Sudden Justice' - an interview with Chris Woods on drone warfare.

By Virginia Moffatt
May 29, 2015

At the beginning of the week I was at the Hay Festival. I had been intending to go to a talk by the journalist Chris Woods about his new book ‘Sudden Justice’ ’ but unfortunately my plans changed.

However, thanks to my husband Chris Cole, I was able to catch up with the author over coffee and had a fascinating discussion about war reporting, drones, and the future of American foreign policy. The following article originally appeared on the Making Hay website and is reprinted here with kind permission of Making Hay

Chris Woods began his career as a journalist for the BBC, where he reported on 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 ‘Sudden Justice’ in order to get a wider sense of the subject. In the book he 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 Israel. 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 carrying them out. 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 Number Two El-Zawahiri, who subsequently ordered an attack on the US in Tanzania in revenge. In response, Clinton’s government put Osama bin Laden 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 and learnt about their tedious days, waiting for the CIA to tell them what to do, working in a hierarchal structure that is both demoralising and disempowering. One interviewee’s description of how seeing a dog killed upset her, 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 she was jolted out of her situation and her humanity was expressing 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 drone warfare, 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 has the support of 60 per cent of the population. He believes that this is because Americans don’t have the proper information about what is going on. As he arrived the big story was that a drone had killed an US civilian, and yet the question discussed in the press 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. The writer 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 has operated in the darkness for too long.


© Virginia Moffatt is the Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia.

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