Book Review — Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars

George W. Bush had gone to war in September 2001 to avenge the deaths of almost 3,000 civilians. Yet in the resulting battles, some 18,000 more civilians had been credibly reported killed by US, and allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and covert drone wars.

Sudden Justice by Christopher Woods
Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars by Christopher Wood is an examination of America’s use of drones in fighting its enemies. Woods is an investigative journalist who specializes in conflict and national security issues. A former senior BBC Panorama producer, he has authored several investigations into covert U.S. drone strikes and their true effects. He was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Journalism Prize for his work, and lives in London.

If you are looking for a feel-good, America doing the right thing, patriotic book, look elsewhere. If you want a detailed history of drone operations and who controls them, this is a book for you. Be warned though, this is the type of book that makes a veteran like myself hang his head. Unlike the current wave of narrative nonfiction, this is non-fiction done in a scholarly manner. Every claim is documented. Over one-quarter of this book is citations and bibliography. I stress the diligent documentation in this book because of what the book reveals to the reader. For those who served or studied previous conflicts, the military actions, overt and covert, have changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Woods examines the history of drones from their non-military start through to General Atomics, the contractor for America’s drone fleet. What started as resonance resource for the Airforce turned into an assassination platform for the CIA. The Airforce was strongly against arming drones and they had a fleet of multi-million dollar aircraft that were designed for precision bombing and could carry the correct armament for the job. Perhaps the one of the best examples of this is in the opening of the Afghan War. On October 4th 2001 the US had the position of key Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar with Airforce jets just minutes away from striking, the CIA launched its own attack from a Predator drone. It failed. Omar escaped. The Air Force was more than upset.

There has been an ongoing battle between the Air Force and the CIA. The disputes ranged from the CIA’s unannounced attacks, not allowing the Air Force access to intelligence it gathered with its drones, to the Air Force flying the drones into an area of interest then being told to hand over control to the CIA.

Aside from who actually flies and controls the drones, there is also serious questions about the precision of the attacks. Touted as a means to kill terrorists with little to no collateral damage even through Obama’s terms as president, that claim is not supported by the evidence. Former Deputy US Secretary of State Richard Armitage account is recorded as:

Mr. Obama was popping up with these drones, left, right, and down the middle, and I would read these accounts, “12 insurgents killed” “15!”You don’t know that. You don’t know that. They could have been insurgents, they could be cooks.”

Without troops on the ground or any way to verify who was dead it was just a count the bodies game like Vietnam. What else came from the drone attacks was something called “drone porn.” Video was given to ground troops or in some cases leaked to the public showing the elimination of targets. This was used to increase the moral ground troops showing that the war is being won. Also terms like “bugsplat” came into common usage as a word to describe the aftermath of a drone strike on a person.

It is also interesting how members of the military look at the drones. Interviews with Marines show them skeptical that a drone could supply the close air support they need. Marines trust A-10s and their pilots, not drones. The Air Force has had trouble filling the positions needed for drone pilots. Flying conventional planes is still preferred among those wanting to be a pilot. There was even an uproar by military members and veterans over a proposed Distinguished Warfare Medal for drone operators and analysts. As one navy veteran stated when he thought of bravery and valor it actually meant to be there, not thousands miles away.

The drone use was summed up by a senior British military officer:

British RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) are operating on a peace time trigger, while the US military ones are on a wartime trigger. And the CIA has no trigger guard.

The expansion of the War on Terror has crossed many borders. There are many new questions being raised about methods, national sovereignty, human rights, assassinations, and even constitutional rights of US citizens. This is a timely book on what may be the Bright and Shining Lie of the twenty-first century.

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