Review: Drones and the Future of Armed Conflict – Ethical, Legal, and Strategic Implications

4 Star, Atrocities & Genocide
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

David Cortright, Rachel Fairhurst, Kristen Wall (eds.)

4.0 out of 5 stars Academic-Legal Perspective on the US Drone Assassination Program, November 23, 2016

This is one of three books on drone assassination that I am reviewing, the other two are Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars (Terrorism and Global Justice) and We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. I was limited in my choices to the books offered by a professional journal for whom I am writing an integrated review, if I had had unlimited choice I would have included Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins and The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

All three books — and I suspect the others focused on this topic as well — agree on three things:


01 Drone assassination is against both international law and the US Constitution;

02 We are murdering thousands of innocents and creating more enemies than we kill;

03 Drones are expensive, technically deficient tools (they cannot distinguish between a rifle and a shovel), that cannot be supported by our existing intelligence capabilities — nor can we process the terabytes of data they create.

This particular book, an edited work focused primarily on ethical, legal, and strategic implications, is the most academic and the most focused on international law as well as domestic law and constitutional processes.

From the perspective of both domestic law (including constitutional law) as well as international law, the US drone assassination program is unethical, illegal in every possible respect, and a massive persistent broad violation of international law and the rights of citizens as well as the sovereign jurisdictions of every country in which drone assassination are being carried out — including those were we ostensibly have permission.

I single out the opening chapter, “Assessing the Debate on Drone Warfare” by David Cortright and Rachel Fairburst, as the best possible summary of the book as a whole and ethical-legal discussion over-all. This is the chapter professors should use to provoke student reflection on the matter.

Across the book it is clear that the drone assassination program is completely unjustified (apart from being illegal). There is no clear and present danger to the USA or even to US persons from all of these people we are killing (98% of whom, according to multiple others sources, are complete innocents or “collateral damage”), and we are completely lacking in any due process — any oversight from Congress or the courts — with respect to how we go about killing people who more often than not are killed because they are a military-aged male living in a target area.

I credit the authors in the aggregate for demonstrating that the US drone assassination program lacks unity of command, coherence, strategy, or any semblance of justification. This is wanton killing “because we can.”

Rafia Zakaria’s chapter, “The Myth of Precision: Human Rights, Drones, and the Case of Pakistan,” is another chapter I recommend for use with students. Drones are over-sold. Like the F-35 and other US Air Force platforms that claim they can win wars without armor or infantry, drones are largely worthless when it comes to real precision — not only can the CIA not provide accurate intelligence that is actionable in time and place, but the drones are a very expensive ($70K per missile, probably $500,000 to $1 million per operation) way of killing single individuals.

The most useful insight I gained from this book was the “right to home” perspective, not only for the foreign publics upon whom we are raining down indiscriminate illegal wanton utterly despicable death and destruction, but on US publics. It is quite certain, reading across these varied contributing authors, that the militarization of the US police will be followed by the use of drones to kill specific individuals in and out of vehicles, in and out of their homes, under the pretense of avoiding risk to law enforcement personnel but in fact reflecting the impunity that characterizes a government too long divorced from ethics and the public interest.

The book loses one star for over-selling drones across most chapters — people who are good at legal ideas are generally poor at technical evaluations — and for failing to have at least one chapter on the actual financial cost of an individual assassination by drone — as the third book in this group notes, each drone launch involves over 200 people.

None of the three books adequately examine how drones are merely the latest tool in an ever growing array of very expensive very toxic military-industrial complex offerings that further Empire for the 1% at the expense of both the tax-paying US public and the victimized foreign publics. For such insights I would point readers to, among many others books, these four:

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)
Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II – Updated Edition
The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates And Infuriates The World
Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage

Donald Trump, our “accidental president,” has recently annoounced that he is taking General Jim Mattis, USMC (Ret) at his word, and forbidding the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture as counterproductive. I was one of the first CIA officers assigned terrorism as a full-time target in the 1980’s, and have published strong opinions on the criminal insanity of water-boarding. Assassination by drone is a form of rendition and torture that in my view should make every person from the President on down subject to trial for crimes against humanity. I dare to hope that Donald Trump will listen to those of use who are — for moral, legal, practical, and professional reasons — totally opposed to this program.

Robert David Steele
Donald Trump, The Accidental President — Under Siege!: A Soft Coup Rages within a Closed Rigged System…. (Trump Revolution Book 5)

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