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A Former Drone Pilot’s Guilt Kept Him Awake at Night

How Brandon Bryant became an advocate against the use of unmanned combat drones.

One of the supposed advantages to the United States' drone program is that by distancing pilots from their targets, the psychic scars of killing don't form so easily. But even separated by thousands of miles and a computer screen, former drone pilot Brandon Bryant felt the shock of all 1,626 kills.

"I felt like it destroyed my soul," Bryant told Motherboard. "For the longest time."

And drone programs are proliferating. While only a few countries currently own armed drones, the eventual spread of drone technology is inevitable, and Germany is next in line. German Motherboard correspondent Theresa Locker tells us that "the combat drones of the Bundeswehr will be ready in ten years, at the latest." German Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen cites the usefulness of drones as protectors of ground troops, with an ability to safely surveil a large area. But it's naive to believe that it will end there.

"I stopped sleeping, because I started dreaming about my job. I couldn't escape it," Bryant says. And when he spoke out about his experiences, he says "I had people calling me a traitor, telling me I should eat a bullet."

One of the last straws for Bryant was the US's hunt of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda recruiter and dubbed "the bin Laden of the internet." Al-Awlaki was a dual citizen of both Yemen and the United States, and his death was the first deliberate killing of an American citizen with an American drone. "Even a traitor deserves a trial in front of a jury of his peers," Bryant says.

But as Locker points out, the drone program has done more than violate the US Constitution—it violates international law. "The people that are giving us our orders, we have to trust what they're doing is right and just," Bryant says. "We're really not given as much information as we probably should be given. We're just glorified cameramen."