The sound was absolutely deafening. I could literally feel it inside my body. It was a sound I had heard before, and one that raised my internal warning flags. However, unlike previous times, on this occasion it was significantly more intense, entirely unexpected, and highly alarming. It was a sound I wished I wasn't hearing.
I immediately turned my gaze skyward to see a number of fighter jets screaming overhead at what seemed like an incredibly low altitude, especially given they were flying above a crowded residential area of Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone; or so I thought.
Less than one minute later the second pass came, and then the third, both just as low and fear-inducing as the first. I knew this was not any sort of training exercise; training exercises for fighter pilots generally don't involve multiple passes at extremely low altitudes over densely populated residential neighborhoods in the capital city of a nation on the brink of a civil war - at least not that I was aware of.
I did not know what was actually happening. All I knew was that multiple fighter jets had taken three passes overhead, and that in my gut it seemed as if something was not right. And then, just as quickly as the deafening sounds had shattered the calm and quiet afforded by the mid-afternoon siesta, we were back in utter silence. Eerie, utter silence.
The reality of the situation only truly hit home when I looked over at my wife, who at the time was pregnant with our first child.
There we were, US citizens providing humanitarian aid in Yemen, a country on the verge of collapsing into full-blown civil war, entirely at the mercy of others.
I was fully aware how at that moment in time, had a bomb been dropped from the jets screaming overhead, we were no safer, no different, and utterly indistinguishable from the tens of thousands of other residents in the neighborhood in which we were living. We were very vulnerable, to say the least.
I never found out what that day's events were all about, and I highly doubt I ever will. We left Yemen shortly afterwards just before the country began its rapid descent into what is now a full-blown civil war between two factions each claiming to constitute the Yemeni government, a safe haven and training ground for al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a full-scale proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the world's worst man-made humanitarian disaster in the history of humanity. What I did gain from the event – albeit in a very small way – was a better understanding of the emotions unarmed, innocent civilians in conflict zones experience during moments in which their eyes look up towards the heavens, only to see hell's fire screaming down from the clouds.
I have never had the experience of looking into the sky and seeing an armed U.S. Predator drone equipped with hellfire missiles flying directly overhead, but for many in Yemen, this is a common occurrence. Since the U.S. drone program began in earnest when Barack Obama took office in 2009 there have been nearly 270 strikes resulting in approximately 1,700 deaths, and all indications point towards a continued increase in strikes under the Trump administration.
It is undeniably true that since the beginning stages of the U.S. targeted killing program in Yemen with its first strike on Sunday, November 3, 2002 which targeted and killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harithi, the man who was believed to have orchestrated the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors and wounded 39 others, drone and air strikes have killed numerous high-level al-Qaeda terrorists; people whom the world is far better off without. Indeed, drones are highly effective at killing, and they can even be effective at killing secretly and silently, with few-to-no civilian casualties. They are not, however, being used to kill secretly, silently, and in a discriminatory fashion these days in Yemen. If they were, the number of innocent Yemeni civilians who now live in terror of drone strikes would not be so incredibly high. If they were, the number of previously non-violent Muslims now rushing to join the ranks of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and its offshoots would not continue to grow.
For months there has understandably been a mass amount of international outcry regarding the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths resulting from the indiscriminate Saudi-led bombing campaign that has taken the lives of so many innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The recent Saudi-led airstrike that killed more than 20 civilians at a wedding party and the 9 August Saudi-led airstrike that obliterated a school bus carrying 40 children who were on a school field trip serve as perfect illustrations. They also at the same time fully annihilate the false Saudi-derived narrative they are exercising any sort of vigilance towards civilian causalities whatsoever.
There also has been debate as to whether or not the United States holds any moral responsibility for the deaths of these civilians given the fact we produced the weapons (500-pound laser-guided MK 82 bombs made in America by Lockheed Martin munitions), sold them to the Saudi Arabian Government in a State Department-sanctioned arms deal, provide refueling for their attack aircraft, and in general support their overall campaign in Yemen. And while I do believe as a nation we have the moral obligation and duty to make absolutely certain to the very best of our ability we are not aiding or contributing to civilian causalities or war crimes, that is not so much the point here.
The inconvenient truth is that in the eyes, minds and hearts of Yemenis, whether or not it is the United States or an entirely different nation -- like Saudi Arabia for instance -- firing the weapons, all drone strikes symbolize American aggression that cannot and does not discriminate between the good guys and the bad guys. For most Yemenis, drones are strictly indiscriminate instruments of death, all of which, are Made In America.