From a transcript of radio transmissions and cockpit conversations that took place during a drone strike in Afghanistan in 2010. The strike killed twenty-three civilians. At Nevada headquarters, Pilot is the drone controller; Sensor is the drone-camera operator; M.C. is the mission intelligence coordinator; Safety Observer is an additional pilot. On the ground, Jag25 is the special operations soldier and Bam Bam41 is the attack helicopter team. The conversation is dramatized in National Bird, a documentary that premiered this month on PBS.
m.c.: See if you can zoom in on that guy.
pilot: Is that a rifle?
sensor: Can’t really tell right now.
pilot: I was hoping we could make a rifle out. See if anybody else has anything interesting. What about the guy under the north arrow? Does it look like he’s holding something across his chest?
sensor: Yeah, it’s kind of weird how they all have a cold spot on their chest.
pilot: They wrap their shit up in their man-dresses so you can’t identify it.
sensor: That truck would make a beautiful target. That’s a Chevy Suburban.
m.c.: Screener said at least one child near SUV.
sensor: Bullshit. Where? Send me a fucking still. I don’t think they have kids out at this hour. I know they’re shady, but come on.
m.c.: They’re reviewing.
pilot: Yeah, review that shit. Why didn’t he say “possible child”? Why are they so quick to call kids but not to call a rifle?
m.c.: Two children were at the rear of the SUV. . . . I haven’t seen two children.
jag25: We’d like to keep tracking them. We want to take out the whole lot.
pilot: I don’t think he’s going to let us shoot.
m.c.: That truck’s got everyone in the open, so a Hellfire would do dandy.
sensor: A gas tank makes for a good secondary, too. I hit a vehicle once before and it was a big black cloud.
pilot: All three vehicles have just stopped. Everybody is dismounting. We have eighteen military-aged males dismounted and spreading out.
m.c.: Looks like blankets.
sensor: They’re praying, they are praying. . . . This is definitely it. This is their force.
m.c.: They’re going to do something nefarious. Maybe headquarters will let us have one vehicle since we tracked them for so long. . . . Adolescent near the rear of the SUV.
sensor: Well, teenagers can fight.
m.c.: Pick up a weapon and you’re a combatant: it’s how that works.
sensor: One guy praying at the front of the truck. . . . Sweet target. I’d try to go through the bed of the truck, put it right dead center.
m.c.: That’d be perfect.
pilot: Can’t wait till this actually happens.
m.c.: Looks like they’re about to be coming up to a little town.
pilot: Our screeners are currently calling twenty-one military-aged males, no females, and two possible children.
jag25: When we say children, are we talking teenagers or toddlers?
sensor: Not toddlers. Something more toward adolescents or teens.
jag25: Like I said, twelve to thirteen years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.
sensor: Oh, we agree, yeah.
pilot: We understand and agree.
unknown voice: What’s the master plan, fellas?
pilot: Hope we get to shoot the truck with all the dudes in it.
sensor: Tell you what. They could have had a whole fleet of Predator drones up here.
pilot: It would have been awesome.
sensor: That would be badass. But . . . we’re not killers.
pilot: Don’t worry about any guidance from me or Jaguar, just follow what makes the most sense to you. Stay with whomever you think gives us the best chance to shoot.
m.c.: They’re trying to confirm which vehicle has the kids in it — oh, the adolescents in it.
sensor: Roger. Oh . . . and there it goes!
[Drone strike takes place.]
sensor: Looks like they’re surrendering. They’re not running.
safety observer: Dude, this is weird.
sensor: They’re just walking away. I don’t know about this. This is weird. They just got thrown from the vehicle.
pilot: Three good hits on all three vehicles.
sensor: It looks like there’s a bunch of people just hanging out. Weapons? I don’t see any.
pilot: Can’t tell what the fuck they’re doing.
sensor: Probably wondering what happened.
safety observer: Are they wearing burkas?
pilot: They were all I.D.’d as males, though.
sensor: That guy looks like he’s wearing jewelry. If he’s a girl, he’s a big one. . . . Looks like they’re trying to see what’s left of the vehicles.
safety observer: You can see some blood right there . . .
sensor: It looks like those lumps are probably all people.
safety observer: Yep.
sensor: They’re all lying underneath tarps.
m.c.: Is that one guy tending to the other guy?
safety observer: Looks like it. How do you treat a sucking gut wound?
sensor: Don’t push it back in. Wrap it in a towel. What are those?
m.c.: Women and children.
sensor: Looks like a kid.
safety observer: Yeah. The one waving the flag.
pilot: They said twenty-one males, no females.
sensor: Now they’re calling three females and one child. One possible child.
m.c.: Called him an adolescent earlier.
sensor: At this point I personally wouldn’t be comfortable shooting at these people.
pilot: That lady is carrying a kid, huh?
safety observer: No.
sensor: Uh, yeah.
m.c.: The baby, I think on the right. Yeah.
sensor: Right there in the crosshairs.
bam bam41: Just did a low pass and have three individuals in a brighter dress garb, supposedly females.
pilot: It looks like one of those in the bright garb may be carrying a child as well.
sensor: Younger than an adolescent to me.
safety observer: Well . . . no way to tell, man.
sensor: No way to tell from here.