Military Review


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Remote Control Warfare

Hugh Gusterson

MIT Press, 2016, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 216 pages

Book Review published on: April 7, 2017

What topic could be more relevant to current military thinkers than the issues concerning remote-control warfare? Author Hugh Gusterson concludes in Drone: Remote Control Warfare that drones “are reconfiguring the relationship between military power, national sovereignty, and territorial boundaries in ways that are in profound tension with existing international law.” This George Washington University academician also attacks the Obama administration as legally opportunistic and disingenuous. His book is a strong challenge to the morality of current U.S. military operations as it offers legal opinions questioning if this warfare is really a violation of law that should be categorized as torture, or the execution of a death warrant without due process. He presents his evidence in a highly readable way as he makes the case that this is a “new form of state violence, hybridizing war, and police action.”

There are no heroes in this book. Military drone operators are assessed to be the lowest members of the U.S. Air Force hierarchy struggling for normal recognition of their accomplishments as military professionals. Their “remote intimacy” is strange and stressful as they follow their targets before, during, and after kills. Even if operators follow the prescribed protocols, too often civilians far away from battlefields are struck. “Signature strikes” accidently hit innocents and “double tap strikes” can kill local first responders when pursuing terrorists. Without an understanding of the local culture and other dynamics beyond imagery, their strikes are creating the perfect conditions for insurgencies as the global rage against this incendiary symbol grows.

The George W. Bush administration is also taken to task. Gusterson asserts the United States, while under Bush, had opposed the use of these “targeted killings” by Israel against Palestinian leaders. Within NATO, Germany privately clashed with the United States over attacking unidentified persons carrying suspect cell phones and criminal drug dealers.

One weakness of the book is historical shortsightedness. The author comments that this version of aerial warfare creates a new paradigm. However, in many ways, Giulio Douhet in 1921 and other military theorists were discussing warfare beyond the battlefield where there was no distinction between soldiers and civilians. “Pure drone warfare” and strategic bombing against cities are actually versions of a long conversation about the limits of aerial conflict within international law.

Gusterson’s questioning of the efficacy of drone warfare is an important military question, as over half of the Air Force pilots are being trained to operate drones. Drones are many times looked on as a surgical scalpel, while he sees them as more like a favorite cheap hammer. He quotes Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s concern that “we need to be very, very cautious” about what seems like a panacea. It would be another important contribution if Gusterson develops a follow-up book to address considerations concerning land drones. This too is another type of weapon that could potentially be operated from the homeland. Military officers need to consider the deeper questions of using remote warfare even when it is technologically feasible.

Book Review written by: James Cricks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas