Book review: Hunter Killer: Inside the Lethal World of Drone Warfare

ASK any soldier, sailor or airman who has fought — actually fought — in a conflict, they will most likely agree with that maxim about how wars are 99% boredom relieved by 1% terror. 

Lt Col T Mark McCurley with Kevin Maurer

Allen & Unwin, £8.99

The difference in the case of drone warfare is that the terror is so one-sided.

This is the story of how an American military that viewed drones with suspicion and even some disdain came to embrace their capabilities unreservedly; and of the men and women who have made such a difference to the nation’s wars on foreign fields without having to leave American soil.

For most of the 343 pages, Lt Col T Mark McCurley is based in a nondescript air force base in Nevada, piloting Remotely Propelled Aircraft (RPA) which, over the course of his time in the programme, morph from underappreciated reconnaissance aides into feared instruments of death.White devils, as the insurgents came to name them.

The author disputes the widely-held view that RPA pilots are immune to the effects they have on people in faraway Iraq or Afghanistan or the like.

Geography and technology are no borders to the sometimes highly-disturbing high-definition images to which they are afforded of their targets.

Or so he claims.

It certainly makes for an interesting psychology thesis given he writes about driving through the Las Vegas traffic one day after a hit and scrambling with the magnitude of what he had just done before finding solace in a martini and a cigar from a balcony overlooking Sin City.

It’s an image that is unlikely to generate huge sympathy.

But then war ain’t what it used to be. McCurley reveals that the US military’s drones in 2011 clocked up 10 times the flight hours of conventional aircraft, for example. 

And, unlike fighter pilots, McCurley and his colleagues see their enemies up close and personal.

Their faces were “seared into the brains” of those wielding the joysticks, metaphorically and figuratively, as with the time the author played his part in the death of an insurgent nicknamed the Facilitator whom he knew to be on the phone to his wife the moment the RPA’s missile landed.

McCurley and his team had tracked that one target for a month, learning every route and location, logging every accomplice and meeting before making their lethal move. That said, no military weapon has ever amounted to an exact science, and drone warfare is no different.

McCurley gives one account as to how he saved a colleague from a potential court martial by overruling a strike on the grounds that the target wasn’t fully verified.

He knew of another strike that did go ahead and “killed an Afghan scrap-metal dealer who looked like Osama Bin Laden”.

The ethics and the aesthetics of it all are ingredients for endless debate, but McCurley and his co-author Kevin Maurer have inarguably done a fine job in fashioning an eminently readable book out of a subject that appeared to offer little in the way of traditional military narrative or pace.

“The easiest days were the ones where nothing happened,” McCurley says at one point. There were many of them and the endless use of military anagrams tend to jar and melt into one jumbled up alphabet.

That isn’t unique in the history of military reads, however, and it is counterbalanced by the insight the book gives into the evolution of such a new and game-changing wing of the battlefield, and of the red tape and political machinations that go hand in hand with it.


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