Sky Wars

Sudden Justiceby Chris Woods

Oxford University Press. 416p $27.95

Chris Woods claims there have been about 2,500 drone strikes carried out by the United States and Britain during a 12-year period. Approximately 1,900 of these attacks took place on the conventional battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The remaining number were carried out by U.S. Special Forces and the Central Intelligence Agency in Yemen, Somalia and, most significantly, Pakistan. It is these latter drone attacks that are the “secret” element of America’s counterterrorism strategy.

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Woods is a British investigative journalist with particular expertise in armed conflict and national security issues. At one time he was senior producer of “Panorama,” a BBC show similar to PBS’s “Frontline” in this country. Woods also worked for a time with the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an organization known for its research into civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes. That background is evident throughout the volume.

The book is an extensively researched exercise in investigative journalism. There are more than 2,000 reference notes cited. A good number of these allude to “interview with author” and cite a place and date. Sometimes not even locale and date are supplied. This is because Woods interviewed numerous individuals who cannot speak on the record—former military, intelligence and political figures who must remain anonymous. There are, however, other interviews on the record as well as a trove of reports and documents from governmental and nongovernmental bodies. In addition, the author spent time in Yemen and Pakistan, including some of the most inhospitable areas for Westerners. The result is that Woods provides more background information on the development and practice of drone strikes than any other book with which I am familiar. At times, the amount of material is overwhelming—the acronyms, statistics, military jargon and dates abound. A bit more selectivity about what to include might have improved the presentation.

Chapter Two traces the development of drones, including the story of the brothers James and Linden Blue, owners of General Atomics, which produced both the Predator and Reaper drones. There is also background on Abe Karem, the “Moses of modern drones,” who designed the earliest prototypes. The narrative continues with the early use of drones in the Balkan conflict and their evolution from purely intelligence and surveillance aircraft to armed attack vehicles.

Middle chapters treat the use of drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. I found Chapter Seven, on the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly well done, with a clear explanation of the differences between drone operations in the two locales. The material on “double-tap strikes” was also compelling. These are strikes targeted at first responders who rush to the scene of an initial attack. The Central Intelligence Agency apparently presumes that these rescuers are accomplices of those attacked, without considering the possibility that there might just be decent neighbors and humanitarian actors on the scene. Woods reports that one humanitarian agency implemented a policy of waiting six hours before going to an attack site because of the C.I.A. practice.

Another chapter presents an underreported aspect of drone use, the impact upon the pilots and intelligence analysts involved in drone operations. Through his interviews with a number of these people, Woods shows that the popular caricature of “video game warriors” is far from accurate. He helps readers see the human cost of U.S. policies on both American personnel and on those on the receiving end of our military prowess.

A central thread running through the book is the loss of civilian life because of drone attacks, and Chapter Eleven is devoted entirely to this controversial topic. One cause of the controversy is that no official report on casualties is provided by any government source, U.S. or otherwise. Indeed, there is no agreed-upon figure for the total number of persons killed, nor even the status of the dead as combatant or civilian. Estimates vary widely because the major sources for information on casualties depend upon information from locales that are hard to reach and use various approaches to interpret the data.

The three main sources for casualty data are the B.I.J., where Woods worked, the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal, both in Washington, D.C. All three sources rely upon local news, so the casualty figures are based on reported, not actual deaths. Journalists are not always adept at distinguishing civilians from combatants, and some reports combine known militants with alleged militants determined by age and gender. Other news reports do not provide firm figures, using vague words like “some” or “many” that then are translated differently into specific numbers by the various sources. And there have been reports of terrorist groups preventing access to attack sites until they have removed bodies of their colleagues.

Woods works through these issues in a careful way, and whether his preference for the B.I.J. figures means they are always the most accurate is not the crucial point. Rather it is convincingly clear that the number of civilian deaths is considerably greater than the Bush and Obama administrations have admitted. At the same time, Woods acknowledges that drone strikes have decimated terrorist networks, particularly the original Al Qaeda, and have done so with less loss of civilian life than if manned aerial assaults or special operations forces had carried out the strikes. Drones have the promise of far more precise and proportionate targeting, but they are hardly a means of warfare that spares all but the bad guys.

Woods is neither a polemicist nor a firebrand. I found his portrayal to be appropriately critical of U.S. policy in his final chapter without making judgments beyond the facts that he presents. He is a fine reporter who has done a lot of homework. Yet the reportage could have been enhanced with more careful analysis. For this reviewer, a distinct fault is the author’s equation of all targeted killing with assassination and his report, without qualification, of those who see targeted killing as extra-judicial execution.

Nowhere does Woods define what he means by assassination, and his explanation of the term in U.S. law is not consistently employed later in the book. The term assassination has many usages, and without clarifying what he means by it the author fails to bring clarity to his assessment. That some targeted killings by drone strike were extra-judicial executions for past terrorist activity may be true. Yet both John Brennan, the C.I.A. director, and President Obama have been explicit that drone attacks are not launched in revenge for past deeds; they are launched in order to disrupt present and future terrorist threats. If that is so, there is a critical distinction between U.S. policy and extra-judicial execution.

I do not mean to fault Woods for not writing an ethical analysis of U.S. policy. That was not his intent, and his work ought not be judged on that basis. My point is that this richly informative work would be even better had the author been more careful in his terminology, because some of his language is fraught with moral evaluation. Despite that reservation, this is an informative book based upon much valuable research.

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