I recently finished Richard A. Clarke’s Sting of the Drone (2014), which is a modern military thriller filled with fictional characters who are all apt metaphors for the players involved in drone warfare, including bureaucrats, operators, victims, angry survivors, mercenary opportunists, and young men lured into becoming jihadi foot soldiers. The book is quick-paced and portrays a world in which drone assassination is perpetrated by a group of professionals who view themselves as fighting “the bad guys” and defending their country, even when they accidentally wipe out a group of young boys or an American citizen at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, among other mistakes. The notion of “collateral damage” is used to absolve the killers from any true responsibility for what they do, but some among the perpetrators occasionally indulge in a bit of soul-searching.
Without revealing the major plot points or dénouement, I will say that I applaud Clarke’s willingness to tackle this topic in what appears to be something of an act of contrition, given the confessional quality of the author’s note at the end of the book. It turns out that Clarke himself first agitated most forcefully for the arming of the Predator drone, way back in the twentieth century, when it was used strictly for surveillance, but he was repeatedly rebuffed. All that changed with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, after which, of course, an entire program of assassination was instigated.
The critical tone of much of Sting of the Drone makes clear that Clarke now disagrees with what the drone program has become. The former chief counter-terrorism security adviser on the National Security Council appears to believe that Osama bin Laden could have been taken out early on, in which case 9/11 would have been averted, and the Drone Age would then perhaps never have come about. I am not so sure, given the lethal centrism of US foreign policy and the lethal creep of the military, fueled by a fascination with the latest and greatest–and most deadly–DARPA technologies.
In any case, Clarke competently covers a range of important topics ignored by the all-too-sanguine headlines regularly reporting “victories” in the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), above all: What happens when drones are hijacked, or commandeered, by angry converts to jihadism who wish to exact revenge against the bureaucrats serving on “kill committees” and the operators who act on orders arising out of “kill calls”?
Clarke offers plenty of nitty-gritty detail, explaining how in reality such retaliations could be carried out, which is sure to interest technology buffs and readers of military thrillers alike. It should also be of interest to ordinary citizens, who will no doubt bear the brunt of the blowback attacks of the future, orchestrated in direct response to the US government’s summary execution of thousands of military-age men, along with unintended “collateral damage”, in countries all over the Middle East and Africa, among other places.
This book offers a fine introduction to the manifold problems with the US drone program and the proliferation of remote-control killing currently underway all over the globe, thanks to the precedent set by the US government, especially under President Barack Obama, who opted to kill rather than capture suspected terrorists. The lawless and counterproductive drone killing of such persons abroad has, predictably, continued and grown worse under President Donald Trump. But the normalization and rebranding of suspect assassination as “targeted killing” and an act of “war” will surely go down in history as Obama’s biggest blunder. Executive power, once seized, is seldom renounced, and it is difficult to imagine why targeted killing would be curtailed by any future president without a significant popular movement to call a halt to the practice. Unfortunately, most of the citizenry has been hoodwinked into believing that drone assassination is a form of “smart war”.
Give this easy-to-digest but thought-provoking book a read, or a listen, and see what you think…