Hunting was not a part of my childhood. The closest I got was when my uncle taught my brother and I how to shoot a .22 on the windows of a decrepit building on his land in Georgia. He showed us how to put the butt in the crook of our shoulder so that the kick didn’t surprise us (although it always did; I could have sworn my shoulder was dislocated); how to focus on the handlebars, not on the target; and how to gently squeeze the trigger to fire. Between the two of us and a half box of ammo, I think we pulled out a single window. But he had foreseen this: the building was at the back of his property, with only woods behind, so in the (obviously) probable case that we ran out, no harm would be caused by the stray bullets.
I didn’t learn to hunt until I was an adult. I’ve been taught how much patience it takes, how important it is to stay calm, how if you let the adrenaline get over it it’s likely going to screw up your goal. I’ve been taught that to fail is bad, even shameful, and that being a sniper is something to be proud of. And I was taught to count my eliminations, to make sure I record them, so that others know and celebrate my accomplishments.
I was taught these things during my training in the Air Force. I was taught these things to be able to hunt humans. On August 29, when the United States fired a missile that was supposed to stop an ISIS-K attack on Kabul airport during our withdrawal, but which turned out to be a mistake that killed 10 civilians, this is what they did: hunt.
I have never flown a drone, but have hunted from above, in gunships, thousands of feet above the earth. I was an airborne cryptologist linguist, tasked with providing threat alerts to planes I was on and troops on the ground. Threat warning takes many forms, but often results in the elimination of that threat. Sometimes that meant being part of a team effort to kill, one crew member among many who collectively contributed to the death. Sometimes I would just confirm a piece of information so that the order to shoot could be given. Sometimes I gave the order. I don’t know if all these murders belong to me. I just know that I belong to everyone.
As the drone operator on August 29, I hunted for hours, collecting information, searching for a target, hoping it would emerge from its hiding place. On all of these missions, once we found our target, we needed clearance to engage it. Sometimes that authorization had to come from a colonel located hundreds of kilometers away, above the Afghan mountains. Other times it would only have to come from the Joint Attack Controller, or JTAC, the guy on the ground who got shot and given the power to kill those who threatened him.
Apparently drone strikes also require permission. The Obama administration liked to say that every drone strike needed White House approval. This is not true. During my time in the Air Force, only drone strikes in certain places, such as Somalia, Yemen, and sometimes Pakistan, required a presidential green light. Strikes in Afghanistan could be approved at much lower levels.
I would like to take a moment to talk about the language used here. A “strike” of drones. A to hit being an attack, a blow, a recourse to force. How harmless. The name of the missile that was used on August 29, Hellfire, is perhaps a little scarier, but these terms have become such a part of modern life that we have grown accustomed to any fear they were meant to invoke.
During one of the missions I did in Afghanistan, a Hellfire was thrown into a building. Once the dust was cleared, the JTAC went inside to assess the damage. When he got on the radio to tell us what had happened, he was laughing so hard he could barely speak, but he managed to suppress a description of what he saw.
“Oh man, the guy’s leg is stuck to the wall!” “
Apparently the Hellfire had torn a man to pieces and the heat of the explosion had melted his leg to the side of the building.
On August 29, someone, or more likely a few people, approved the firing of one of these missiles in the middle of a town, where it killed seven children. I wonder if Armin, or Ayat, or Binyamen, or Faisal, or Farzad, or Malika, or Sumaya, ended up with one of their legs stuck to a wall.
My Air force record said I killed 123 people, officially referred to as “123 EKIA insurgents” (enemy killed in action). It may sound like a lot, but I assure you that when it comes to Afghanistan it is not. As far as I know, neither of them was a child. The men who I remember most clearly killing, the ones I could see and hear before making the decision that ended their lives, were clearly just that: men. Adults. Most of them were actively fighting the coalition forces. But some of the people I killed, the ones we couldn’t see clearly, could actually be children – at least according to the modern Western definition of a child as someone under the age of 18. Were they the enemy? When I killed them, were they in action?
The US government has never publicly defined the criteria for a military-aged male, or MAM, to my knowledge. Some sources say 16 and over, some say 15, but in reality, during combat, an MAM is any man seen as a threat. This definition is not unreasonable: if someone threatens you in a war zone, then trying to get it before they can get it is a reasonable reaction. But it also has the added convenience of turning kids into men. According to the counting system used by the Obama administration while in office, virtually anyone who died in a strike was counted as a fighter.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tells a different story, using different mathematics. He reports that since January 2015, there have been at least 13,072 strikes in Afghanistan alone. The office estimates that 4,000 to 10,000 people were killed in these strikes, and at least 300 of them were civilians. It is estimated that between 66 and 184 of these 300 were children. I’m sure some of those kids were military age men who were active fighters. It happens. Some 15-year-old Afghan boys can shoot a Kalashnikov as well as any adult. But this is the exception, not the rule; most of the Taliban are adult men.
The seven children killed on August 29 did not fall into this category. We now know that none of them, nor the three adults also killed in the strike, were even remotely associated with the enemy. No, these people were killed because of an age-old combination of fear and faith.
When we make the decision to carry out these strikes, we do so on the basis of what we call “intelligence”. But our intelligence too often depends on our fear of the enemy and our faith in our prowess as hunters. We have convinced ourselves that we know who is good, who is bad and who deserves to die. We hope we can’t miss it. When we inevitably do, then fine, we say our mea culpas and promise to be more careful. But we know, deep down, that the end justifies the means. We believe wholeheartedly that our intelligence is so good, our weapons so precise, and our mission so just that anyone caught in the crossfire, or hellfire, is worth it. Even the children.
Now, I am not a naive pacifist who claims that we should never kill anyone without being 100% sure that they are plotting to kill us. I understand how rare this level of assurance is, having killed my fair share of people with nothing approaching the certainty that their deaths would save someone else. I also understand that it is incredibly difficult to determine who, precisely, in a city of 6 million people, is not only preparing to detonate a second bomb that will kill 200 more people, but also intends to carry out this mission in the next two days. And I believe General Mark Milley’s assertion that this attack took place because “in a dynamic, high threat environment, the commanders on the ground had the appropriate authority and had reasonable certainty that the target was valid.”
But perhaps we should ask for more than reasonable certainty, a condition which requires the removal of reasonable doubt. Yes, the stakes were high, higher than they have been for a long time. But fire a Hellfire – a 100-pound missile with a 20-pound warhead, a missile that melts legs to walls – into a town that will be worth it when we don’t really do it. know who is the recipient?
It’s when you’re scared. And we, as a nation, are very scared. We are afraid of tweens. We are afraid that men will shoot in the air at weddings. We are so scared of our own fear, so terrified, that the two key pieces of information we relied on to continue this strike were that the driver of the targeted vehicle could have been talking with people in what we believe to be a safe. strong ISIS. home, and that he was driving a white Toyota Corolla, one of the most common cars in Afghanistan. When you’re as scared as we are, anyone can be threatening, even when you make that decision from a control room 7,000 miles away.
I still don’t know much about hunting, but this is what the government taught me: When you hunt humans for the US military, there is no season, no expiring permit, no maximum number of tags you are limited to. There is no concern with minimizing the suffering of legitimate targets, and there is no need to kill cleanly. And although officially it doesn’t matter who else you accidentally hit, if you have a choice of an American life or a number of others, you shoot, even if that means for the rest of your life you will have to ask how many children you killed.
The Pentagon admitted the mistake we made on August 29 and announced its intention to conduct a botched strike review to determine “to what extent strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be changed in the future. ‘to come up”. I hope this investigation will lead to a change. I would like to believe that America will conduct fewer strikes like this in the future. But the truth is, I have a reasonable certainty that the review, like those that preceded it, will not change anything.