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Product Reviews

Book Review: Drone Warrior

An insider’s account of America’s drone wars

July 12, 2017

You can get a hardcover copy of Drone Warrior for $27.99 from HarperCollins Publishing here.
HarperCollins Publishing
Media portrayals of drone warfare tend to focus on the ambiguities and moral compromises made when fighting wars with remotely piloted killing machines. The new book, Drone Warrior, written by former intelligence analyst Brett Velicovich, has none of that. But while it glosses over the moral implications of drone warfare, it does offer a fascinating insight into modern combat and even a hopeful ending about the good that drones can do.

In 2009, President Obama ramped up the use of military drones as the heart of U.S. counter-terrorism policy. Primarily under Obama, drone strikes filled more than 4,000 individuals in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in terrorist havens like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. During that time, Velicovich was a counter-terrorism specialist, and by his mid-20s he was leading a team of intelligence officers and drone operators in Iraq. He claims that in one deployment he helped eliminate 14 of the 20 most wanted terrorists in that country.

Part of the book can be hard to swallow. Velicovich has no doubt about the justness and efficacy of his efforts. Every target is a “bad guy” or “pure evil,” and “Every one of our targets deserved what they had coming.” The Middle East is described as a “cesspool,” while the American military is only described with superlatives like “top of the line,” or “hands-down the most elite organization in the world.” The book also makes ridiculous claims, such as, “a drone can hit a car in traffic without scuffing the paint of any other car,” ― despite the fact that a drone’s Hellfire missiles were designed to destroy armored tanks and have a blast radius of more than 50 feet.
Former Special Forces Intelligence Officer Brett Velicovich wrote about  his experience as a military drone pilot in his book Drone Warrior.

Brett Veliocovich/HarperCollins Publishing
The humans behind the drones

Though the book is called Drone Warrior, the more interesting piece of the story is the entire intelligence gathering apparatus, of which drones are just one piece. Velicovich and his team operate out of a command center called The Box ― this is where the intelligence officers communicate with the drone pilots (who are based in the U.S.) and the military commanders who authorize strikes.

Parts of the book have been altered to protect American sources and methods, but it still offers a fascinating insight into the classified world of drone warfare. The book puts the reader inside the chain of command and decision-making process that guides anti-terrorism efforts. Velicovich and co-author Christopher Stewart are excellent storytellers, walking the reader through the ways in which a few tenuous leads can expose entire terror networks, culminating in teams of Special Forces crashing through doors to capture or kill their targets.

In one four-month period, Velicovich’s team launched 160 raids, capturing 400 individuals and killing 20 people. Drones clearly helped turn the tide of war in Iraq against the nascent ISIS. However, the book turns a blind eye to Iraqi war crimes and does not wrestle with the fact that ISIS became more violent and efficient in exporting terrorist violence across the world during this time.

For years, critics have railed against the injustice and capriciousness of killer drones, citing the lack of due process in selecting targets, the collateral civilian casualties that invariably accompany strikes, and the backlash from innocent victims of many violent strikes. While the book blithely glosses over these issues, Veliocovich does a good job describing the personal toll drone warfare had on his life.

This book will soon be made into a movie by Michael Bay. A number of recent movies have wrestled with the ethics of warfare by remote control, including this year’s Drone, Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (2016), and Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill (2015). It’s a safe bet that a Michael Bay adaptation will offer lots of explosions and tense chases as drones follow shadowy figures through the streets of Baghdad.
Featured image: Christian Clausen/U.S. Air Force