WHAT IT'S ABOUT
The drone wasn't always meant to be a sniper rifle with wings, reveals investigative journalist Woods. Roughly 15 years after the first remote-controlled prototype—designed to be a surveillance tool—successfully flew in 1986, armed Predator and Reaper drones became weapons of war in the wake of 9/11. Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, by Chris Woods. (Oxford University Press)Through research and frank interviews with drone pilots and other members of the defense and intelligence communities, Woods offers an exhaustive account of how drones have been used since then, creating a map of this shadowy world. He details the theaters and the contexts in which drones have been deployed; the targets and why they were (or weren't) important; and the Bush and Obama administrations' justifications for the strikes. He also meticulously catalogs the civilian casualties from drone use, often in heart-breaking detail, as well as the ongoing diplomatic challenges the technology has presented. Woods doesn't draw any sweeping conclusions, but for those seeking a holistic look at the strategic, operational, and moral implications of drones, his book hits the target.
TARGET D.C. AUDIENCE
The military and intelligence communities; staffers for congressional foreign policy committees; national security reporters; think-tank researchers; international-law experts and watchdogs; Rand Paul.
"Specifications for the new drone were clear: it would need to operate at between 15,000 and 25,000 feet; be able to carry cameras and other sensor equipment; and crucially, be able to loiter over a target and so provide the fabled 'persistent stare' needed by military and intelligence analysts. What no one gave any thought to at the time was arming such a platform."
TO BE SURE
Woods is clearly skeptical of the U.S. drone program, and as he documents strike after strike—and example after example of the program's failings—it would be easy for a reader to conclude that drones have caused more problems than they've solved. But, as Woods acknowledges, whatever their limitations, drones are part of an airstrike strategy that is far more precise than the 20th-century approach, which often included carpet-bombing entire cities.
ONE LEVEL DEEPER
Aviation professionals, service members, and their advocates may want to check out Chapter 8, which discusses the particular psychological challenges that drone pilots face. As Woods notes, experts don't even really yet have a term for the type of combat stress that occurs among those who track and kill human beings from half a world away and then go home when their shift is over.
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
Most people know the drone as a killing machine, but that is not what it was designed to be—and since it became one, the U.S. and the world have scrambled to confront the implications of a new weapon for which they were not entirely prepared.
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Zach Cohen is a web producer for National Journal Hotline. Before joining National Journal in 2014, he interned at The Washington Post, Time Magazine, USA Today and PBS MediaShift and wrote about politics and government for New Voices. Zach was born and raised in New Jersey and got his bachelor's degree in international relations from American University, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Eagle, the school newspaper.