Book Talk: High-Tech Assassins

’s ‘Kill Chain’ explores the dark underbelly of drone warfare. 

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Book cover, cropped (Photo courtesy Henry Holt and Co.)

Book cover, cropped (Photo courtesy Henry Holt and Co.)

Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Andrew Cockburn has penned a highly acclaimed page-turner on the history of drone warfare. We talked with the esteemed author about the real story behind robotic warfare, a subject explored in depth in “Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins” (Henry Holt and Co., $28).

Washington Life: Why write this book now?
Andrew Cockburn: I wrote the book because there is so much misinformation about drones, what they represent and what they can do.

WL: Can you explain the research process? It must have been difficult finding information on programs and technologies that were seemingly, at least at one time, classified.
AC: I’ve been reporting and writing about national security and weapons security for many years, so I know a lot of people — people who trust me. I’m also familiar with the technology, and know when we’re being “snowed” by mendacious or inflated claims.

WL: What was your approach to digest mundane strategy-, technology- and policy-related research into a compelling narrative?
AC: There are so many great, if often horrifying, stories to illustrate the points I make. For example, I tell the full story of a drone attack, using the drone crew’s own radio chatter, to show how imprecise the technology is, as well as the (often bloodthirsty) attitude of the people who use it. The attack killed 23 civilians, including children.

WL: Would we be better off without drones? Is abandoning this technology possible?
AC: We would be better off without the current presumption that we can hit the right target, anytime, anywhere.  Abandoning the technology is unlikely, given the amount of money involved.

WL: Drone warfare to the layman may seem like a safe, precise and strategic way to engage enemies. How does your book clarify this misconception?
AC: I show how in actual operational conditions, drones do not see very well; I show that “high value targeting,” i.e. assassination, which is their principal lethal function, is entirely counterproductive, making our enemies stronger; I show how drones, with their ability to send video of a distant battlefield to a president’s desk, give our leaders a dangerous illusion of knowledge and control; I show how much of all this is a racket to line the pockets of contractors.

WL: The use of drones has seemed to keep American soldiers safe but has in turn resulted in a rise of civilian casualties. Some say if this wasn’t coming out of the U.S. it would be considered terrorism.
AC: Attacking targets without warning and with the inevitability of harming civilians definitely qualifies as terrorism and the outside world — especially victim countries — understand that very well.

WL: Is drone warfare championed more by the policymakers, military commanders or the contractors that supply the technology? 
AC: They’re all in cahoots.

WL: What is the reaction to your book from the general public, policymakers, the military and large government contractors developing and manufacturing the technology?
AC: Combat soldiers, marines and airmen who understand the reality of current wars have been very appreciative. I’ve had deep interest from the public, who feel they’re not getting the full story and want to know more. Contractors? Varies from embarrassment to outrage.

WL: What is the future of warfare?
AC: It should have no future at all. It will get bloodier, for civilians at least, but in ways I cannot predict.

This interview appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Washington Life.

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