A former Air Force drone operator-turned-whistleblower is once again speaking out against the atrocities he committed while serving in a military he describes as "worse than the Nazis."
Brandon Bryant was a sensor operator of USAF unmanned aerial drones from 2006 to 2011. His job was targeted killing – remotely firing missiles at targets 7,000 miles (11,000 km) away from an air-conditioned command center near Las Vegas, Nevada. During his Air Force tenure, Bryant says his squadron engaged 1,626 targets, including women and children. He estimates that he is personally responsible for the deaths of 13 people.
Bryant told Britain’s Independent that he reached his breaking point after accidentally killing a child in Afghanistan. He had just fired a Hellfire missile at a building containing an enemy target when he saw a child leave the building. Bryant reported the incident to his superiors. "It was a fucking dog," he was told. "Drop it." But he couldn’t drop it. "When the missile struck, I knew in my soul I had become a murderer," he said.
Earlier, after his first kill, other airmen in his squadron congratulated Bryant on "popping his cherry." He told Roots Action Network in 2017 that drone operators were told their job was "killing people and breaking things." This "went against everything that I had ever learned about honor and justice and training," he said. Bryant said his superiors punished and mocked him to keep him in line. He called the US military "worse than the Nazis" because "we should know better."
After the strike that killed the Afghan child, Bryant decided to quit the military and start speaking out against drone warfare. Becoming a whistleblower has had dire consequences. Bryant says he has lost family and friends, and that he and his family have been threatened. However, he is driven by a desire to educate Americans about the dehumanizing effect of drones on both their operators and their victims. "I would want people to know, beyond its existence, the consequences it has on us as a species to delineate our power into something so easily destructive," he said. "Every time we get closer to that edge, we’re going to have to realize where it places us."
Bryant faces an uphill battle. Like the Bush and Obama administrations before him, President Donald Trump has embraced drone warfare, most infamously illustrated by the recent assassination of Iranian military commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Recent US drone strikes have also sparked outrage for killing civilians. In the deadliest of these, an unconfirmed number of Afghans – reportedly more than 60 – were killed along with the regional leader of a splinter Taliban faction in Herat province last month. Last September, a drone strike meant to destroy an Islamic State hideout instead killed around 30 Afghan pine nut farmers in eastern Nagarhar province.
According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been at least 6,786 US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia alone since 2004, resulting in as many as 1,725 civilian deaths. While it is impossible to say exactly how many civilians have been killed in the wider post-9/11 US-led global war on terror, credible death toll estimates range from conservative figures of around half a million to possibly more than 2 million.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.