The Army Needs Gamers Operating Drones of Death

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Before we all longed for the zombie apocalypse, our fantasies were clouded with dreams of gamers operating drones.

playstation controller - gamers operating drones

Very few of us today are so young that we don’t remember Columbine. Back when mass slaughter was something of a rarity—just seventeen years ago this April—it was a real blow to the American psyche, and we found ourselves asking why. Desperate to make sense of the senseless, we grasped at whatever straws we could: was Marilyn Manson to blame? NAFTA? That series finale of Seinfeld? And then another go-to punching bag was suggested: those damned kids and their video games. Concerned parents the nation over called for restrictions or even the outright banning of violent fare like DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D. Far from enacting meaningful oversight—kids still have a harder time getting their hands on vintage Playboys and whippets than Resident Evil—some in government had their eyes light up like a slot machine that’s hit the jackpot. Yes, they decided, these things make kids aggressive. So skillfully, unfeelingly, efficiently aggressive. We can use this.

It’s no mere conspiracy: when unmanned drones do our killing from half a world away, we’ve got no better soldiers for the job than the gamers operating drones —and no better way to generate new recruits than Halo and Call of Duty.

Count Brandon Bryant among those few good men. He’s a seasoned (and now retired) drone operator as well as a key voice in the 2014 documentary Drone—currently available on Netflix, for those socially responsible enough to watch something other than prison lesbian comedies. Bryant is also one of those polarizing, vilified beasts we call a whistleblower. His willingness to describe the system is rare, but his experience is not. In this clip, he details a typical work day, rolling in to a bunker hidden safely on U.S. soil, tasked with murdering ambiguous, bearded targets in Pakistan:

We sat in a box for nearly twelve hour shifts. All the lights were usually off except for the light coming from the monitors… We’re the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate peeping Toms. No one’s going to catch us. And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives. It was just point and click.

Bryant’s candor has won him criticism from all sides—death threats from his peers in the military, outrage from his fellow gamers.  Despite this stifling opposition, fellow former drone operator Michael Haas made the link from gamers to actual gamers operating drones and killing this much clearer:

I wasn’t even twenty years old at that point… I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. I was like, oh, man, play a video game all day! And then the reality hits you… you may have to kill somebody.

He had revenge in video games. Emotional kid play computer games online.

Herein lies the gamers’ appeal to our 21st century military: these are the kids who willfully spend their free time gunning down two-dimensional phantasms without consequence—enhancing hand-eye coordination, multitasking, all that crap.  In that same featured clip with Bryant and Haas, former Navy pilot Missy Cummings further explains that appeal: “Video gamers do have a skill set that is very important and actually enhances the skill set of drone operators… we don’t need Top Gun pilots, we need Revenge of the Nerds.”  In the Drone documentary, Cummings’ voice is laid over footage from annual The Gathering event in Norway.  Wikipedia describes The Gathering as “the second largest computer party in the world… Each year, TG attracts more than 5200 (mostly young) people, with attendance increasing every year.”  If Woodstock was the fountainhead of ‘60s hippy garbage, this is its naïve, innocent, passionate gamer equivalent. So it’s unnerving to see, in said footage, an unnamed U.S. military official surveying the sights—the potential talent—as if he were deciding what best to drop next from the Enola Gay.

Desperate times, desperate measures, some might guffaw. Surely the Pentagon is merely appraising a dire but unavoidable situation—killing Pakistanis from afar because they sure do look villainous to our Western eye—and simply enlisting raw talent, those plucky young bucks whose love of the game is entirely free from military taint. Bullshit, says P.W. Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Wired for War. As he tells it, “The military has invested in creating video games that they’re using as recruiting tools.” When pressed for specifics, Singer has singled out the popular game franchise America’s Army as the perfect example.  The evidence bears this out.  There’s no covert paper trail divorcing our military from the popular first person shooter; rather, a string of government-approved advertising endorsements—and then some. GameSpot.com bills itself as the world’s leading resource for videogame news. Editor Amer Ajami said of AA: “Nothing beats going in and seeing what the Army really does… without actually having to do it.”  Because videogames are just simple pixels flickering on a screen, nothing more, right?  We can murder as many grainy little specks as we please, and never go feeling like our humanity has been compromised. Just keep zapping ‘em, and the gamers operating drones win—right?

The gamers exploited for the drone program were groomed on just such pretenses.  But pardon us, Mr. Ajami; those young people in the hot seats of our drone program do something of slightly greater consequence than pouncing on King Koopa.  These actual soldiers don’t have cushy, glib, disaffected gigs at Gamestop—if our country decides some folks have got to be eliminated, these are the people who actually have to do it.  Maybe they don’t feel the heat of the explosives they fire on their cheeks; maybe the live audio link doesn’t do a family’s last blood-gargled gasps justice.  The reality of war likely won’t get a five-star review, and goddamnit, good war is not a game – even with gamers operating drones.

Yes, gamers, you’ll be inundated with the Army recruiter’s version of it, as you will that of the sycophantic shills at detached outfits like GameStop.  The days of gamers operating drones is upon us.  Remember that Michael Haas was once one of you. When he appeared on Democracy Now!, when host Amy Goodman posited this to him:

And, Michael Haas, as we wrap up, what do you want people to be left with today? And there’s a large military audience here, too. What you have to say to your fellow servicemen and women?

Haas responded with his own utter truth—as the heartbroken kid so enamored with what was once just innocent fun, whose talent for the game was corrupted and bastardized for nefarious ends he’d never wanted:

On the other side of that screen, they’re very real. It feels like a video game, and it looks like a video game, but it’s very, very real. And to keep that in mind and not become disconnected from your own humanity and not to take away theirs—that’s what I’d want to leave them with.

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But hey, counterpoint: if we can’t rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, the terrorists have already won. Don’t go thinking about it enough to argue; if the pretense on which we fight is an obvious fiction, the nature of our enemy might as well be too. Just pixels on a screen, kids. Fire at will.

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