Book Review: ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’ by Chris Woods.

READING WEEK: The final post in our short series of book reviews related to the use of armed drones.

Sudden-Justice_webThe number of books about the use of armed drones has mushroomed over the past two or three years but investigative journalist Chris Woods’ just published ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’ sets a real benchmark for the genre and is likely to be a standard text for some time to come.

Over 300 tightly-written pages, the book traces the growing use of armed drones from the  almost ad hoc missions in the aftermath of 9/11, to their gradual acceptance in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan before spreading ‘beyond the conventional battlefield’ into Yemen, Somali and most controversially Pakistan. Weaved into this chronological story, Woods examines the multiple legal and ethical issues that surround the drone wars including the questions of targeted killing, asymmetric warfare and the civilian casualties.

For me, the unparalleled access that Woods has managed to obtain sets this book above many others on the subject. From conversations with rank and file personnel operating these systems on a day-to-day basis – including pilots, senor operators and intelligence analysts – to interviews with key intelligence and political appointees and high-ranking security and military officials, Woods wrestles out the story of the drone wars in a hugely detailed but thoroughly readable way.

Some of these interviews bring jaw-dropping quotes and anecdotes. The ability of drones to enable intervention without boots on the ground is “making the drones as addictive as catnip” one counterterrorism expert dryly tells Woods. Elsewhere a former ISAF officer recounts an incident in which an Afghan suspected insurgent was to be released as there wasn’t enough evidence to continue holding him, but it was agreed there was enough to assassinate him. The officer went on to tell Woods of the discussion that followed in regard to how long they had to wait before striking at him. “Obviously, the easiest place to kill him was as soon as we’ve let him out the front gate, but that would have been a bit unsporting” he tells Woods.

But it’s not just the pithy quotes that makes this such an important work. The book contains real details which have hitherto been absent from the public domain such as which squadrons are operating drones for which “customers” (i.e. military, JSOC or CIA). And that operational detail can answers some of the basic questions campaigners and researchers have about how drones are being operated on a day-to-day basis. For example in 2013 a well-known US defence commentator ridiculed Amnesty International for reporting eye-witness accounts of the killing of 68 year-old Pakistani Grandmother Mamana Bibi in a US drone strike in which the witnesses reported seeing several drones flying in the area. David Axe insisted

“Predators and Reapers necessarily operate alone, because their pilots—sitting in trailers thousands of miles away in Nevada, monitoring their ‘bots’ flights through narrow camera lenses—lack the visibility to fly in close formation with other aircraft…  So when Pakistani eyewitnesses such as Rehman—plus others cited in the recent Amnesty report—describe groups of several aircraft flying together, it’s unlikely what they were seeing were drones.

But in discussion of how drone operations changed over time, drone commander Pete Forest told Woods that as pilots often had to decide whether to follow a car or an individual who had disembarked from that car “massed ISR” was developed in which multiple drones worked a single mission. “Now you’d maybe three or four different [aerial] vehicles watching an area” he told Woods. It is this kind of detail which has only previously been available to insiders.

Two specific chapters of the book are worth mentioning as they deal with two of the key issues.

In the chapter ‘Game Face On: The Intimacy of Remote Killing’ Woods examines the issue of remote warfare from the crew perspective. Woods disagrees with the ‘PlayStation mentality’ notion arguing that the many extended conversations he had had with those involved had “indicated a very different picture.” Nevertheless “a war fighting mentality” is encouraged and the pilots describe to Woods how they would be shown pictures of bin Laden and other senior leaders and ask themselves “Which one of these motherfuckers is gonna die today?” Others describe how images of the attack on the Twin Towers attack are repeated over and over again in the Bagram command center. But the horrors which pilots have to closely watch as well as the stresses of these remote killing are clearly having an impact on some of those closely involved with day-to-day operations. As Woods puts it “psychologists are having to invent a new language to describe the damaging effects of this remote warfare on military personnel.”

The issue of drones and civilian casualties is examined in the chapter ‘The Inconsistent Value of A Civilian Life’. Woods broadly argues that drones are not the problem, but rather it is the way they are used that can increase or lessen the amount of civilian casualties. He argues that the different cultures and Rules of Engagement (RoE) of the different users (US military, special forces, British Military, CIA) can lead to very different casualty figures and quotes one unnamed British officer saying “British RPAs are operating on a peacetime trigger, while US military ones are on a wartime trigger. And the CIA has no trigger guard.”

While there is undoubtedly some truth to this notion, reliable and compressive data on drone operations and on consequent civilian deaths in Afghanistan – which has been the real centre of armed drone operations despite the concentration on the controversial use in Pakistan and elsewhere – is simply not available. And, it must be remembered, deliberately so. Woods recounts how the US military briefly released figures for drone operation in Afghanistan only for them to be withdrawn shortly afterwards and all traces on the Pentagon websites expunged. ‘We don’t do casualty figures’ is the mantra. Any figures that we do have, from UNAMA for example, are unfortunately broad and indicative at best.

For this reviewer, the idea that we can iron out any difficulties with the drone wars by improving the processes misses the fundamental problem with the technology.  Drones have simply become far too easy and tempting to use – as Chris Woods himself said at the book’s launch.

Sudden Justice is a really excellent book and anyone interested in the use of drones or indeed modern warfare itself, either from a general concern or from a professional or academic interest, should have it on the bookshelf.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’ by Chris Woods.

  • It sounds like a great book with lots of new and important information and insights. But an inappropriate title.

  • The title is explained in the book. It’s a direct quote from George W Bush where he talks of America’s newfound ability to deliver “sudden justice upon its enemies.” He’s talking about drones. I think the title sums up many of the ambiguities and challenges of drone targeted killings – and their fraught legal foundations.

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