Caveat emptor: Andrew Cockburn, the author of Kill Chain: the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is a friend of thirty-five years, so I am biased, proudly so in this case. While I know what Cockburn can do, I must admit I was literally blown away by this book. And I am no stranger to this subject, having worked as an engineer-analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 28 years.
What makes Cockburn’s book so powerful, in my opinion, is not only his sourcing and detail (which are amazing), but the fact that he has written a book that is at once overwhelming in terms of information, yet so well written, it is accessible to the general reader. It is a page turner. He dissects the rise of drone warfare and examines its conduct in excruciating detail from the point of view of the targeteers in the CIA and the White House, to the controllers in front of video screens, to the effects on the people at the receiving end of the attack.
In so doing, he shows how the ideology of drone warfare is really old wine in a new bottle: it is a natural evolution of (1) the flawed ideas underpinning the misguided theory of strategic bombing in WWII; (2) the disastrous all-knowing, all-seeing electronic battlefield (starting with McNamara’s electronic line of Vietnam); and (3) the naive targeting theories underpinning the drug war and the theory of precision targeted sanctions. At the roots of all these theories is an unchanging three-part set of propositions woven together in the 1930s by evangelical instructors in the Army Air Corps Tactical School, who believed in the ideological theory of victory thru airpower alone.
They constructed a seductive tautological argument, based on the fallacious assumptions of extensive a priori knowledge coupled to perfect intelligence. It remains unchanged to this day and goes like this: (1) The enemy is a physical system or network made up of critical linkages and nodes, be they ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, or Salafi fanatics in Iraq with access to cell phones and the internet, or tribal warlords in the hills of Afghanistan. (2) The enemy system can be reliably analyzed and understood from a distance, making it possible to identify those specific nodes or links that are vital to the functioning of the adversary system, be it an industrial power like Germany, a tribe in Yemen, or the financial links of a terrorist network. (3) That we can attack and destroy these vital nodes or links with precision strikes and thereby administer a mortal wound to the adversary.
In short, the conduct of war is an engineering problem: In the current lexicon of the Pentagon and its defense contractors, the enemy is a ‘systems of systems’ made up of high value targets (HVTs) that can be identified and destroyed without risk from a distance with unmanned systems. The reasoning is identical to that described in the preceding paragraph. Yet despite its constancy, from the days of the Norden bombsight in B-17s to those of the Hellfire missile fired by drones, this theory has failed to perform as its evangelists predicted and are still predicting.
That is because viewing war as an engineering problem focuses on technology (which benefits contractors) and destructive physical effects, but it ignores and is offset by a fundamental fact of all war: Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds. Physical effects can be and often are offset by mental effects, such as adaptability and unpredictability, and by moral effects, like resolve and the will to resist. This was true when ball bearings were HVTs in WWII; when bicycles carrying 600 pounds of supplies were used to by pass broken bridges on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; when the Serbs used microwave ovens to fool expensive anti-radiation missiles in Kosovo, and as Cockburn shows, it is true in the war on terror (and the war on drugs).
Any one who doubts that this truth applies to drones used in a counter terror strategy should be asked to explain the collapse of our drone-based counter-terror strategy in Yemen — a place where drones reached their apotheosis as being at the center of a counter-terror strategy.
Cockburn has provided a highly readable, and logically connected story, written from a bottom-up empirical perspective. He explains why our strategy in Yemen was doomed to fail, as it has done so spectacularly in recent weeks. His multi-reference, empirical research makes this book hard to pick apart. No doubt, there are some small errors of fact. For example, not all the drone/bombers deployed in ill-starred Operation Aphrodite (which blew up JFK’s elder brother) in 1944 were B-24s as Cockburn incorrectly suggests; the operation also used B-17s. But I defy anyone to find a single thread that can be used to unravel the whole tapestry.
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org