Book Reviews

Review of Grégoire Chamayou’s “Drone Theory” and Adam Rothstein’s “Drone”

Antipode have published my review essay of Grégoire Chamayou’s “Drone Theory” and Adam Rothstein’s “Drone,” both published in 2015.

Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory (translated by Janet Lloyd), London: Penguin, 2015. ISBN: 9780241970348 (paper); ISBN: 9780241970355 (ebook)

Adam Rothstein, Drone, London: Bloomsbury, 2015. ISBN: 9781628926323 (paper); ISBN: 9781628925258 (ebook)







Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

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Aberrations, bad apples, one-offs. These are the explanations usually marshaled to explain the abhorrent crimes committed during the U.S. military’s war in Vietnam. The now well-known horror of the My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were butchered, women and girls raped, and homes burnt, was used as a rallying cry for anti-war protestors as news of its existence exploded into public with the investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh. We owe a great deal to his work, together with a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour, who did all the ground work of collecting eyewitness testimony. But there was an unfortunate paradox to My Lai. Its almost unspeakable barbarism muted smaller-scale violences mete out in South Vietnam. And as a “singular event” it worked to minimize, even hide, the institutional background against which it occurred and was nurtured by. For Ridenhour, speaking in Nick Turse’s indispensable new book “Kill Anything that Moves“, My Lai was not an aberration, it was an operation.

Rest of review here.

Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

BlowbackThe first of an “unlikely” trilogy, Blowback documents the foreign policies and practices of successive U.S. administrations that have sown the seeds for future blowback. “In its narrowest sense, ‘blowback’ means the unintended and unexpected negative consequences of covert special operations that have been kept secret from the American people and, in most cases, from their elected representatives” (p.xi). Written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequently republished following its prescience, the book lays the groundwork for understanding the past, often hidden roots of contemporary violence. As an expert on Japan, the book’s focus is on U.S. policy in East Asia, particularly the garrisoning of Okinawa, Japan, and the “neo-colonial” economic policies pursued in South Korea. But above all, the text wrestles with the disastrous contradictions created by Cold War and post-Cold War strategies. In doing so, Johnson reveals how the U.S. and USSR often pursued similar policies—unleashed by a desire to control the world map after World War II.

Rest of review here.

Jeremy Scahill, (2013). Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Nation Books.


Nick Turse (2012). The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare. Chicago: Haymarket Boo

The title of the text indicates this is a book about the changing practices of U.S. state violence: the world as battlefield—a period that is analysed with investigative gusto by journalist Nick Turse, whose book, “The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare”, pulls together years of reporting from TomDispatch into a single source. There are key thematic pillars: the shift from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism, the rise of Special Operations Forces and drone strikes, the “scramble for Africa”, and the global training of “indigenous forces” (proxies). Often, these themes collapse around the idea of “jointness”—fusing the Pentagon with the CIA, the State Department, and the Drug Enforcement Administration for complex and “layered” deployments.

Rest of review here.

Mary Kaldor, 2012, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era(3rd Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press

New and Old WarsMary Kaldor’s New and Old Wars invites us to consider the changing logics, practices, and geographies of violence. Since the seminal “new war” of Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, Kaldor argues that international violence has shifted from primarily state-oriented conflicts, involving a mass of soldiers and centralized “top-down” planning, to a series of hybrid or “low intensity” conflicts that involve private contractors, paramilitaries and illegal sponsors. Crucially, civilians are rational targets for such new wars, instead of being unintended “collateral damage”, and this is because new wars are driven by exclusive and often extreme forms of identity politics. Failure to recognize this shift, warns Kaldor, means that policy makers are bound to repeat mistakes of the past. In place of old war thinking, she proposes “humanitarian law enforcement” as a model for intervention in failed states across the globe.

Rest of review here.

Mark Mazzetti, 2013, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, New York: The Penguin Press.

The Way of the KnifeMazzetti’s book is an unflinching examination of the past and present shadow wars waged by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. There are two interrelated themes: the CIA has become more like the U.S. military, and conversely, the U.S. military has become more like the CIA. So while “…the Central Intelligence Agency has become a killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting” (p. 4), so too has the American military—particularly under Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld—ramped up its spying missions. The result is a paramilitary force composed of clandestine officers and special operations troops “sheep dipped” in layers of legal deniability.

Rest of review here.

David Sanger, 2012, ‘Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power’, New York: Crown Publishers.

What is the Obama Doctrine? Is there even such a thing? David Sanger’s book explores precisely this question by examining the often covert use of presidential power during Obama’s first term as U.S. Commander-in-Chief. From Pakistan to Libya to Iran, the White House has responded to geopolitical flashpoints with a remarkable, if unnerving consistency: confront and conceal.

The biggest shift from the rosy years of 2009 when ‘change’ was still in the air to today, is the transformation of military strategy from ‘counter-insurgency’ (or COIN) to ‘counter-terrorism’—essentially a shift from managing life to managing death. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the changing fortunes of Afghanistan. Upon election, Obama promised both a military and civilian ‘surge’. But this soon changed to ‘Afghanistan Good Enough’—a bare minimal counter-terrorist strategy whose remit was to kill al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. ‘Winning hearts and minds’ would follow the same fate as the General that popularized it.

Rest of review here.

Daniel Klaidman. 2012. Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Klaidman’s book animates a lot of the personal animosities, feuds, and tribal bickering that define the White House’s West Wing. Two figures in particular stand out as representing the conflicted ‘pragmatic’ and ‘principled’ sides of Obama’s own beliefs: Rahm Emmanuel, the President’s former Chief of Staff, and the Justice Department’s attorney general, Eric Holder. Emmanuel, now the Chicago mayor, refused to engage issues that would sap popular American will, and often marginalized Holder when he insisted on closing Guantanamo or trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammad in a Manhattan court. This clash between politics and principles would eventually be won by politics, as Obama consistently compromised on issues that were red lines in his campaign for election – such as military detentions, closing Guantanamo, the use of official secrets, and indefinite detention. And as the title of the book suggests, one of the many questions that would haunt Obama’s presidency was whether the U.S. could ‘kill’ or ‘capture’ an enemy anywhere in the world. The answer would be decidedly the former: as the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan clearly demonstrated, this was an administration that would be characterized by its ‘kill first, ask questions later’ approach.

Rest of review here.

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

Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050... Cover Art

For readers of the popular website, 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.

Rest of review here.

Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. New York: OR Books, 2012. 241 pp

Medea Benjamin, a well-known anti-war activist and founder of CODEPINK, delivers an excellent overview of the complex themes of drone warfare in her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, from tales of horror in Pakistan’s tribal areas, to stories of hope and activism in the book’s closing chapters. The book excels at bringing to light some of the contradictions that define drone warfare: take, for example, the little discussed fact that unmanned planes need far more human input that manned planes—a 168 people keep a Predator in the air for 24 hours. Such is the appetite for drone operators that by 2011 the U.S. Air Force had converted seven Air National Guard squadrons into intelligence units, and was training an additional 2,000 analysts. In total, by the end of 2011 there were about 1,100 drone pilots and 750 sensor operators in the Air Force.

Rest of review here.

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