Confessions of a Drone Pilot

Four hundred.

Adolphe Pégoud, a French aviator was dubbed an Ace when he was the first documented pilot in history to down five enemy fighters.
Max Immelmann on the other side of the line was credited with fifteen.
Albert Ball, a Brit, had fourty-four.
Billy Bishop, a Canadian, scored seventy-two.
The dreaded Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, commander of the Jagdgeschwader 1 - The Flying Circus had eighty and once downed four in a single day.

They only call you Ace if you play fair.

Four hundred.

Conventional warfare is on the way out. The modern fighter jock rarely gets to engage an enemy fighter in the skies and when you're dogfighting at a distance of four miles using heat-seeking missiles, it's not exactly up close and personal. Bogeys usually turn out to be allies, or at least non-combatants, and in some cases that is only discovered too late to matter. These days our enemies don't have planes. They're on the ground, in the cities, or hiding out in caves.

Just because your enemy is hiding in a cave doesn't mean they aren't a threat. They have guns, they have SAMs, and sometimes they get lucky. The Brass doesn't like talking about casualties, it's bad PR. War is fun! War is safe! Come on out, join your buddies in the desert and defend your country!

I thought I was lucky. The grunts on the ground have the hard job. Sitting in a jeep, surrounded by foreigners where anyone and everyone could be an enemy. Where any pile of refuse, or bit of rubble could be the IED that takes your leg or your life. Was that broken cart there the last time you drove down this street? Are those wires sticking out of the back of it? Wait a minute, did the driver see what I saw? Why is he still on course, is he going to take us right into an ambush?

Maybe the navy would have been better, but it seems like it would be hard to feel like you are contributing from a boat in a desert war. Join the airforce instead! It's just like a video game.


Four hundred times I've pushed that little red button while I watched the pixels on my screen dance. Sixteen seconds of life, watching them sleep, eat, play, plan, fight, and fuck between the moment I press the button and the moment everything goes to hell. Sixteen seconds, four hundred times. That's one hour, forty-six minutes, and forty seconds, give or take, of watching the last moments of someone's life that you have just ended.

In training they don't tell you that you get to watch them die. It's called confirming casualties, not counting the corpses. Fighter pilots don't stick around to count the corpses. Good thing I'm not a fighter pilot, I excel at counting.

My highest score is thirteen, lucky number thirteen. I've done it twice. Of course if they're still moving after the strike it doesn't count, or, you know, collateral damage either. When a building collapses, if it crushes a pedestrian that happens to be walking nearby, you don't get to count the pedestrian. You only get to tally the primaries that you counted before you pushed the button and mark off the ones that you can confirm afterwards.

No one gives you a medal for playing a videogame. Good thing no one's ever given me a medal, I might feel like I earned it.

I've heard them say that autonomous weapons should be banned, that we should never put the power of life and death into the hands of a robot. But, what the fuck is it we're doing now? The robots do all the hard work, the only difference is that I get to feel guilty for pushing the button. I'm not even allowed to say whether or not I get to push it. The order is given, we push the button. Why does it matter that there is a person doing the pushing? I have the same free will as any robot would. I've watched families at dinner, I've watched kids playing the yard, I've watched a mother picking up her baby and when the order is given to push the button, I push it. I don't get to choose the target, I just get paid to watch.

After a couple of weeks of staring at that screen you start dreaming in infrared. I've been dreaming now for eighteen months. Twenty-nine thousand, two hundred and eighty patrols, pushing the button four hundred times, tallying fifteen hundred and seven enemy soldiers KIA, by which I mean men, women, and children killed by fire, crushed beneath rubble, and bleeding out while trying to crawl across an open field in search of help having had both legs blown off.

BEEP BEEP BEEP goes the alarm. It's 8:30PM and time for me to get up, go to the office, and earn my paycheque just like every other working stiff staring at a computer monitor.

I am the tinman's heart, I am the ghost in the machine.

I am not a paratrooper, but the words are fitting. Никто, кроме нас!

Four hundred and one here we come.