Brandon Bryant is a former drone operator in the US Air Force. During his two tours in the military he operated drones above Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. He's seen people blown to pieces and bleed to death from missiles he fired, or guided, from a secret military base in Nevada. He has 13 confirmed kills, one of them an innocent child, but Brandon has assisted in 1626 more. Many of them civilian casualties who happened to be in the wrong place when the drones came knocking. After six years of service Brandon could no longer deal with the traumatic encounters experienced through the lens of the camera mounted on the drone. He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has trouble adjusting to life outside the military. Since earning an honorable discharge in 2011 Brandon Bryant has been outspoken in his criticism of the drone program and views himself as war criminal).
Brandon stars in the Norwegian documentary Drone that's just been shown at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. While he was in town, we met up to get the down low on the state of the drone program.
Hey Brandon. What's it like to have been a drone operator?
Brandon Bryant: They treated all the operators like shit. We were doing 12-hour shifts, six days a week. I didn't get any leave for the first four years. The leadership didn't care. It was a huge fucking mess. Just an absolute mess. I had hoped that other people would join me and speak out. Yet, here I am as the only person from the program who is actually speaking out.
Did you believe in what you were doing?
I trusted that the mission was good; I think a lot of people did and a lot of people still do. I heard stuff like "48 civilians casualties per one single terrorist being killed" and I see President Obama publicly saying "the Drone program is sterile and surgical and more precise" and I'm like "that is not what I've experienced.". I killed 13 people while I was in. I felt like these guys were haunting me. Then I got this paper that said I assisted in 1626 unknown individuals and 748 known individuals being killed. We were killing, not capturing. It wasn't that I was haunted by thirteen ghosts. I was haunted by a legion, an army of ghosts. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't… the burden on my soul was too much to bear.
Before you saw that paper with the 1600 kills, did you have the same thoughts about what you were doing?
Again, I trusted the program. I accepted that there could be civilian casualties. I knew that I had killed at least one civilian. People said, "things happen in war, there's civilian casualties in war." Then I got this piece of paper and it was like somebody dropped a fucking metric ton hammer on my soul and it just destroyed me.
How did you recognize the targets?
We had three labels for people that we were watching. Ravens and Crows which are women and children, and then military aged males which is any male over 12.
So kids over 12 were just fair game?
Yeah. In my experience a military aged male is anyone above the age of 12 so if we see anyone who could be in their teens carrying a weapon, then we may take the shot.
Where do you think the Drone program is headed?
If the US continues on this path they're going to start flying domestic drones soon. The government is already trying to control the population. I believe that a drone attack has already happened on US soil. Remember Chris Dorner? He was a police officer, who started killing other cops in California. In my opinion he was killed in a drone strike. California has two drone squadrons. The house where he died seemed staged. When you look at the fire and listen to the released audio, it doesn't make any sense. I talked about this with a group of former colleagues from the drone program and we all agreed that they used a drone to kill him.
Do you think that the US is already using drones domestically?
Not that I have been aware of. I do know that they are flying Reaper drones on the Mexican border, so there could definitely be strikes happening without us knowing.
Do you see yourself as a war criminal then?
If you look at the Nürnberg Trials, the Nazi war trials, if you go by that standard everyone flying the drone program cannot use "we were just following orders" as an excuse for our actions and that means that all of us who have participated are war criminals. I even told the UN, I gave a speech in front of them, but in private I was like "if you guys want to try me for war crimes I will stand trial for that" but they were like "It's not necessary". They didn't want a trial but I do because I am war criminal. It's not going to bring anyone back but at least it could prevent more damage from happening around the world. You know, the United States is a rogue nation, but nobody wants to say it because we are the big guy on campus, the bully.
If we leave morals and civilian casualties aside, do you think drone strikes are working?
No. If you are in a war with someone and their best technological endeavor is to blow themselves up and the reason why they are doing it is because they have no honorable way to fight back. We're fighting from an unprecedented distance. We are destroying them. So it's not working. Every time we kill someone and we don't justify it, people who cared about these people are pissed off and then want to join the fight. We are creating more terrorists than we kill. One of the terms I heard was "mow the grass before it grows."
Scary. How does your stress disorder affect your life?
PTSD is just a way of dealing with the traumatic stress of what I have seen. I've been homeless for the past three years. I am jobless. I have been trying to get different jobs, but it's really hard to interact with civilians. I've been trying to go to school and it was like, I couldn't focus on school and deal with this stuff that was in my head at the same time. I have focused a lot of energy into being outspoken because it's a kind of redemption, healing.
Is speaking out your form of therapy?
Yeah I also do meditation, spiritual focus and study of warrior culture. I'm not a civilian. I'm not anti-military. I am a warrior. I am soldier so I feel like being connected with the warrior culture of the past has actually given me a way to learn how to focus and to go forward.
Why do you think that you are the only one who is standing up?
Because I am not intimidated by people. I'm sick of the bullshit and so many people who still believe it and the people who are out of the situation that aren't speaking, they just want to forget about it. Forget about their time in the service. When I ask them to speak, some people just tell me, "you're doing a good job man, keep doing what you are doing."