The Assistant Secretary was a large man with a shaved head. His deep voice was warm and intimidating at the same time. “I’m sure you know what a high priority Yusef is for the President?”
Becky was sitting with the Assistant Secretary and his Senior Advisor at a conference table in his office. She wore a dark skirt and a matching jacket, the most expensive clothing she owned, and no jewelry. She wanted badly to make a good impression. “Yes, I know.”
“And I’m sure you know that we’ve had a lot of trouble finding him?” the Assistant Secretary said.
“Yes, I know.”
“So,” the Assistant Secretary said, with a small shrug, “now that we know where he is…” He waited for Becky to respond.
“I completely understand,” Becky said, nodding. “But the target assessment system is rejecting the house. There’s nothing I can do. We’ll just have to wait until he leaves.”
* * *
A drone pilot in his early twenties sat before three large monitors. His brown hair was cut short on the sides, and his cheeks were covered with pimples. On the center monitor was an image of a mud house with a flat roof, a traditional style in that part of the world. The image was in color, but the colors were pale, like a faded photograph.
Through his headset, he heard, “Pilot, you are cleared to engage at your discretion.”
“Copy.” The pilot used a joystick to maneuver an image of crosshairs onto the roof of the house. He pressed a red button, initiating target assessment. “Target proposed.” On the monitor to his right, the words “Assessment 0% complete” appeared in red letters on a black background. He watched the number climb toward 100.
* * *
The Senior Advisor was thin and wore glasses with steel frames. He straightened in his chair before speaking. “You may not know this about me, but I was here ten years ago when we were negotiating with Congress over the target assessment system.”
“OK,” Becky said.
“If a target is found by the system to violate the rules of engagement, the target is rejected,” the Senior Advisor said. “It says in your report that the target was rejected because the risk of civilian casualties was found to be too high.”
“The target assessment system scans a proposed target using a thermal camera,” the Senior Advisor said. “The presence of civilians is inferred primarily from the presence of thermal profiles that match children.”
“Yes, I know.” Becky was annoyed by an explanation she considered condescending.
“If the target assessment system rejects a target, we can’t override that determination,” the Senior Advisor continued.
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“That doesn’t mean that we’re out of options,” the Senior Advisor said. “The target assessment system has several parameters that can be adjusted to reflect conditions on the ground. For example, adults in developing countries are typically much smaller than adults in the US. If we did not account for that difference, some adults in developing countries would be incorrectly classified as children. Yusef himself is quite small.”
“I know how the system works,” Becky answered. “The system was calibrated for local conditions.”
“I suspect,” the Senior Advisor said, with special emphasis, “you will find that the parameters need further adjustment.”
Becky blinked twice as she realized what they wanted. She looked at the Assistant Secretary. His face was blank. “Are you asking me to set the parameters so that the children won’t be identified?”
“We don’t know that there are any children,” the Senior Advisor said.
“That’s what the target assessment system is for,” Becky retorted.
“When we were negotiating with Congress over the design of the target assessment system, we all knew there would be situations where we would need flexibility,” the Senior Advisor said. “Situations like this one. That’s why the parameters can be adjusted. I’m not asking you to defy Congress. I’m asking you to use the tools Congress gave us in the way they were intended to be used.”
Becky believed him. She sat in silence for a moment as she considered the situation. An order from the Assistant Secretary to change the parameters would have serious repercussions if it became public. The Assistant Secretary was reluctant to give her an order, but he wanted Yusef dead. Yusef, and the children, would only die if she agreed to kill them.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable doing this,” Becky said.
The Senior Advisor began to respond, but the Assistant Secretary held up his hand. “All we’re asking you to do,” the Assistant Secretary said, “is make sure that the parameters are where you want them. None of us wants to miss a priority target like Yusef.”
* * *
“Assessment 100% complete.” The red text was replaced by green text. “Target accepted.”
“Target accepted,” the pilot said. “Firing missile in three, two, one, firing…. Expected time to impact 25 seconds…. Three, two, one, impact.”
Behind his chair, Becky stood watching—arms crossed, scowling, silent—as the house was obscured by a flash of orange light and a swirling cloud of gray smoke.
◊ ◊ ◊
Daniel Wilmoth is a writer and economist living in urban Maryland. He enjoys finding the wild places hidden amid asphalt and concrete. Read more about him and his recent publications at danielwilmoth.com.