It begins with a tragedy.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel has published a moving profile of an American drone pilot who flew armed, remotely piloted missions over Afghanistan, one country where the War on Terror is actually declared. Drone strikes there are run under the supervision of Air Force officers operating under military procedures. For those reasons, it is better hedged against abuse than the drone program run elsewhere by the C.I.A. The subject of the profile nevertheless lamented the fact that he sometimes had to kill "good daddies," that he watched targets so thoroughly via drone surveillance that he even attended their funerals - interesting, that - and that as a consequence of the job he collapsed with stress-induced exhaustion and developed PTSD.
One traumatic incident stands out in his memory:
There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs... When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact... With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says. Second zero was the moment in which Bryant's digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif. Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach. "Did we just kill a kid?" he asked the man sitting next to him.
"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.
"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
Then, someone they didn't know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. "No. That was a dog," the person wrote.
They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?