Book Review: Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001 – 2050

Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001 – 2050. Dispatch Books, 2012. 179 pp 

For readers of the popular website TomDispatch.com, editors Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse need little introduction. The weekly ‘Tomgrams’ (or articles) they write and oversee are a ‘regular antidote to the mainstream media’, and contain opinion and information on issues ranging from the ‘war on terror’ to the scoured landscapes of neoliberalism and climate change. Terminator Planet is the first book from the pair, and each chapter is composed of entries previously penned on their website,  united by an analysis of the rise of remotely piloted planes, or drones, and how these technologies are re-wiring the ‘American way of war’. Often written in pithy, polemical, if not downright scathing language, the book’s primary accomplishment is its engaging and sobering set of critiques of our brave new Droneworld. For example, a common trope throughout the book is a comparison of U.S. drone warfare to the Terminator films starring the future Californian Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie’s memorable ‘Hunter-Killer’ robots that searched for human survivors across a ravaged, skull-encrusted landscape, is a fictional dystopia that Engelhardt finds irresistible for political satire. The future is now, and with it comes a new chapter in the history of assassination.

Unfortunately the book has no real structure to it, other than the chronological order the articles were published. This becomes a real problem, especially when the book’s unavoidable redundancy starts to creep in. Nonetheless, Turse and Engelhardt cover the main issues well. While over 50 nations are developing aircraft that can be operated from thousands of miles away by ‘pilots’ sat in air-conditioned trailers, the U.S. has pioneered the extrajudicial assassinations that generate so much controversy today. At over 300, the Obama administration has authorized far more strikes than Bush ever did against people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; firmly entrenching the drone program as Washington’s favoured counter-terrorist strategy. As of October 2011, the MQ-1 Predator, part of an armada of over 7,500 drones, had flown more than a million hours in the sky and dropped 703 ‘Hellfire’ missiles. The geographic reach of this Droneworld is staggering: six countries have felt the full force of Predators and Reapers in strikes often spearheaded by the CIA: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. Despite U.S. officials, such as John Brenan, insisting that such attacks are ‘wise, ‘surgical, and ‘ethical’, civilian casualties have trailed in the wake of these shadowy assassinations. For Engelhardt, the U.S. is performing its age-old ‘inalienable’ right to act as judge, jury, and executioner on a planetary scale, attracting a storm of legal challenge and international condemnation.

The global scale of drone strikes is matched by an equally expansive ‘galaxy of drone bases’. In one of the stand-out chapters of the entire book (Chapter 6, ‘America’s Secret Empire of Drone Bases’) Turse—using original research—lists the 60 or so drone bases that are integral to U.S. military and CIA drone operations. Outside of the many training facilities within the continental U.S., the area of focus for these bases, which are often no more than small, stripped-down airfields called ‘lily pads’, is concentrated in and around the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, with bases recently constructed on the island nation of the Seychelles, as well as others in Ethiopia, Djibouti, and another ‘probably’ in Saudi Arabia. From these locations the CIA and Special Forces strike against al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen. Lesser known sites include bases in Italy, Turkey, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. Additionally, in two related chapters, Turse reports on the widespread crashes of Predator drones, which for him, present a much-needed corrective to the ‘awe’ some journalists describe drones with. Due to human error, climate, and technology failures, there have been over 70 ‘catastrophic’ Air Force drone mishaps since 2000 (13 in 2011 alone), each of which cost over $2 million.

Engelhardt hits his stride in Chapters 9 (‘Offshore Everywhere’) and 11 (‘Remotely Piloted War’).  The first reports on changing U.S. military strategy with an emphasis on smaller, mobile, technologically advanced units positioned outside of the Middle East. The combination of U.S. Special Forces—which number 60,000 in some 120 nations—with Predator and Reaper drones is indicative of a new geopolitical strategy to eliminate ‘whoever’ ‘wherever’, with a small ‘footprint’; as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan illustrated. ‘From lily pads to aircraft carriers, advanced drones to special operations teams, it’s offshore and into the shadows for U.S. military policy’ (p.120). In Chapter 11, Engelhardt argues that drone warfare represents the apex of an increased alienation, or detachment, between U.S. foreign violence, and a concerned domestic citizenry—which dates back to the 1973 ending of the draft by President Nixon. For Engelhardt, drone warfare is therefore both literally and figuratively remote.

Two final themes round out the book. The first is the precedence given to the ‘future’. Modern drones are still quite basic technologies, and need significant human involvement. But the future hints towards increased autonomy, intelligence, high-definition surveillance, and cooperation between drones, as they work together in ‘swarms’ that resemble groups of angry insects. Future scenarios for drone use imagined by the military, lifted from the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036, are used to illustrate the creative brains and possible futures that might be hatched by DARPA and for-profit companies such as General Atomics. But as Engelhardt reminds us, futuristic military technologies are never utopian solutions: from the ‘electronic battlefield’ of Vietnam, to Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defense initiative, to Rumsfeld’s ‘netcentric’ warfare, technology has been a perennial false prophet, and what’s more, a source of blowback. ‘Since we are incapable of thinking of ourselves [the U.S.] as either predators or Predators, no less emotionless Terminators, it becomes impossible for us that our air ‘war’ on terror is, in reality, a machine for creating what we call “terrorists”’ (p.69).

The book is not without its problems. As already mentioned, because Engelhardt and Turse have left the chapters almost untouched from the online articles, there is an unavoidable redundancy across the manuscript. Depending on how you look at it, you’ll either find this repetition a necessary commitment to the original ink, or a failed opportunity to add detail to their polemics. What makes the book a success then can also hold it back: Engelhart’s clever barbs are eminently engaging, but ultimately beg for more analysis, especially in a book with a title that claims to be the first (modern) history of drone warfare. At its best tough, Terminator Planet, and the website and authors behind it, remain go-to places for critical commentary on the science-fiction present we have woken up in.

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