By Andrew Cockburn. Henry Holt, 309 pp, hardcover
The United States military’s desire to kill without putting its soldiers at risk began earlier than many realize. In Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, veteran Washington reporter Andrew Cockburn begins the story of America’s modern assassination program in the 1960s, on the Ho Chi Minh trail in North Vietnam.
Neither the technology nor public opinion was ready, he writes. “Amid the general horrors of the war, the specter of an automated battlefield, in which targets were selected and struck by remote control, touched a sensitive public nerve.”
Forty years later, in the wake of the September 2001 attack that sparked the “war on terror”, both technological capability and the American public had caught up with the military’s ambitions. Cockburn traces those parallel paths, from the jungles of Vietnam to the deserts of the first Gulf War and through the skies of Yugoslavia.
Finally came the presidency of George W. Bush and “terrorism”, a new and omnipotent enemy that required new tactics to contain. “An old idea had found its time,” Cockburn states. Soon after, the capabilities of the machines surpassed the moral attitudes of the humans who controlled them.
And so today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria, U.S. Predator and Reaper drones fly overhead, often not even targeting people but instead hunting digital signatures left by their sim cards, creating an “involuntary posthumous enlistment” of every military-age male killed by an American missile.
The picture that emerges is one of a global assassination program with no civilian casualties—as far as the American public is concerned—all made possible by technical advances every bit as impressive as the feat itself.
“A single Global Hawk drone requires five times as much bandwidth as that used by the entire U.S. military during the 1991 Gulf War,” Cockburn notes.
That’s not to say humans are removed from the situation. They sit in air-conditioned bases in Florida, for example, conducting “signature strike” operations against nameless bodies that match a profile.
To fly a single Predator drone requires a support staff of 168 people, Cockburn reveals, and to keep one new Reaper drone in the air, 171.
This equipment’s reliance on so many human bodies is not a weakness but a strength that ensures its survival, Cockburn concludes. The United States’ assassination program has become an industry that employs thousands. The politicians, the civilian contractors, and the generals buying these technological marvels, they are all “inmates of the military industrial complex”.