I was intending to go to Chris Wood’s talk tonight as my husband Chris Cole (a drones researcher and campaigner) speaks highly of him and has raved about his new book ‘Sudden Justice’. So I was very grateful that Chris Wood agreed to meet me this morning for what proved a fascinating discussion about war reporting, drones, and what next for America.
Woods was a journalist for the BBC, who has reported most of the major conflicts of the last 25 years. He became interested in drone warfare in 2010, when working in Pakistan, after an official told him they couldn’t use an airbase to help flood relief because the US had appropriated it for their drones programme. He began to investigate and when he left the BBC for the Bureau for Investigative Journalism he set up a team to report on US drone strikes.
When he moved on from the Bureau, Woods decided to write the book in order get a wider sense of the story. The result is a holistic modern history of armed drones, that examines the effect on civilians, shows the way the battlefield has changed and the people who operate drone warfare. Late into the research, he was given an endorsement from the airforce book support programme which got him in the front door and gave him access to former senior officials in the military, government and intelligence services in the US, UK and military. As a result his book shows both sides of the story and allows the reader to form their own judgements of the ethics and appropriateness of this way of waging war.
The author’s interviews resulted in surprising conversations. Dick Armitage, a hawk in Bush’s government, supported the idea of targetted killings as he believed the US was justified in their actions. It was only when he visited Pakistan in 2009 that he realised the extent of killings and how the programme has spread so far that the CIA can’t always say who they’ve killed, a revelation that filled him with horror. Cameron Munter, former US ambassador to Pakistan stated that he should have had authority in the region, and yet the CIA effectively ran the show.
Much of Wood’s research has uncovered how the ‘war on terror’ has been a ‘tit-for-tat’ affair. Extraordinary rendition, began under Clinton, and resulted in alleged militants from Bosnia and Albania being taken to Egypt where they were tortured. One of these militants was the brother of the Al Qaeda no 2 El Zawaihari who ordered an attack on the US in Tanzania in revenge. In response, Osama bin Laden was put on the kill list. 9/11 soon followed, with the first US targetted drone strike happening a month later.
Woods also had access to ordinary drone operators, describing their tedious days, waiting for the CIA to tell them what to do, and working in a hierarchal structure that is both demoralising and disempowering. One interviewee’s description of how seeing a dog killed led to huge negative comments when an excerpt of the book was published in The Guardian. Woods felt this was unfair because he saw it as a moment when her humanity was able to express itself. He was glad that she still appreciated being quoted, and being given a voice in a situation where she felt powerless.
What is clear from Wood’s work, is that if Clinton and Bush began dronewarfare, with Bush being the ‘occasional assassin’, it is Obama who has institutionalised it. Drone killing is now part of US foreign policy alongside, diplomacy and trade. The difficult thing once you start such a programme, is how to turn it off. The next US president will have that choice, but is likely to feel compelled by the strategic imperatives to continue.
Woods has recently been on a book tour in the US where the drone programme is the support of 60% of the population. As he arrived the big story was that a drone had killed an US civilian, and yet the question was not about whether the strike was legal, but whether it was effective. Woods argues that this is because the media and government have a firewall in place that prevents proper reporting of the issues. With ‘remote reporting’ from journalists in Washington,who don’t see the impact on the ground, ‘remote warfare’ is distanced even further. He is encouraged by TV series such as ‘Homeland’ and the recent Ethan Hawkes film (which uses one of Woods true news stories as a plot line) which are beginning to air the issues for people, but even so, many Americans don’t know what is going on.
If America is to choose a different path, its citizens need to truly understand what is being done in their name. Which is why ‘Sudden Justice’ is such an important book as it allows a light to be shown on a killing programme that for too long has operated in the darkness. So if you’re at Hay looking for a thought provoking talk, I highly recommend you going to his event and buy a copy of ‘Sudden Justice’. You won’t regret it.
Chris Woods will be in conversation with Chris Hunter and Nik Gowing at the Llwfan Cymru – Wales stage at 8.30pm tonight.