Nonfiction Books » Politics & Society

The best books on Drone Warfare

recommended by Hugh Gusterson

Drone: Remote Control Warfare by Hugh Gusterson

Drone: Remote Control Warfare
by Hugh Gusterson


The introduction of drones "makes possible perpetual war without costs", warns the anthropology professor and security expert Hugh Gusterson. Here he selects the best books that examine their ethical, psychological and political impact upon 21st century warfare.

Interview by Alec Ash

Drone: Remote Control Warfare by Hugh Gusterson

Drone: Remote Control Warfare
by Hugh Gusterson

Buy all books

How did you get into the topic of drones?

I have spent most of my career looking at militarism, especially nuclear weapons, which is somewhat unusual for an anthropologist. There’s now a small group of anthropologists who work on issues of nuclear culture and nuclear science, and I was the first of those. I began doing research and field work on those issues in the 1980s when the nuclear question was a very hot and contested topic. So from that foundational work, looking at the nuclear arms race and nuclear culture, I have become interested more generally in military culture and technology. Recently I turned to drones. They seemed important not only practically, in the sense that they were changing the way the US was fighting its wars, but they also seemed to raise a number of very interesting theoretical issues that I wanted explore.

As we will. Drones are a controversial topic in the press and in public opinion. Is the heated debate over the ethics and effectiveness of them that plays out in the papers also reflected in academia?

It is interesting to me that most of the books that have been written about drones are not written by academics; they are written by journalists and by activists, as you can also see from my list. I’m almost the only anthropologist who has written anything about drones at all, so in my discipline, which I think you would expect to be very anti-drone, no literature really has developed. Most of the work has been done in political science, which tends to focus on the question of whether drone warfare works and its applications. It doesn’t ask the larger questions I’m interested in of how war has been transformed by the use of drones, and whether drone strikes are inciting more problems than they are curing.

What do you argue in your book? Do drone strikes cause more problems than they solve? 

I think that when you are sitting in an air-conditioned base in the United States, it is difficult to figure out how Pashtun peasants in the so-called ungoverned areas of Pakistan are behaving without actual direct access to them. I think that in some ways the question is unanswerable. There’s certainly very good evidence that drone strikes are causing mass resentment, and there’s clear evidence that they have helped Al-Qaeda to recruit for its cause. Whether it is a net gain or a net loss for the US, I don’t know how you would say.

Even if they are effective, drones can inspire passionate criticism.

But I’m not sure that the proverbial man on the street in the US is that concerned about drones. I think what makes drones attractive to President Obama and other national security policy makers is that they don’t involve Americans coming back from the Middle East in body bags. It is a way of waging warfare invisibly. So although some people do have agreement about drones, I don’t know that they excite the kind of opposition that other forms of military intervention do, precisely because they seem to have such a minimal cost for the American people. A crashed drone isn’t 4,000 Americans coming back from Iraq in body bags.

But there are voices which argue that using drones is somehow unethical or cold. Is it the perceived inhumanity of killing by remote control which angers people?

It’s worth noting that the protests against using drones have been very small. If you go to air force bases [in the US], where drones are being protested, only a couple of dozen protesters show up. Compare that to protests on the eve of the Iraq war which had hundreds of thousands of people at one point. So there’s been difficulty drumming up a real protest movement against them.

“What makes drones attractive to President Obama is that they don’t involve Americans coming back from the Middle East in body bags.”

That said, why do drones upset the people they upset so much? I think part of it is that they’re perceived as cowardly. Interestingly, I found that it’s often people in the military who feel most strongly about it. Someone recently sent me a favourable review of my book that’s about to come out in Military Review by a US army officer. I think many people in the army have an honourable sense of what warfare involves: the reciprocal vulnerability of combatants facing each other, wagering their bodies for a cause. And from the point of view of an honourable soldier, perhaps there is something cowardly to drone warfare, turning warfare into something that looks like a video game where you rub people out from thousands of miles away, and they have no chance whatsoever to defend themselves or to fight back against you.

One of the other aspects that upsets a number of Americans is that drones have been used to kill American citizens without any due process. Particularly Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and militant Islamist cleric in Yemen who was deliberately killed by President Obama. He had actually filed an injunction with the US Court, because he found out he was on a death list, to know the case against him and have the opportunity to defend himself. The court refused to hear his case. So here you have someone who is denied any kind of habeas corpus rights, and was basically executed without any judicial process by his own government. There are some people in the legal profession who find that very troubling.

And he doesn’t even live in a war zone.

That’s right.

Before we delve deeper into that issue, let’s begin on your book recommendations. First up is Gregoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone. Can you tell us a little a bit about this book?

Chamayou is a French philosopher. I was a bit dismayed when his book came out because A Theory of the Drone would have been a very good working title for the book I was working on. And, as I started reading Chamayou’s book, I began to think that maybe I should just give up writing my own because so many of the ideas that I had initially started working with were in it.

“The lack of reciprocal vulnerability makes Chamayou think of drone warfare as more like hunting”

It’s a little bit of a slog for the non-theoretically-minded, but it is a very precisely and beautifully written book in which Chamayou asks some of the questions about whether warfare, when it is fought by drones, can even be called warfare. The lack of reciprocal vulnerability between the drone operator and the victim makes him think of drone warfare as being more like hunting. But I think he does exaggerate the omnipotent power of drones, he doesn’t seem to be aware of counter measures that people from Al-Qaeda and Taliban take to avoid drones, and he doesn’t make the distinction that is crucial in my own book between the use of drones in established war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq and the use of drones in Yemen or Somalia or tribal areas of Pakistan.

Tell us more about that.

So, in somewhere like Iraq and Afghanistan, drones are in the area alongside Apache helicopters and F16s and what have you. They’re in the mix, used both in surveillance occasionally, and in killing people but as part of a broader repertoire of killing machines. In a place like Yemen, a country with which the US is not officially at war at all, a drone may appear literally out of nowhere. People have no idea that they are in the sights of the drone until they hear the whishing noise of the missile coming right at them. I think there’s an important legal and moral distinction between those two settings in which drones are used. Chamayou says that drone warfare creates an absolute invulnerability for Americans, but that isn’t the case in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, where many Americans have been killed. It is only the case in a place like Yemen or Somalia.

So in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, where as you said America is not at war, how does the US government justify their use?

Chamayou and I both point it out in different ways that the rhetoric of the Obama administration has blurred the line between warfare and police work. Especially in a place like Yemen, where a drone is used to kill insurgents on the ground, it is often the rhetoric of police work which is used to legitimate the strike more than the rhetoric of warfare. Or at least the two blur into one another, and this is one of the troubling aspects of drone warfare. The claim that the US makes is that it is identifying people on the ground who – in some sense that we the American people are not allowed to know – are plotting against us. And since it is not feasible to capture them on the other side of the world in Yemen, it is therefore OK to just go ahead and rub them out.

How are drones transforming our definition of what it means to be at war?

Well, as well as blurring the distinction between warfare and police work, I think it is blurring the distinction between war and peace. In a place like Yemen or Somalia there could be long periods where there is no drone strike, and then suddenly there is a drone strike. There might be two or three in a week, and then several weeks with no strikes, and so on. So it is not clear if there is a state of peace or a state of war. Warfare is becoming indefinite. The Obama administration has insisted it doesn’t need any authorisation from Congress to undertake these strikes in Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan. The initial authorisation for these actions came immediately after 9/11, which according to the Obama administration authorises them to attack targets in Yemen. I find that very improbable and so do many legal scholars. So it is blurring the distinctions between war and peace, war and policing, and it is creating an intermittent, endemic, very low-level asymmetric warfare.

“It blurs the distinctions between war and peace, and war and policing, creating an intermittent, low-level, asymmetric warfare”

It is also in the nature of drones that they can very easily be shut down by countries with decent air forces. That means there are relatively few parts of the world in which drones can be used with impunity, and so drone warfare reinforces the distinction between parts of the world that are thought to be ‘normal’, where you could never use machinery like this, and those thought to be ‘lawless’, ‘ungovernable’ or ‘primitive’ parts of the world – in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, where the local population lacks the technical capability to shoot down drones. That reinforces the gap between the most abject corners of the world and the rest.

Let’s look at the issue from the perspective of a pilot rather than a target with your second selection, Predator by Matt Martin, who piloted a Predator drone for many years. Tell us a little of this book and why it’s on your list.

This is the only book I’m aware of written by a drone operator. Martin wrote it with a professional writer, so it is extremely readable and the only text that really takes you into the subjective world of a drone operator. He’s not interested in any of these theoretical questions that you and I have been discussing, but he does give extremely vivid accounts of the effects on his psychology and his marriage of this kind of warfare. Interestingly, he felt more at peace when he was deployed to Iraq than when he was working out of Nevada as a drone operator, because he didn’t have to deal with the daily back and forth between being in combat of a kind and then the same night being back at home with his wife.

“He felt more at peace when he was deployed to Iraq than when he was working out of Nevada as a drone operator”

Martin vividly describes tracking people, and what it feels like to kill them. There’s a chapter in my book where I talk about the ‘remote intimacy’ that drone operators feel with their victims, and another phenomenon which I call ‘remote narrativisation’. It’s almost like a silent movie. You watch people but you can’t hear what they are saying, and there’s a strong temptation to fill in dialogue for them and weave stories about them. It was in reading Martin’s book that I first got a strong sense that if you are tracking a person for hours or even day after day, you start to spin stories about who they are, whether they are a good or a bad person, whether they deserve to live or die. There have been a number of arguments that drone operators have high levels of PTSD, and I think you see the plausibility of that from this book. He accidentally kills two children at one point, he accidentally kills an old man, and it is clear that he’s deeply troubled by it.

Is that any more troubling than it might be for a traditional pilot in a war zone where there is also collateral damage?

I think there is something about the drone operator’s remoteness that adds to the trauma. If you imagine being a pilot in a war zone, as soon as you drop a bomb on the ground you disappear very quickly. You don’t get much of a chance to see what you did. But it is part of the protocol of a drone operator that they are supposed to circle for a long time, even for hours, after a drone strike – doing meticulous assessment of the damage and trying to count the bodies, which can be difficult if the bodies are in more than one piece. Although you are physically thousands of miles away, it feels as if you’re just a few inches away on the screen, and you have to look very carefully at what you just did.

And at the end of the day, you go back and have dinner with your wife and kids.

Right, which is psychologically very jarring. One interesting question that I don’t know the answer to is why the US did not decide to fly drones from remote air bases in the Middle East. I think that in some ways it would be psychologically easier on the drone operators if they were not in the US, if they had more of a feeling of being deployed, even if they were outside of the actual battle zone. The communication link would be quicker as well: there wouldn’t be the two-second delay in each direction as the satellite transmits the signal. To be honest, I don’t know why the American government flies them from the US.

Third on your list is Sudden Justice by Chris Woods, an investigative journalist, which talks a little more about the history of drones, beginning with the first strike shortly after 9/11. Could you give us a very short potted history of how drones started to be wide spread in the military, and in particular was 9/11 the catalyst?

Drones actually have a very long history. They go back to World War Two, and even before, where very crude drones were used as target practice by Navy gunners. They were used in the Yom Kippur War [in 1973] by the Israelis, for surveillance. The same was true by the US in the Vietnam War. On the US side, surveillance drones really came into their own in the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, as by then US satellites had enormous bandwidth capability and could transmit large amounts of data from drones to military headquarters in the US. Along with GPS technology, this enabled the use the drones to very precisely pinpoint the location of things that they were photographing. But you are right that 9/11 was a watershed. People had talked about weaponising drones but there had been strong resistance to it until then. In my book I quote a deputy administrator of the CIA saying “the gloves come off” after 9/11. That’s when the decision was made to weaponise drones.

“The gloves came off after 9/11. That’s when the decision was made to weaponise drones.”

I think of Chris Wood’s book as my encyclopaedia on drones. The book is a little dense, but it is densely packed with facts. He is a very meticulous reporter and it seems he has uncovered every imaginable written source that exists. Although he himself is clearly very anti-drone, he has managed to gain extraordinary access to people in the US military system and get on- and off-the-record interviews with them in which he learned an extraordinary amount about the way drones are used. I think anyone who writes about drones owes him an enormous debt of gratitude for the remarkable research that he’s done.

Is there anything in particular that he uncovered which you feel the general public should know about drones but doesn’t?

He found out a lot about the Pakistani experience of drones, in particular lots of individual drone strikes that killed civilians by accident, and he reported it from both ends. The US military always wants to cover up its mistakes; it doesn’t need to own up to killing innocent civilians. So there have been a number of NGOs and journalists who have doggedly pursued the other side of the story. It is children and civilians who are also being killed by drone strikes, and Chris Woods has been at the forefront of uncovering that.

The US drone programme is indeed often billed as being very secretive. How much do we know that we don’t know?

The unknown unknowns. It is hard to know what you don’t know. Obama has a strong penchant for secrecy, and in a way drones have brought out the worst in Obama’s personality, because it is so easy to keep drone strikes secret. Until recently, the Obama administration was extraordinarily secretive about drone strikes. I mention in the first paragraph of my book that Leon Panetta, the former head of the CIA, when writing his memoir, was not allowed to talk about the existence of drone strikes. The military censors took it out of his memoir, which is bizarre and ridiculous, as the media were constantly reporting drone strikes but he wasn’t allowed to confirm that they existed.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

In the last year or so, the Obama administration has tried to be a little bit more transparent. It has released some of the legal thinking that it claims legitimated the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American citizen in Yemen. Just three weeks ago it released the results of an audit that they have been conducting for a several months, and they claim to give a fairly definitive accounting of the number of civilians killed by accident by American drones. But I noticed that all the media that I read couldn’t report on it with a straight face. The statistics were condemned as inaccurate almost as soon as they were released.

So we know that drone strikes exist, but we know very little about individual drone strikes. We may read a short paragraph in the middle of the Washington Post that yesterday a drone strike in Yemen killed such and such insurgents, allegedly, but you don’t hear the other side of the story from Yemen. A lot of it is left in darkness.

How has Andrew Cockburn’s book Kill Chain deepened our understanding of the topic?

Cockburn is a muck-raking journalist but he has a strong intellect. Fair, balanced and objective are not his strong suits, but making a very strong polemical case is. In this book he describes drone strikes as part of a particular military predilection for identifying enemy forces as networks, trying to find nodal people in these networks and knocking them out. According to him, this is a military strategy that goes back to WW2 where people in the Allies said if only we could get to senior Nazi officers – by, for example, killing Hitler – then everything would collapse.

“The more people drones kill, the longer the kill list becomes.”

But Cockburn shows that this line of thinking never actually seems to have worked. When you identify someone in a senior position and you kill them, they get replaced pretty quickly, and often by someone even nastier. Sometimes the organisation learns to adapt, so it has more of an ability to disperse and embed itself. So he sees drones as the latest instantiation of a particular strategy that has always been bankrupt. If you read the media accounts, the Obama administration keeps saying we killed the second-in-command or third-in-command, things are going really well and we expect Al-Qaeda to be gone or in ruins by the end of the year, but they seem to get stronger. It doesn’t work that way.

There’s also the argument that drone strikes breed more hatred for the United States, radicalise more people and encourage an escalation of violence.

At the beginning of our conversation, we talked about the political science on whether drone strikes show a net gain or loss, and I expressed my scepticism that we can’t clearly know. If I had a sixth book to recommend, I would have picked something by the journalist Jeremy Scahill, as if anyone has done the dangerous journalistic field work to try and find out the answer it would be him. One of the things that Scahill demonstrates is that the more people drones kill, the longer the kill list becomes – which is a very striking paradox. You would expect the military to have a fixed list of people that had to be killed, then as you cross people off it the end is in sight. But actually the kill list gets longer and longer. I think the onus is on those who support drones to give us the evidence that they are working in the way they claim.

Unlike other modes of warfare, with the exception of course of nuclear, this is a tool which often is used at presidential discretion. Can you talk a little about what that means, when strikes are under control of a presidential administration as much as the military?

One of the things that drone technology enables is distributed command, so the footage from a drone can be piped simultaneously into lots of different command centres. You can have people in Doha looking at it while someone in Washington D.C. is looking at it. That often produces collective decisions where people are frantically talking to people in command centres hundreds of thousands of miles away. And often by the time they make a decision, the chance to take a shot is gone.

“Once someone is on the kill list, the drones go hunting for them. If they find them they are authorised to kill them.”

But your question touches on something else about the US president, who authorises putting senior insurgent figures on the kill list. He weighs the evidence that has been collected about them, and he makes the decision whether what they’ve done is grave enough to get them put on the kill list. Once they’re on that list, then the drones go hunting for them, and if they find them they are authorised to kill them. Those are called ‘personality strikes’, against celebrity targets of the insurgent world, if you like. But often drones will just be patrolling around an area and they will come across someone unidentified who appears to be planting an IED or something like that, then they request permission to kill them. That is made on the basis of their behaviour rather than any knowledge about their identity.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Could President Trump technically put Rosie O’Donnell on the kill list?

Ha. I imagine striking someone within the US would be a problem.

Drone Warfare is your final book selection, by the political scientist Sarah Kreps and the philosopher John Kaag. Tell us a little about this book.

Both Kreps and Kaag are political theorists, and they are very interested in the implications of drone warfare for democracy. They go back to Immanuel Kant, who argued that autocrats could go to war whenever they felt like it without restraints, because they owed nothing to their citizens, but in a situation where the ruler is accountable to the citizens, and can be removed by the citizens, then they worry about spending too much of the national treasury on warfare in case it goes wrong, and they worry about getting too many of their own citizens killed in warfare.

“They make possible perpetual war without costs.”

So according to Kant, in a democracy there is an inherent restraint on the temptation rulers feel towards war. What Kreps and Kaag argue is that drone warfare potentially erases that restraint, because no Americans come back in body bags and drones are relatively cheap to operate. The US can keep using drones in places like Yemen and Pakistan indefinitely, and the American people really won’t care – or the British people won’t care if it is British drones as well. I find that argument troublingly plausible.

So there is less accountability for war.

Yes. We saw in the case of the Iraq war that the American people were largely happy to invade Iraq until the war went really wrong – until Americans started coming back in body bags – and then they turned against it and said that George Bush had been an idiot to invade. The same with Blair. We wouldn’t have the Chilcott report, and the turning of American opinion against the war in Iraq, if it hadn’t been for those 4,000 Americans who died there. They are the hostages of the democratic war-making process, in a sense. But drones have broken that link in the chain. They make possible perpetual war without costs.

What a terrifying quote.

Even if drones do seem to be getting us nowhere, it really doesn’t matter because the American people don’t feel it.

So not only are they fuzzying the border between war and international police work, but they are making war a lot easier to get into.


Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

What standards do you feel should be in place to control the use and reach of drones?

We haven’t had anything approaching a public discussion about how drones should be used. I don’t think people have thought it through, including the standards that we should accept. I’ll tell you my own standards: I have no problem at all using drones in legitimate war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, I prefer the use drones than of other military technologies there precisely because they have the promise of being more discriminate. But I think that it should be absolutely clear that you cannot attack people in countries with which you are not at war.

If American operatives went to Yemen, placed a car bomb in the capital and blew something up, everyone would recognise that as an act of international terrorism because the US is not at war with Yemen. I think we should see drones in exactly the same way. Instead of planting a car bomb they are attacking someone with a bomb from the sky, but it is basically the same thing. So I think we need a reminder of common international norms that you cannot kill people in countries with which you are not at war. It is not the technology that is the issue, it’s the boundaries of how it is used.

Interview by Alec Ash

July 28, 2016

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex , and most recently Drone: Remote Control Warfare.

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex , and most recently Drone: Remote Control Warfare.