A new documentary, Drone, which aired on European television this week and plans to come to the US soon, features the man who has become the world’s go-to drone operator.
Brandon Bryant has been the subject of major profiles in the likes of GQ, Der Spiegel, and on NBC, and opened another film, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. In Drone, like most of his other appearances, Bryant discusses his gradual disillusionment with flying drones over Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming horrified at the deaths he caused and convinced that many of those killed were innocent.
There aren’t many people as close to the action who’ve spoken out as forcefully as Bryant has. He could risk prosecution for talking about classified operations and says he has faced a barrage of criticism from military colleagues over his decision go public with his discontents. He’s a rare and valuable source on how the US wages war by drones and other means both in Afghanistan and in secret operations by the CIA and the military’s special operations command, in Yemen and Pakistan and parts of Africa.
But as the late Matthew Power wrote in his GQ profile of Bryant last year, drones are “too easy a placeholder or avatar for all of our technological anxieties—the creeping sense that screens and cameras have taken some piece of our souls, that we’ve slipped into a dystopia of disconnection.” And Bryant risks becoming something of a site or a spokesman for that anxiety.
Few doubt that drones have allowed the US to kill many people in situations where it would be highly unlikely to send troops on the ground. But the fixation on the technological platform, and using the pilot as a stand-in for it, actually diminishes Bryant’s basic message that war always has consequences, no matter how it’s carried out.
The undeniable weirdness of the remote control warrior, weaned on video games (Bryant tells Power that he read Ender’s Game, the classic science fiction novel about child warriors, while in his cockpit), spending their days hunting terrorists, and returning home to suburban lives, has led to frequent media features. “The perfect balance of mission and family,” one Air Force captain told The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti in 2012, though studies have shown drone pilots also suffer from stress and PTSD.
Drone also plays up the idea of gamification of war, visiting expos where children play alongside men in uniform and interviewing Michael Haas, another former drone operator, as he contemplates lotto machines. To be fair, the Air Force and the drone manufacturers themselves promote that image. Drone uses plenty of promotional footage from the military and the industry of sleek hovering aircraft and targets drawn around grainy figures.
But Bryant also offers illuminating insight into the specifics of drone warfare; he has talked about the way in which targets are surveilled and the intelligence-sharing between the military and other agencies. That’s significant when so much of what we know about those specifics otherwise has to be patched together from statements by unnamed officials. For example, Bryant told the Guardian that there’s an Air Force squadron in Nevada flying the CIA’s missions. That military personnel fly under the CIA’s command has been reported before, but with vaguer sourcing.
In a way, Bryant’s regular media appearances should now be no more notable than the former administration officials or think tank commentators who crop up repeatedly in stories about the drone war. He—and other pilots—are a welcome addition to that chorus, just as in recent years there has been more documentation of the lives of Yemenis and Pakistanis affected by drones. (Drone the film also highlights, as did Unmanned, the work of human rights lawyers in Pakistan who are trying to bring legal cases on behalf of civilians harmed by drones.)
Both are necessary in helping readers to understand a war that is distant and shaded by secrecy. But it’s important to ensure that neither becomes merely a symbol for a grand narrative about unease.