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The Human Cost of Drones - A Review of 'Sudden Justice' by Chris Woods

24/04/2015 10:51 BST | Updated 23/06/2015 10:59 BST

When a new weapon appears to meet a perceived threat, it's perhaps not surprising that politicians and military leaders tend to elbow the media aside and rush into production. Take the Bomb; according to its proponents, it would avert a costly invasion of Japan, and what's more, the atom would be an endless source of energy. However, there was no public debate before the Enola Gay took off, and, for years after Hiroshima, no effort to create a legal regime to govern nuclear power. We were years into the Nuclear Age before we even began a sensible debate.

Here we are, 70 years on, and the latest military industrial toy is the drone. We are, already, sleep walking into the Drone Age. In Sudden Justice: America's Secret Drone Wars, Chris Woods attempts to uncover the recent American plans for weaponized drones, which he believes are likely to "set the template -- for good and for bad -- of what will follow."

Woods does an excellent job, as one would expect of a journalist of his caliber. Though inevitably, describing how the new drone universe may develop is a challenge, as we are only a few moments after the Big Bang; after all, the Predator drone only lumbered into our consciousness in 2001 (the military use of drones being the 1970s brainchild of Abe Karem, who was bought out in 1991 by General Atomics).

The arguments for the military use of drones run parallel to those for the Bomb in 1945: drones save the lives of military personnel, and there are all kinds of potential civilian uses. But, Woods says, while advocates tout the precision of the Hellfire missile, "[a] Pentagon funded study of classified Afghanistan airstrike data by Dr Larry Lewis... found that drone strikes were of 'an order or magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement' than manned aircraft."

Research by Reprieve backs this up, showing that in attempts on the lives of just 41 'targeted' individuals in Yemen and Pakistan, US strikes have killed as many as 1,147 unknown people, including women and children. These conclusions cry out for a full and frank evaluation of the use of drones, their human cost, and their actual effectiveness.

Hard facts on drone strikes are hard to come by, down to the inherently secretive nature of the CIA and the US military, which is enforced in various ways. Woods reports how Kareem Khan -- a courageous journalist in Pakistan who lost his son and brother in a 2009 drone strike -- was 'disappeared' by Pakistani authorities in 2014, just days before he was due to travel to Europe with his Reprieve lawyers to speak to parliamentarians. His captors hung him upside down and beat him. Also in Pakistan, journalist Hamid Mir was banned from the US Embassy for having the temerity to raise drone strikes at a press conference with Hillary Clinton.

As it was with Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the rule of law has been another victim of the Drone Age. Woods quotes UN expert Philip Alston as being stunned when he asked the US for its legal position on drone warfare. The United States, he later wrote, "took the opportunity to challenge the entire international human rights system." This is, of course, shades of an attitude that has prevailed since 9/11: nothing we do is torture, and the Geneva Conventions are antiquated, so they cannot apply. Woods also quotes one intelligence source on the supposedly failsafe 'target packs' that pass for legal justification of strikes. A panel of officers were sanctioning a kill, says the source, and "they made it sound like some kind of legal process. It was complete bollocks."

It is absurd to think that this is due process; indeed, the title of Woods' book -- Sudden Justice -- was chosen with a proper dose of irony. Woods quotes one instance where Abdul Rauf Nassib, the sole survivor of a US drone strike that was intended to avenge the bombing of the USS Cole, was actually put on trial in Yemen, and was duly acquitted of an entirely "peripheral role" in the plot. The others in the vehicle that was struck never got to the courthouse doors.

Of course, the military as quoted in Woods' book try to make their new toy sound fair and just, saying: "The idea is, identify the 1% or 2% of people that [sic] are absolutely irreconcilable, kill only them, but do it so heavily that everybody who is reconcilable wants to make peace." A trainer of drone operators reports cautioning, "it's more important to spare the innocent than to kill the guilty. I would really try to push that home. I think I got through to one or two of them." British drone operators, meanwhile, harbour the same kinds of optimistic fantasies that allowed them to coexist with the CIA in some of the torture chambers of the last 15 years. "British RPAs are operating on a peacetime trigger," said a British military officer. "While US military ones are on a wartime trigger. And the CIA has no trigger guard."

Woods does not stray beyond the current use of weaponized drones, but it is worryingly easy to see where we are headed. Already there have been reports of the spreading use of drones, including in South American countries as part of the 'War on Drugs.' And there is a world of other problems when we get away from their military use -- the dangers to privacy are obvious, for example -- though we will never anticipate them all. Woods' book is the first significant, and valuable, contribution to the literature on drones to date. However, the Drone Age has only just dawned, and his work must provoke far more debate than we have seen.