It is a measure of how much the United States’ security has improved since the more dangerous moments of the Cold War that the most troublesome issues in the military field today concern not weapons of mass destruction but targeted killing. The power that comes with access to the nuclear codes, of course, remains foremost when considering a presidential candidate’s fitness for office. Yet no American leader has authorized the use of nuclear weapons since 1945. The last two U.S. presidents have regularly authorized the elimination of alleged Islamist terrorists.
The U.S. government has assassinated jihadists through a variety of means, including Special Forces and attack helicopters. But drones have become its new weapon of choice. This has prompted a large body of literature exploring the ethical, legal, and strategic dilemmas that these weapons pose. Some of these books, such as The Drone Debate, by the political scientists Avery Plaw, Matthew Fricker, and Carlos Colon, and Drones, by Sarah Kreps, also an academic, provide admirable overviews of the debate. Objective Troy, meanwhile, by the New York Times reporter Scott Shane, presents a gripping account of the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic New Mexico–born preacher and senior al Qaeda operative who, after a drone killed him in Yemen in 2011, became the first U.S. citizen to be assassinated since the American Civil War. The Assassination Complex, by the investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept (and which includes a foreword by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden), amounts to a searing indictment of the U.S. drone program. Other commentators are more gently critical, such as the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson, in Drone, his thoughtful examination of the dilemmas this new weapon poses.
Although these books differ in style and focus, they cover a similar set of issues and are drawn to the same set of sources. Underlying them all is the claim that drones represent a new era of warfare, or at least
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