We are the vultures.
We certainly aren't the apex predators of the battlefield, not even of the ISR/UAV community. We don't make the arrangements necessary for the death to occur, but we most certainly profit from it as it allows us to survive. Whether that stems from the fact that the person who would have driven a VBIED into our front gate, or some nut with an AK-47 who enjoys taking periodic pot shots at the base, we're here to watch people die.
Living vicariously through the lens of the bird, we have collectively watched a number of very fucked up things happen.
When you watch for a long time you begin to experience a weird transference through the camera. The ammonia from ammunition stabilizers burns your eyes, the dust, the clatter of automatic weapons fire, the way the distant 30mm rounds from an A-10 Warthog sound like rain falling on a plastic sheet. The worst of it is that after you have been next to someone who was the victim of an IED or suicide bomber the smell sticks with you. The acidic stench of burnt flesh and hair, the lingering urine of home-made explosives, punctuated with the universally recognizable copper reek of blood.
Over the bazaar at 6,000 feet AGL, you can taste the dust on the empty street as the QRF picks body parts from under cars and places them in black plastic trash bags. Synaesthesia snaps back, now you're in the Ground Control Station again, staring at the screen, condensation from the air conditioning drips down the wall, hearing nothing save the constant sixty hertz whine of cooling fans.
There have been times (usually after our longer 11-15 hour missions) where you cannot watch anymore. The brain, after having stared at the screen for what starts at seconds and winds it's way into days, begins to do funny things after so long at a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance.
Things that aren't funny become riotously amusing. You indulge in long, overly detailed descriptions of violating the cute brunette French medic with paralytics, expired chloroform, and zip ties, allowing her to wake naked and alone in your building shower room. The efficacy of various medicines and delivery systems (darts versus stabbing her outright in the neck,) are haggled over until you have constructed such a mangled version of reality that you begin considerations on how to put your plan into motion. It doesn't help when the person you are talking about this with is a combat medic who is on his second tour in Afghanistan following two other consecutive front-line infantry tours in Iraq.
Plumbing the depths of the deep wells of psychosis created by the Afghan campaign in it's participants is something by which I have become increasingly fascinated.
The flight hours roll by, you still stare at the screen. You know where these shitheads are, you can call them by name in some cases.
Fuck, there are people around here we have been tracking for weeks and cannot touch.
The rules of engagement now mandate that targeting come from men on the ground, and this is preceded by a ten minute discussion concerning the closest civilian structure and if there are women and/or children in the area. The radios are constantly awash with units reporting a TIC (troops in contact), requesting CAS (close air support), only to be told that the Colonel running things has to personally approve prior to bombs separating from wing. Sure, you might be taking highly effective PKM, RPG, an AK fire. But you're not going to get help from on high if you're within 1000 meters of civilians or buildings.
A few months ago I would have said that there was no way this war was going to become another Vietnam. It hasn't, it has become much, much worse.
And over it all leer the unblinking eyes of the vultures and their crews. Much like those actual carrion birds, we don't discriminate between used up Americans or Afghans. All we're interested in is the fact that something died here, may die here soon, or has died here quite recently. Some of the guys over here become intoxicated by the fact they're controlling a UAV over a war zone. You can quite easily tell people that are going to be this way, and coincidentally figure out quite quickly that these people have no experience with death. Maybe a family member or two, but that is likely a memory so distant as to be rendered unremembered and unremarkable.
To some of these people, combat is something you see on television. An abstract concept akin to winning 750 million (or some similarly incomprehensible number) units of your local currency in the lottery. There is an idea of what that would represent, but ultimately it doesn't make sense because you have no honest frame of reference for what exactly the fuck 750 million goddamn bongo bucks really means. It is like staring at the sun on a bright and cloudless day, expecting to see a sharply defined circular form.
Thus, they become a lesser species of vulture. Not one that knows the role consigned to him by Genus-Family-Species, but a migratory moron mercenary made drunk by the sound of gunfire in the background of radio calls. You hate these people, every fiber of your being resonates in the expectant frustration of the peak just before orgasm at the mere suggestion that you might be able to crush their larynx with your hands and not be caught. Ultimately you do nothing, perplexed by the shallow idiocy of these combat-zone tourists.
Yes, that is automatic weapons fire in the background of the radio call.
Yes, those are bad people.
Yes, these are airplanes smiting those deemed naughty by U.S. foreign policy.
You still tacitly beg for them to stop celebrating in childlike wonder every time they hear or see these things.
In the end, you and the other two vultures on your four man crew talk about it in hushed tones while chain smoking on the patio, yet again suffering from insomnia. You stop sleeping at month three, addicted to the coffee, the nicotine, the dead fucking rush of watching a GBU-82 smash into a cave and remembering that the diametrically opposed forces of what was and what is now will tease you for weeks of Doxycycline dreams. Sometimes you are under the bombs, sometimes you are watching them fall from your perch high overhead. Other times the viewpoint switches just before impact, saving or damning on a lark of subconscious decision making.
I am supposed to go home in mere weeks. The mechanics of my departure are completely beyond my capacity to understand. As far as I envision the process, the helicopter will come, I will get onboard, and I will never leave. I will be here for eternity, watching overhead as countless more are ended in this conflict and the ones not yet realized. Praying for death, such that I might go on living.