Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars

Arthur Holland Michel/ Book forume

One of the many unnamed intelligence officials quoted in Chris Woods’s Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars declares that the drone is “the most precise weapon in the history of warfare.” It is a claim that’s repeated throughout the book. For General David Deptula, who oversaw the Air Force drone program in its early years, this aerial tool represents a radical departure from “the industrial age of warfare,” when pilots would simply drop thousands of unguided tons of ordinance in the general direction of their targets. Drones, which can loiter over a target for days, if not weeks, are capable of putting a hundred-pound laser-guided missile through the window of a house. In the right conditions, the drone’s cameras will pick up the glint of an earring in the sun.
This unprecedented capacity, Woods writes, has allowed the US to significantly reduce the civilian toll of its air campaigns. And yet in the introduction to Sudden Justice, he calls the drone “one of the most controversial weapons of modern times.” That precision, it turns out, has a corollary. If the “aerial sniper rifle,” as Woods and many others have called it, is indeed so precise, when something goes wrong, you can no longer blame it on the weapon itself. If women and children die in a drone strike, by the very logic of those who claim that a drone is able to spot a piece of jewellery from twenty-five thousand feet, the killing must have been intentional, or, at the very least, more could have been done to prevent it. The value of human life has not changed since Dresden, but if a drone is a hundred times more accurate than a WWII bomber, then any civilian death is commensurately less excusable.
Partly, this is a result of what Chuck Dunlap, a former Deputy Judge Advocate General for the Air Force, calls an “oversell” of the drone’s capabilities. One USAF commander complains, “If we keep telling people that we’re perfect and then we kill civilians, can we blame them if folk then think it’s deliberate?” Woods himself acknowledges in a later chapter that even the most carefully planned strikes can go wrong as a result of faulty intelligence and poor optics. But Sudden Justice also suggests that mistakes made with drones are avoidable, and that sometimes triggers are pulled in spite of knowledge that innocent lives would be lost—lives that could have been spared. The precision of armed drones, Woods writes, could only lead to reduced civilian casualties if they were “harnessed to a political will to reduce non-combatant deaths.”
It is this spirit that has driven organizations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for whom Woods has led several investigations, to turn a very close eye on to the drone war. In Sudden Justice, which leverages much of the work conducted by the Bureau, Woods approaches every strike like a crime scene. Motivations are evident in the details. Whatever was done must have been done for a reason. And while a great deal of information can be gleaned about each strike, the most important evidence remains beyond reach.
This is a problem that Woods wants to see changed. But the drone strikes that he is most interested in—those strikes that happen outside of declared war zones—are operated by the CIA and Special Forces, institutions that seek always to conceal, not reveal, the evidence of their work. As war has become more evidentiary, it is increasingly being fought in what Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch calls “an accountability black hole.” Woods is no doubt privy to the irony. At the heart of the book is what he calls “a decade-long struggle between those believing such actions required an element of accountability and transparency, and those insisting they remained in the shadows.” It is a fundamental and intractable disagreement. Woods accuses the US government of having an “addiction to secrecy;” the US government calls it the nature of covert work. Asking the CIA to be transparent is a little bit like asking a horse to dance Swan Lake.
And so, as a call for greater transparency and accountability, Sudden Justice is nothing new. Woods can take a number. But as a chronicle of the first drone war, it is more comprehensive than anything else published to date. While some chapters feel choppy, Woods can be an effective storyteller. And Sudden Justice works best as the harrowing history of a nasty, vindictive conflict between a sophisticated military and intelligence apparatus with unlimited resources and a tenacious enemy with no state and no uniforms.
Both belligerents are equally singular in their quest for the annihilation of the other; neither always knows exactly who they are killing. As the US becomes better at tracking the enemy, the enemy becomes more elusive. The drone may be the most precise weapon in history, but never in history has a target been so difficult to pin down. Michael Leiter, former head of the US National Counter Terrorism Center, told Congress in 2013 that it is impossible to “lethally target an ideology.” All too often, by the time a strike happens, the mark has moved, leaving civilians standing in its place.
Though the tools of the war are unprecedented, the themes have not changed. There is fog; there is rage. Both sides are equally capable of nastiness. As the CIA was ruthlessly pursuing the Taliban in Waziristan, apparently showing little concern for collateral damage, the Taliban was summarily executing mechanics accused of feeding intelligence to the Americans. The war soon becomes a spiral of retribution. After a Taliban triple agent blew up seven CIA operatives in Khost, the Agency embarked on an “unprecedented” campaign of strikes—according to one Obama official, “the shackles were unleashed.” Things got personal. While US-born cleric and controversial drone strike target Anwar al-Awlaki was calling on his followers to carry out lone wolf attacks in non-Muslim countries, one drone pilot describes how he would walk into work every day and look at photographs of Al-Qaeda leaders that had been posted on the wall, thinking “which one of these motherfuckers is gonna die today?”
This all serves to remind us that though the drone might seem cold and calculating—“a robot in the sky,” as one soldier puts it—the war is still fought by human beings. And the humans for whom Woods reserves his most convincing chapter are the pilots, who, when they’re not bored out of their minds, watch the enemy, and the innocents, dying on screen in lurid digital detail. When a civilian life is taken, it is with the drone’s civilian-sparing potential in mind that the pilot must look on. “If there is a judgment after this life,” a drone pilot by the name of Chad Bruton tells Woods, “hopefully I will be exonerated.”
Arthur Holland Michel is a writer and researcher covering defense, technology, and culture. He is the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.