Who is America’s deadliest Predator Drone pilot?

I’m not sure if that’s a question anyone knows the answer to, considering that no one knows how many people total have been killed in drone strikes, although it seems the Obama administration has used them more.

But it’s a cheeky title that goes to what director Michael Moore said about sniping in reference to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper film about deceased Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.

That got negative attention, but strictly speaking, it’s true. Snipers didn’t used to be considered ‘real’ soldiers. According to the U.S. Army itself in 2002:


Historically, units that suffered heavy and continual casualties from urban sniper fire and were frustrated by their inability to strike back effectively often have become enraged. Such units may overreact and violate the laws of land warfare concerning the treatment of captured snipers. This tendency is magnified if the unit has been under the intense stress of urban combat for an extended time. It is vital that commanders and leaders at all levels understand the law of land warfare and also understand the psychological pressures of urban warfare. It requires strong leadership and great moral strength to prevent soldiers from releasing their anger and frustration on captured snipers or civilians suspected of sniping at them.

commenter on /r/AskHistorians goes into more detail about why:

Yes, indeed, snipers were very much hated, not only by enemy soldiers, but by their fellow one as well. There were plenty of reasons for that:

-Soldiers felt that snipers were not playing a fair game. The usual soldier can see the enemy soldier and vice versa. A shootout proceeds and the best one is the winner. The snipers, according to soldiers, were not playing by the book, by hiding and stalking their prey.

-Soldiers were very afraid of them. Fear of snipers was second to fear of artillery shelling only. Watching your comrades getting their brains blown away around you and not knowing where the fire was coming from (emphasis original) was particularly terrifying and this fear was turned into hatred whenever a sniper was caught.

-They were hated even by their fellow soldiers because snipers were not usual soldiers. All the vulgar tasks of the usual soldier such as: digging(there was plenty of digging), pushing artillery or tanks when stuck in mud, clearing an area of corpses etc. A sniper was not expected to do all this. Snipers also were not very disciplined. The nature of their job required them to work independently, so the discipline that existed among soldiers, the fear when an officer screamed at you was lacking in snipers. Snipers were very much separated from regular soldiers. They operated alone or in small groups of 2 people and they were mostly out of the camp, in enemy territory, so there was not much chance for bonding.

All these factors made snipers hated by enemy soldiers and despised by even their fellow ones.

That’s likely changed in the modern military, but I really have no idea. Certainly, it’s changed in modern American culture where serving in the military in any capacity is treated as winning a Purple Heart. I’m sure people shake the hand of drone pilots and buy them a drink at airport bars, too.

None of that is relevant to the film itself or Kyle in particular. He never managed the Purple Heart, but two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars ain’t bad. And while I haven’t seen the movie, I did interview Kyle over the phone for his book release, and surprisingly got to talk about him for close to half an hour.

The film has been criticized on simple, ideological lines, especially in its outlook on killing Iraqis.

Kyle didn’t have anything resembling a conflicted feeling about his actions. To the idea that he was racist or a sociopath, I mean it’s possible. The word ‘racist’ is an easy way to label someone as a bad person without really saying anything meaningful.

He had prejudices, but at least he gave lip service to the idea that he was protecting good, true Iraqis by what he was doing. He told himself that all of the people he was killing were al-Qaeda in Iraq types, subhuman narco-like monsters. Some of them were, but a lot were the same tribally-loyal groups that made the surge successful.

He definitely didn’t have the ability to empathize with those he was killing, and apparently that’s the case of the film, too.

Like, if a foreign nation invaded the United States and removed the government, I expect Kyle would use his sniping skills to kill the people occupying the area and installing a new government. That’s not what he saw in any of the militants, even others who were snipers. The film likewise chose not to bother with empathy.

But it wasn’t Kyle’s job to empathize. It was his job to kill people from very far away. He was really good at it, and to keep doing it, even when shooting women and children, he told himself what he was doing was saving the lives of good guys by killing the bad ones first.

I don’t know if that’s heroic or not. My favorite recent war movie is ‘The Hurt Locker‘ because it doesn’t try to answer questions of good or evil or heroism. It’s about people in a situation, doing a job as well as they can and doing their best for the people around them. To me that’s more accurate a reflection of life than heroes and villains, but it wouldn’t be a reflection of how Kyle saw life.

In any case, relatively few people who serve in the U.S. military will actually be killed, fewer still by combat. That trend is going to continue, until all war movies will have to be about virtual pilots in small rooms battling ennui, depression, and carpal tunnel.

I’d watch that.

1 thought on “Who is America’s deadliest Predator Drone pilot?”

  1. Minor anecdote, Kyle was actually in all kinds of combat, not just far off impersonal sniping distances. His official role was as a sniper but often times served as point man on room clearing in Fallujah for instance. Sniping is different in the modern military than in Vietnam when yes you were deep in enemy territory assassinating a far off general. Nowdays they are used as a tactical asset in close communications and proximity to other infantry (overwatch, precision shooting, counter sniper, recon, etc).


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