The Toll of Drone Wars…on U.S Pilots

There are plenty of worthwhile things media could try to tell us about U.S. drone wars. But does the world need another uncritical piece about the difficult life of a drone pilot?

Apparently someone at the New York Times thought so, and so readers get a story (7/30/12) headlined “A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away.” Reporter Elisabeth Bumiller (perhaps best known for a testy C-SPAN appearance where she explained that New York Times reporters “can’t just say the president is lying“) gives us a glimpse into the struggles of the pilots who spend hours–even days–tracking a target before pulling the trigger.

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.”

As Bumiller puts it, “Drones are not only revolutionizing American warfare but are also changing in profound ways the lives of the people who fly them.” To say nothing of the people on the other end of the drone war.

Much of the piece is about fighting a war from a “padded seat in American suburbia,” and how strange this can be for pilots with traditional combat experience. We’ve been here before with corporate media, most notably in a 2009 60 Minutes segment. And Newsweek had a major drone piece last year that, like many others, sidesteps many of the key legal questions about the expansion of the drone war.

The Times wasn’t after any of that, it would seem, since Bumiller’s piece doesn’t touch on any of these issues, preferring instead to focus on the potential harm done to the pilots pulling the trigger. But by their own account, there’s not much impact:

Of a dozen pilots, sensor operators and supporting intelligence analysts recently interviewed from three American military bases, none acknowledged the kind of personal feelings for Afghans that would keep them awake at night after seeing the bloodshed left by missiles and bombs.

Good to know that the people launching drone strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians aren’t losing any sleep over it.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.