Der Spiegel has a really good piece about what it's like to be a drone pilot, a job that has received rather little respect in the military (for a long they weren't regarded as real pilots), and remains shrouded in moral ambiguity. We often think of drone pilots as entirely divorced from their actions-- like they're playing a video game that lets them remain emotionally disengaged-- but that
isn't true, says [Colonel William] Tart, noting that he often used the one-hour drive from work back to Las Vegas to distance himself from his job. "We watch people for months. We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns like we know our neighbors' patterns. We even go to their funerals."
What emerges is a picture that's almost the exact opposite of what you'd expect: because of the way drones are used for surveillance and intelligence operations, drone pilots develop a terrible familiarity with their targets.
[Brandon] Bryant remembers the first time he fired a missile, killing two men instantly. As Bryant looked on, he could see a third man in mortal agony. The man's leg was missing and he was holding his hands over the stump as his warm blood flowed onto the ground -- for two long minutes. He cried on his way home, says Bryant, and he called his mother….
Bryant preferred night shifts, because that meant it was daytime in Afghanistan. In the spring, the landscape, with its snow-covered peaks and green valleys, reminded him of his native Montana. He saw people cultivating their fields, boys playing soccer and men hugging their wives and children.
When it got dark, Bryant switched to the infrared camera. Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. "I saw them having sex with their wives. It's two infrared spots becoming one," he recalls.
He observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.
"I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot."