Monday, April 11, 2011

The USAF Joystick "Aces" in(?) Afghanistan

The last ten years of the US's "Long War" abroad have offered up a slew of disgusting accounts of US military "heroes" whose actions have done huge damage  to the quest for winning the hearts and minds of local peoples, much less members of the American public.  I'm sure that many of the men and women who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan went there with a sense of obligation to their country and in the hope of achieving some greater good. 

But I've read and heard enough over these years to also know that too many of them were motivated by nothing more than vengeance and the Toby Keith-kind of patriotism that boils down to (as his famous post-9/11 song put it) "a boot up your ass, it's the American way."  Once deployed, their most central purpose (other than keeping their own sorry skins intact) was to "get some."  Yeah, I know, I know -- the whole idea of boot camp, etc., is to train killers, to inure young soldiers against feeling any sense of common humanity with the "bad guys" they're intent on destroying.

But to read the LA Times' account of the adventures of the USAF's joystick aces (also summarized by Justin Elliott at Salon, who links to the LAT piece) last year is to invite one's disgust to another level.  The LAT piece chronicles an episode during which drone operators at their joysticks at consoles in ever-dangerous Nevada track for more than four hours three trucks, crammed full with as many as 25 people,  driving in the Afghan darkness.  All the while, these guys are licking their chops, trigger fingers twitching, hoping that no observer on the AC-130 attack gunship flying overhead the vehicles or manning video screens at a base in Florida will give them some reason not to fire.  When it appears that one of the people on the trucks might be a child, the sense of disappointment is palpable; the aces note that a 15-year-old can be dangerous too, after all.

At 5:37 a.m., the pilot reported that one of the screeners in Florida had spotted one or more children in the group.

"Bull—. Where!?" the camera operator said. "I don't think they have kids out at this hour." He demanded that the screeners freeze the video image of the purported child and email it to him.

"Why didn't he say 'possible' child?" the pilot said. "Why are they so quick to call kids but not to call a rifle."

The camera operator was dubious too. "I really doubt that children call. Man, I really … hate that," he said. "Well, maybe a teenager. But I haven't seen anything that looked that short."

A few minutes later, the pilot appeared to downplay the screeners' observation, alerting the special operations unit to "a possible rifle and two possible children near the SUV."

Meanwhile, knowing that the drone's missiles wouldn't be enough to take out all three vehicles, a team of Kiowa attack helicopters had been called in to share the kill.

In the end, our heroes get the OK to push the buttons and file their missiles from the drone.  They got the "bad guys":
More than two dozen people were wedged into the three vehicles. Many were Hazaras, an ethnic minority that for years has been treated harshly by the Taliban. They included shopkeepers going for supplies, students returning to school, people seeking medical treatment and families with children off to visit relatives. There were several women and as many as four children younger than 6. . . . By the U.S. count, 15 or 16 men were killed and 12 people were wounded, including a woman and three children. Elders from the Afghans' home villages said in interviews that 23 had been killed, including two boys, Daoud, 3, and Murtaza, 4.

The post-kill reactions of our aces is telling:
The Predator crew in Nevada was exultant, watching men they assumed were enemy fighters trying to help the injured. " 'Self-Aid Buddy Care' to the rescue," one of the drone's crew members said.

"I forget, how do you treat a sucking chest wound?" said another.

Hey, ace, you crack me up.

Soon, however, the crew in Nevada and the screeners in Florida realized something was wrong.

"The thing is, nobody ran," one crew member said.

"Yeah, that was weird," another replied.

At 9:15 a.m., the Predator crew noticed three survivors in brightly colored clothing waving at the helicopters. They were trying to surrender.

"What are those?" asked the camera operator.

"Women and children," the Predator's mission intelligence coordinator answered.

"That lady is carrying a kid, huh? Maybe," the pilot said.

"The baby, I think, on the right. Yeah," the intelligence coordinator said.

The Predator's safety coordinator, cursing in frustration, urged the pilot to alert the helicopters and the A-Team that there were children present. "Let them know, dude," he said.

"Younger than an adolescent to me," the camera operator said.

As they surveyed the carnage, seeing other children, the Predator crew tried to reassure themselves that they could not have known.

"No way to tell, man," the safety observer said.

"No way to tell from here," the camera operator added.

That's right, ace - no way to tell.  So why fire?  Was it because you were in such imminent danger of attack, back there in Nevada?  The account does note that at one point the vehicles had come within about 3 miles of an on-the-ground US combat team, but had then turned off in the other direction.
At 9:30 a.m., the pilot came back on the radio.

"Since the engagement," he said, "we have not been able to PID [positively identify] any weapons."

One of the things that enrages me even more is my recollection of a piece I read a couple of years ago about how the USAF was having a tough time selling this gig to would-be joystick aces, because it didn't bring them glory or respect within the ranks of real "aces."  Would you believe?: The thought at the time was evidently to create special citation medals and awards to honor these people.

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