America's deadly flying war robots are in the hands of users of the popular geek message board Reddit. And as with any profession in which Redditors can be found, U.S. Army drone operators have apparently taken to Reddit to chat about their controversial jobs with fellow users in the site's popular "Ask Me Anything" section.
On Wednesday, four people claiming to be U.S. Army Predator drone operators currently deployed in Afghanistan held a question-and-answer session with Reddit users using codenames. " We feel there is a big disconnect when it comes to UAVs and the general public," wrote one of the operators. "Our group, being redditors, felt we couldn't find a better venue to try and create some understanding."
In one particularly revealing exchange they discussed their thoughts on whether drone warfare alienates soldiers from the battlefield. Critics suggest drone strikes reduce war to a video game, but judging from the high levels of stress reported by drone operators the story is more complicated.
One operator who went by the initial "W" told Reddit users that shooting missiles from behind a computer screen didn't mean war was less real to them.
We understand that the lives we see in the screens are as real as our own. We are located in a combat zone. Although, we are not typical combat troops, so, for me to say that I can tell you the differences between how we feel and how an infantryman feels would be based on assumptions that I would make of an infantryman's feelings. That would not be accurate or fair to those troops. From our perspective we are not worrying as much about our own personal harm. We are usually not within harms way. I would not compare what I do as a job comparable to Call of Duty/any other video game, in any sense. It is very real and the seriousness of the lives on the ground is very real and instilled in all of our training. It is never something that we joke about. Very serious business.
The operators also discussed the U.S. drone reportedly captured by Iran last year ("I have no clue how it happened! We have SOOO many safe guards") and how they're not baby killers ("We are here to defend the constitution of the United States of America and to make sure our brothers in arms are safe from their surroundings"). The AMA didn't reveal much surprising, especially given recent media coverage of drone pilots, but the venue offered a rare, direct connection to the drone operator at war. (This wasn't even the first drone pilot AMA, though the previous one was conducted by an Air Force pilot who was not deployed.)
However, it's impossible to verify that these really were drone operators speaking. The group posted a photo of themselves at their base to prove their identity to Reddit, but quickly deleted it after other redditors expressed security concerns. A spokesman for United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees Afghanistan military operations, told me there were not enough details to confirm whether the operators were legit. Deployed military personnel are supposed to go through designated public affairs officers if they want to do interviews, the CENTCOM spokesman said. But the fact these soldiers claimed to be drone operators posed no special security concerns.
If it's legit, then the AMA appeared to be a bit of guerrilla public relations by a Redditor named Predator226. Predator226 has been a Redditor for 9 months and frequently mentions his job as a drone pilot in his posts. The AMA's genesis can be traced to another thread in which Redditors discussed the question "what is combat really like?" Predator226 wrote he never hesitates to kill to protect his fellow soldiers in battle, but other situations are more ambiguous.
"There are times when we catch bad guys setting up to do damage while there are no friendlies around," he wrote. "For example, insurgents en-placing IED's or setting up mortar tubes. Once again I don't think twice, but the residual effect is different from the previous scenario. This situation weighs heavier on me. I really do not understand why and I'm not going to even try to. There is something about watching a missile vaporize a guy from the view of a close up camera."
This thoughtful response prompted another user to ask Predator226 if he would do an AMA and he soon responded that "I've spoken with the guys and everyone is one (sic) board to do an AMA." But there was a problem: "The internet we have at work is DOD internet and it won't allow us to login into an account. If anyone knows a way to circumvent this, [private message] me so we can get this AMA to Reddit!"
Apparently Predator226 and his buddies found a way around the limitations of the Department of Defense's internet. Although the discussion didn't appear to reveal anything sensitive, hopefully they heeded the warning of another user, Natybobo. "Careful on the DoD net man... It is being watched very closely, especially for people trying to circumvent things. Don't become another Bradley Manning :("
Reached by Reddit private message Predator226 would not provide any additional proof that he was a drone operator. He suggested that he did not personally participate in the AMA, but that the guys that did "were under a lot of pressure from the command so they couldn't answer like they wanted to."
[Image via AP]