Friday, May 26, 2017

Review: A different kind of war: long-distance death overhead

Review of: Predator – The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story
Author: Lt. Col. Matt J. Martin with Charles W. Sasser
Publisher: Zenith Press
Source: Library
Grade: B

What’s it like to be a regular joe guiding some of the deadliest aircraft in history while sitting in a chair half a world away from the carnage? With a title like Predator – The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story, I wondered what more Matt J. Martin could possibly have to say. The answer is, a lot, including the emotional toll of seeing the after effects of the missiles he unleashed, sometimes with unforeseeable effects.

A self-described Midwestern “farm kid,” Martin grew up longing to fly airplanes like those that winged high over his father’s hayfields, transporting his imagination far away. But chance after chance to become a pilot slipped away. The first Iraqi war ended before he got his second lieutenant’s commission in the Air Force, via his university’s ROTC program, and flight training was closed to volunteers. Instead, he spent years in charge of an underground nuclear missile silo in Wyoming.

“The irony – while my dreams soared above the earth, my body was buried under the earth,” he writes.

 Hoping at least to get in the air, he trained as a navigator and acquired a civilian commercial pilot’s license, only to learn his service obligation as a navigator would put him beyond the age of eligibility for flight training. However, he managed stints doing airborne reconnaissance over the southern “no fly” zone in Iraq, and over Afghanistan in the early days of the U.S.’s post-9/11 war there. Even marriage to the woman whose nickname, Ruby, would one day emblazon one of the world’s most advanced aircraft, couldn’t keep him from feeling dissatisfied with his career. Until. . .

“I was perusing an air force assignments website when I came across a notation soliciting Predator pilots. All I knew about Predator was that it was a remotely piloted aircraft…Not exactly a fighter, although it was armed. It sounded almost like science fiction…Little did I realize that the war for me was about to begin in a way I could never have contemplated.”

Flying a Predator, he found, was far different from flying manned aircraft. “Conventional airplanes were flown with direct mechanical or hydraulic systems.…The same inertia and acceleration that influenced the airplane also affected the pilot. He felt the gusts of wind, turbulence, a change in the aircraft’s relative position to the ground.…The Predator pilot had no such connections to his plane.”

One way or another, though, he was flying war planes. Sometimes they were armed, sometimes they only provided a set of eyes in the sky for ground forces. At times, Martin found himself participating closer to the fighting as he participated in the delicate operations of launching and landing the Predators.

Although the planes can be controlled in the air by pilots half a world away, they must currently be launched and landed from runways much closer to the territories they fly over. An exasperated Martin (whose tongue sometimes got him in trouble) describes his exasperation at fielding questions from visiting congressional members who failed to understand the planes’ limitations.

Martin is enthusiastic about the potential of Predator and its successor remotely piloted aircraft, and it seems inherently better (or less bad) to conduct a precise strike than to destroy an entire neighborhood when the object is to take out only small numbers of suspects. And he insists that there are more than enough safeguards to keep the pilots of such craft from excessive use of their deadly potential.

Still, he admits not being immune to the psychological stress of seeing the human faces of his targets – and the aftermath of strikes – in a way that pilots of conventional bombers never can. And there’s a continued thread, never quite expressed, about the ability of Predators and their like to win a war, given their precise targeting. Does taking out one or even a dozen enemy fighters at a time do enough to deter more from pouring in? In the long term, the role of craft such as Predators may lie more in support of ground troops than as lone rangers.

Even with the presumed wordcrafting help from Martin’s co-writer, journalist/combat veteran Charles W. Sasser, the book’s language is on the rough and ready side, alternating humor with horror in a way that doesn’t quite gel. For the benefit of lay readers, the book also could have used a glossary of military terms. Although Martin and Sasser are careful to decode military acronyms on their first appearance, dozens of pages later I would again find myself at least momentarily puzzled by abbreviations such as GCS (ground control system), or multispectral targeting system (MTS).

Finally, though, the story Martin tells is timely enough, and engaging enough to follow even for those of us who can’t remember all the technical terms. 

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