Don’t believe the dangerous myths of ‘Drone Warrior’

By Alex Edney-Browne, Lisa Ling | LA Times

Drone pilots have been quitting the U.S. Air Force in record numbers in recent years — faster than new recruits can be selected and trained. They cite a combination of low-class status in the military, overwork and psychological trauma.

But a widely publicized new memoir about America’s covert drone war fails to mention the “outflow increases,” as one internal Air Force memo calls it. “Drone Warrior: An Elite Soldier’s Inside Account of the Hunt for America’s Most Dangerous Enemies” chronicles the nearly 10 years that Brett Velicovich, a former special operations member, spent using drones to help special forces find and track terrorists. Conveniently, it also puts a hard sell on a program whose ranks the military is struggling to keep full.

Velicovich wrote the memoir — about his time “hunting and watching in the cesspools of the Middle East” — to show how drones “save lives and empower humanity, contrary to much of the persistent narrative that casts them in a negative light.” Instead, the book is, at best, a tale of hyper-masculine bravado and, at worst, a piece of military propaganda designed to ease doubts about the drone program and increase recruitment.

Velicovich and the book’s co-author, Christopher S. Stewart, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, reinforce the myth that drones are machines of omniscience and precision. Velicovich exaggerates the accuracy of the technology, neglecting to mention how often it fails or that such failures have killed an untold number of civilians. For instance, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults in its attempts to take out Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, who reportedly is still alive.

And yet, “I have no doubt that we could find anyone in the world,” Velicovich writes, “no matter how hidden they are.” One might ask Velicovich to explain the deaths of Warren Weinstein, an American citizen, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian citizen — both aid workers who were killed by an American drone strike that was targeting Al Qaeda members in Pakistan.

“We believed that this was an Al Qaeda compound,” President Obama announced three months after the strike, “that no civilians were present.” Indeed, the Air Force had clocked hundreds of hours of drone surveillance of the building. It had used thermal-imaging cameras, which are supposed to identify a person’s presence by his or her body heat when the line of sight is obstructed. Nevertheless, the surveillance somehow failed to notice two additional bodies — Weinstein and La Porto — who were being held hostage in the basement.

Perhaps the aid workers went unnoticed because, according to a forthcoming report on the limitations of drone technology co-authored by Pratap Chatterjee, the executive director of the watchdog group CorpWatch, and Christian Stork, thermal-imaging cameras “cannot see through trees and a well-placed blanket that dissipates body heat can also throw them off,” nor can they “see into basements or underground bunkers.”

Even more insidious are the memoir’s attempts to co-opt the psychological torment of drone operators and intelligence analysts and turn it into a narrative of valor and stoicism. “I fought to keep my eyes open,” Velicovich writes of working while sleep-deprived. “Every hour wasted was another hour the enemy had to plan, another hour it had to kill.”

Compare that portrayal with the reality as described by Col. Jason Brown, commander of the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing. “Our suicide and suicidal ideation rates were way higher than the Air Force average,” Brown told the Washington Post earlier this month, explaining why full-time psychiatrists and mental-health counselors have been introduced into the drone program. “They were even higher than for those who had deployed.” Suicide rates have fallen as a result of the mental-health teams, Brown said. The work itself hasn’t changed.

The film rights to “Drone Warrior” were bought over a year ago, with much fanfare, by Paramount Pictures. (The studio also optioned the life rights to Velicovich’s story.) In the acknowledgments section of the memoir, Velicovich mentions that the forthcoming movie will be directed and produced by Michael Bay, the filmmaker behind “Transformers,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon.”

This development is predictable. The U.S. military and Hollywood have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Filmmakers often gain access to locations, personnel, information and equipment that lend their productions “authenticity.” In return, the military often gets some measure of control over how it’s depicted.

Pentagon officials and CIA staff are known to have advised and shared classified documents with the filmmakers behind “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Oscar-nominated movie that misrepresented the CIA’s controversial torture and rendition program as having been instrumental in locating Osama bin Laden. The CIA also has been linked to the production of “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning depiction of how that agency rescued American hostages in Iran.

But there is something particularly unseemly about Hollywood’s enthusiasm for bringing Velicovich’s version of drone warfare to the big screen. In “Drone Warrior,” the American military may have a powerful platform for portraying its program as effective and its operators as heroic — instead of overworked and distressed. We have to wonder if Velicovich was approached by the U.S. military to write his memoir. It certainly could help with their attrition problem.

Alex Edney-Browne (@alexEdneybrowne) is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she is researching the psycho-social effects of drone warfare on Afghan civilians and veterans of the U.S. Air Force’s drone program. Lisa Ling (@ARetVet) served in the U.S. military as a technical sergeant on drone surveillance systems before leaving with an honorable discharge in 2012. She appears in the 2016 documentary on drone warfare, “National Bird.”