions. I think that’s completely unfair to the rest of the world.”

The four veterans agree that drone warfare has “fuelled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS”.

The drone programme has been referred to as a “global assassination campaign” that has murdered over 4,000 people. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the strikes have killed about 3,000 in Pakistan, 600 in Yemen, 100 in Somalia and 1,000 in Afghanistan.

Brandon said: “We kill four and create ten” terrorists. “If you kill someone’s father, uncle or brother who had nothing to do with anything, their families are going to want revenge.”

Michael revealed that drone operators refer to children as “fun-size terrorists” and compare killing them to “cutting the grass before it grows too long”. The language reduces targets to sub-human status.

Drone strikes have ballooned under Obama. For example, in his first two years in office, he authorised four times more strikes in Pakistan than President Bush had done in eight years.

Pakistan US AP / Press Association Images Pakistani elders attend an anti-US jirga or grand meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan in December 2013. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

The CIA and the military operate parallel drone operations, but all have been shrouded in extreme secrecy.

President Obama directly approves the inclusion of high-value targets on the kill list. The US government says the strikes are precise, but one insider source who leaked declassified documents on the operations described those official statements as “exaggerating at best, if not outright lies”.

In fact, 90% of those killed by strikes are innocents.

The Pentagon plans to increase by 50% drone flights over the next four years.

There are currently about 60 flights per day, a number which would expand to as many as 90 by 2019. Brandon, Michael, Stephen and Cian hope their campaign will prevent that.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. Twitter: @JulienMercille

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