Former U.S. Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant gave an interview to NBC that stirred visceral reactions. In the interview, he discusses the spiritual and psychological effects he’s felt from having participated in more than 1,600 killings. I’m not going to get into the whole drone debate – nor am I going to get into any debate about the weapons of war. No, what has been curious to watch in the more than 1,000 comments on the interview’s webpage (and elsewhere on the web) is the fact that some people do not think Bryant has the right to feel what he does. He sat behind a computer screen to conduct his warfare, tucked away “safe” in the air-conditioned room in the middle of the United States. No Insurgents to fire back at him. No chance of hitting an IED. No having to deal with 140 degree heat, sand, loneliness. No buddies to lose.
People are calling him a whiner, that he has no fucking right to complain.
If you’ve been downrange, you may very well envy Bryant’s war experience. He had it easy, right? Are you sure?
No matter what manner is used to kill in war, a human death is a human death. Killing is killing. War is multifaceted and everyone has a different role to play. The big picture of war is his: you kill people to win. You are affected by association with this overarching mission. War is like radiation to the human spirit – it’s toxic. Any exposure to it has an impact — it might be invisible, it might not. Either way, you can’t escape it. Which is why Bryant could sit in a comfortable room and still have his spirit impacted by knowing that people were dying because of his decisions.
Killing is killing. Your soul knows it.
We’ve sanitized war in the States so much that we think killing is easy. It’s not. You can press a button, you can click, you can pull a trigger. The impact on your conscience will be the same. Killing is killing and your soul knows it.
And that’s a good thing.
Bryant left the military because he felt his conscience slipping away. Because killing became “too easy.”
Does that make him a weak man or a good man?
Does it make you a weak human being or a good human being? Soldiers kill. It’s their duty. They do it, so the rest of us don’t have to – but it’s not without consequence.
Bryant broke the code of silence – and people don’t like it. Americans do not want to hear about the realities of war. Bryant put a human face to one aspect of warfare. We’d rather not have a face to it. It’s easier to believe it’s “just a video game.” The fact that “no one cares” and “no one talks about it” haunts Bryant just as it does many vets who are struggling to reconcile their war experiences with a civilian world that is (surprisingly to them) oblivious to the fact that we’ve even been at war for a decade. The war belongs to the “1%” of the population, right? Service members volunteer, they know what they’re getting into it, no one makes them go, right?
How did we lose “ownership” of our service members’ experience? Distance. No perceived threat to our everyday safety. Terrorists are “out there” – but not here, not in our neighborhoods. We send service members off to wars we don’t feel a direct impact from; they come back to us changed and we aren’t sure why. A sanitized war means that we don’t know what war is like. Our familiarity with war comes from film and video games. The act of killing looks easy because we rarely see the emotional impact in film and certainly not in video games. Sure, we know war involves killing real people, but we close our eyes to the reality that war kills the spirit of the one who kills, too. Peripherally, we all know that civilians are killed. But we don’t want to know how it feels to have killed a child or watched it cry while its mother bleeds out.
Bryant’s experience of war is his experience. It’s valid and it’s real. It should say something LOUD AND CLEAR to us that the fact that he is haunted by the “sanitized” version of war means that no matter what your role in war you can expect to be impacted. And you should. That’s a normal human reaction.
Should Bryant have been tougher? Should he have somehow been immune to it? Should his conscience not have bothered him? Does he have less rights to his feelings than you do?
His war is his war. Yours is yours. But his and yours are ours.