The history of warfare is a steady progression of distancing, as battles evolved from close combat to push-button carnage.
On Page One of yesterday’s New York Times, Dave Philipps captured the current war footing.
The Unseen Scars of the Remote-Controlled Kill
Civilian Deaths Haunt U.S. Drone Crews
REDWOOD VALLEY, Calif. — After hiding all night in the mountains, Air Force Capt. Kevin Larson crouched behind a boulder and watched the forest through his breath, waiting for the police he knew would come. It was Jan. 19, 2020. He was clinging to an assault rifle with 30 rounds and a conviction that, after all he had been through, there was no way he was going to prison.
Captain Larson was a drone pilot — one of the best. He flew the heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper, and in 650 combat missions between 2013 and 2018, he had launched at least 188 airstrikes, earned 20 medals for achievement and killed a top man on the United States’ most-wanted-terrorist list.
The 32-year-old pilot kept a handwritten thank-you note on his refrigerator from the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He was proud of it but would not say what for, because like nearly everything he did in the drone program, it was a secret. He had to keep the details locked behind the high-security doors at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nev.
There were also things he was not proud of locked behind those doors — things his family believes eventually left him cornered in the mountains, gripping a rifle.
As the Times piece notes, “[drone] crews have launched more missiles and killed more people than nearly anyone else in the military in the past decade, but the military did not count them as combat troops. Because they were not deployed, they seldom got the same recovery periods or mental-health screenings as other fighters. Instead they were treated as office workers, expected to show up for endless shifts in a forever war.”
And that took its toll on Kevin Larson.
Captain Larson tried to cope with the trauma by using psychedelic drugs. That became another secret he had to keep. Eventually the Air Force found out. He was charged with using and distributing illegal drugs and stripped of his flight status. His marriage fell apart, and he was put on trial, facing a possible prison term of more than 20 years.
Right before he was to be sentenced, Captain Larson ran. He was tracked down by California police with the help of – wait for it – a drone. He then shot himself rather than face a long prison sentence. But . . . “[in] the end, the Air Force had decided not to sentence him to prison, only to dismissal.”
Stories like Larson’s have been told before in even more dramatic fashion. I wrote about one example here in February of 2015.
A hot-shot fighter pilot’s career in the skies, “alone in the blue,” is ended by an unexpected pregnancy. Reassigned to a windowless trailer in the desert outside Las Vegas, by day, she hunts down terrorists, her face lit by the dull grey glow of a drone’s monitor. At night, she returns to her domestic life with husband and daughter. As she tracks a high-profile target half a world away, the pressure mounts.
It’s a total tour de chair force, depicting what it’s like for drone pilots to go to war all day and then go home at night. (The history of military combat is a history of increasing distance from the actual killing field – think trench warfare to the London blitz – but never before has combat included going home for dinner.)
George Brant’s 90-minute monologue is strikingly delivered by Celeste Oliva (Boston Globe profile here), who absolutely owns the stage for every second of this haunting production (directed by Nora Theatre Company Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner).
All we could say when the play ended was . . . Wow.
Here’s the trailer from a 2014 production of Grounded at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre.
Day-hopping to war presents different perils than occupying a battlefield, but they can be just as deadly, as the family of Air Force Capt. Kevin Larson – and many others – well know.