Review: 'Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars' by Chris Woods

By Harris Kuemmerle:


Chris Woods, Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. London, UK: Hurst Publishers., 2015. Pages: 400. £20.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781849044028. 

The recent growth over the past decade in the scope and complexity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in warfare is remarkable not only for the immense pace by which the technology and procedural practices have matured, but also for the open secrecy under which that process has been shrouded. While their existence is common knowledge, true transparency as to the use of drones remains limited. As a result, getting a firm understanding of the historical evolution and contemporary role of drone warfare is a challenging prospect. But that is exactly what Chris Woods sets out to do in his book, Sudden Justice, which attempts to present an accessible and engaging narrative outlining the history and use of drones in warfare, while also coming to terms with some of the most pertinent moral and ethical questions that the use of drone warfare poses for the 21st century.

The book begins with a description of the genesis of the drone technology. It’s a history that is inexorably linked to a pair of individuals called the “Blue brothers”, and one which poetically echoes the history of the birth of aviation a century earlier. The Blue brothers were Colorado siblings whose ambition and a fateful flight across Latin America set them on a path which would see them – in partnership with the “Moses of modern drones”, pioneering Israeli engineer Abe Karem – essentially start up the entire drone industry in their garage. In the process they saved the fledgling drone industry from the same perceptions of inadequacy by established interests that once haunted the fledgling civilian and military aviation industry in the 1910s and 1920s. It’s undeniably a great story and an excellent, almost light-hearted, place to begin the historical narrative.

However, it does not take long for the history of drones to turn darker with the move into the post-9/11 “War on Terror” and the drones’ transition into the new role of both spy and assassin. The book charts the initial failures of the drone programme at the onset of the Afghan war, to the eventual rise of the targeted killing programmes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan during both the Bush and Obama administrations.

It is here that the book comes into its element; presenting a chilling tale of secrecy, bureaucratic infighting, ruthless pragmatism, and just what happens when humans are given the power to kill almost anyone on demand with only a few minutes notice. Indeed, the author seems almost in awe of the power and technical accomplishments of the drone programme; detailing their capabilities and clinical efficiency, yet also in equal measure presenting that path towards the modern state of drone warfare as a cautionary tale.

The chapter on the valuation of human life and the psychological impact on drone operators drive home the human consequences of drone warfare; with the description of the cold ‘boxes’ in which operators pilot their craft especially unsettling. Concrete rooms, lit bright by screen light, in which pilot and operator fight a cripplingly boring covert war against an unknown enemy on behalf of often equally unknown ‘customers’ who they communicate with via dedicated online chat rooms. In that space it becomes easy to see how the human life on the monitor can be reduced to a few words; words such as ‘target’, ‘rifled’, ‘kinetic’, ‘kill’.

To that end, it’s in its description of the behind-the-scenes workings of the programme where Sudden Justice presents its most interesting questions. Is assassination legal or justified? Are civilian casualties ever justified? What role should private military corporations be allowed to play? Are drones even legal? These are the critical questions that underlie many of the issues that Chris Woods tackles, and he generally succeeds in presenting these issues clearly and providing a fair judgement. However, the book does not really set out to give a final answer to any of these questions, which is both a limitation and a quality. Sudden Justice simply presents the issue as fairly and as completely as possible, leaving it up to the reader to decide. It’s a refreshingly honest and factual take on a muddled topic. Though one which may leave readers wanting more finality.

Furthermore, while Creech Air Force Base (from where the majority of the drones are piloted) is discussed in great detail, the author chose not to personally visit the site. The author felt visiting the site would not be necessary or in the interest of the work. However, I would argue that the decision not to go may have missed out on key first-hand insight into elements of the day-to-day processes of running the drone programme, which could have expanded upon our understanding. Although the decision not to go is not in itself a serious limitation, it is definitely a missed opportunity.

A more serious limitation is that while it is clear that Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan during the War on Terror served as the proving grounds for the concept of drone warfare as we know it today, their use has greatly expanded since 2003. By focusing on that area and time almost exclusively, Sudden Justice limits its applicability to a wider contemporary debate. For example, the author does not discuss in any great detail the implications for the further expansion of drone use outside of the US and UK to countries such as Russia, China, and Pakistan. Indeed, the limited scope of the book leaves some critical questions untouched: what are the implications for global security for other countries bringing online drone programmes? Will these countries use the legal framework developed by the US and UK during the War on Terror?

Likewise, the consequences of drone warfare in the context of inter-state global security more generally is not directly dealt with. While these issues are not within the aims of the work, their exclusion leaves the book somewhat unable to move beyond drones in the War on Terror and into the area of drones in contemporary global security. Though its discussions of the history, application, and legal and ethical aspects of drone warfare during the War on Terror remain excellent and widely applicable.

Sudden Justice is an excellent book which tells the story of the historical evolution of drone warfare, with only a few notable limitations. Sudden Justice is a must-read book for anyone interested in drone warfare. It effectively straddles the gap of being both clear and entertaining, while also offering insights for both experts in the field and the average reader.

Harris Kuemmerle is a PhD Researcher in War Studies at KCL. He received a BSc in International Relations from Plymouth University and a MSc from SOAS, University of London in Asian Politics. His professional experience includes working in journalism and US congressional elections. His areas of interest include; water politics, the impacts of water on state and human security, environmental security, health and security, US foreign and domestic politics, European politics, UK politics, UK foreign affairs, South Asia, and the domestic and foreign affairs of India and China. A native of the US, he has been based in the UK since 2008. Harris is a guest editor at Strife.

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