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Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, by Chris Woods, Oxford University Press, New York, 2015, $27.95

British journalist Woods traveled the globe and spoke to scores of subject matter experts to deliver a thoroughly researched, albeit highly opinionated, overview of the United States’ use of drone warfare in nations with which it has been officially at war (Iraq, Afghanistan) and some with which it has not (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria).

Drones have been in use for decades as reconnaissance platforms. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were only months away when a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator first successfully test-fired a Hellfire missile. By 2010 the Air Force was training more pilots to fly drones than manned aircraft. In Afghanistan and Iraq drones worked with military units, primarily conducting reconnaissance, with lethal strikes on a minority of missions.

Drones fly much slower and are generally more accurate than manned fighters, thus drone attacks kill fewer bystanders, a U.S. priority. That said, mistakes do happen, particularly when peripheral intelligence identifies a target or suspicious behavior draws an attack. When U.S. intelligence pinpointed terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011, it used a drone to map his compound but ruled out a drone strike to kill him.

Yet present-day media regularly announce drone strikes on terrorist leaders. While military spokesmen admit bystanders occasionally die, they dismiss claims of extensive civilian deaths as terrorist propaganda. The use of drones draws civilian ire in certain nations, and their governments have urged the United States to stop their use. Most Americans do not object.

Drones definitely make it dangerous to belong to an insurgency with anti-American overtones. Not that their use has caused recruiting problems for such groups. Quite the contrary—young men, especially ones with little to lose, court danger. But the author makes a convincing case that drones more or less do what they are designed to do. The jury is out on whether they breed more long-term ill will than good, but there is no doubt they represent a short-term, seemingly risk-free means to smite one’s enemies, so we will see more of them.

—Mike Oppenheim