Those who operate the drones are drawn into an intense and intimate form of warfare. A team of drone operators might fly 6,000 hours, watching and waiting, before striking a target. All that time can create a surreal bond between an operator and the subject of surveillance.
“You’re tracking an individual house because they think it’s a hotbed for meetings and you watch people drink their tea on the porch,” said Capt. Kristi, a drone operator identified here by her rank and first name only. “You know what gas station people go to. There’s an odd sense of voyeurism. It’s like, ‘Hey, it’s getting to be 10:15; I’ll bet he’s going to have his tea. At 10:45, he’ll go to the gas station down the street to get his Luckies.’ There’s a part of you that feels like ‘I know more about this house’s life than I know about my own right now.’”
Kristi, who has been flying combat missions for three years, said the most difficult aspect of the job is not what she sees directly. It’s the feeling of impotence that comes from her ability to shape some outcomes but not others. It follows her when she heads home at day’s end. “You can be in there for eight hours … you can be following a guy that you know committed some horrible crime and you’re thinking about those things the entire day.”