Review of “Kill Chain: Rise of the High-tech Assassins”

Summary:  Today we have a review of an important book about America’s post-9/11 policy of mass assassination. We’ve adopted a tactic that both history and theory suggests will fail, and which has repeatedly failed since 9/11. Books like this explain what we’re doing wrong, but only political action by us together will reverse our mad geopolitical policies.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“Assassination is the perquisite of kings.”
— attributed to Umberto I of Italy.

Kill Chain

Review of Andrew Cockburn’s
Kill Chain:
The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins

Reviewed by Chuck Spinney.
Posted at his website The Blaster.
Posted here with his generous permission.

Caveat emptor: the author of this book is a friend of 35 years, so I am biased, proudly so in this case.  While I know what Cockburn can do, I must admit I was literally blown away by this book. And I am no stranger to this subject, having worked as an engineer-analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 25 years.

What makes Cockburn’s book so powerful, in my opinion, is not only his sourcing and detail (which are amazing), but the fact that he has written a book that is at once overwhelming in terms of information, yet so well written, it is accessible to the general reader.  It is a page turner.  He dissects the rise of drone warfare and examines its conduct in fascinating detail from the point of view of the targeteers in the CIA and the White House, to the controllers in front of video screens, and to the effects on the victims at the receiving end.

In so doing, he shows how the ideology of drone warfare is really old wine in a new bottle: it is a natural evolution of three interconnected mindsets:


  1. the flawed ideas underpinning the now-discredited theory of strategic bombing in WWII;
  2. the search for perfect information embodied in disastrous all-knowing, all-seeing electronic battlefield (starting with McNamara’s electronic line of Vietnam); and
  3. the search for surgical precision in both conflict and coercive diplomacy embodied, for example, in the simplistic targeting theories underpinning the drug war and the primitive escalate-the-pressure tactics of precision targeted sanctions.

At the roots of these three ideologies, I would argue, is an unchanging three-part set of propositions woven together in the 1930s by the evangelical instructors in the Army Air Corps Tactical School. They preached the theory of victory thru airpower alone, and they believed that only strategic bombing could justify an independent Air Force on a par with the Army and the Navy, with comparable or even larger budgets.

These future leaders of the AF constructed a seductive tautological argument, based on the fallacious assumptions of having extensive a priori knowledge of the enemy’s inner workings coupled to perfect combat intelligence.  It remains unchanged to this day and goes like this:

  1. The enemy is a physical system or network made up of critical linkages and nodes, be they ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, Salafi fanatics in Iraq with access to cell phones and the internet, or Pashtun warlords in the hills of Afghanistan.
  2. The enemy system can be reliably analyzed and understood from a distance, making it possible to exactly identify those specific nodes or links that are vital to the functioning of the adversary system, be it an industrial power like Germany, a tribal alliance in Yemen, or the financial links of a terrorist network or foreign oligarchy.
  3. That past failures are irrelevant because new technologies will provide the wherewithal to attack and destroy these vital nodes or links with precision strikes and thereby administer a mortal wound to the adversary.

In short, the conduct of war is an engineering problem: In the current lexicon of the Pentagon and its defense contractors, the enemy is a ‘systems of systems’ made up of high value targets (HVTs) that can be identified and destroyed without risk from a distance with unmanned systems, and the military-technical revolution makes any past failures irrelevant to current capabilities. The reasoning is identical to that described in the preceding paragraph.  Yet despite stridently confident predictions of decisive precision effects, from the days of the Norden bombsight in B-17s to those of the Hellfire missile fired by drones, this theory has failed over and over to perform as its evangelists predicted and are still predicting. The need to dismiss the history of repeated failures is why the never-ending promise of a military-technical revolution is central to the maintenance of the ideology.

Flying Terminator
Why do they hate us?

Viewing war as an engineering problem focuses on technology (which benefits contractors) and destructive physical effects, but this ideology ignores and is offset by the fundamental truth of war: Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.  Our technology’s physical effects can be — and often are — offset or mitigated by our opponent’s mental counters or initiatives, reflecting both his adaptability and unpredictability, and his moral strengths, like resolve and the will to resist. Combat history has proven over and over that mental and moral effects can offset physical effects, for example, when the destruction of ball bearing factories did not have its predicted effects in WWII, when bicycles carrying 600 pounds of supplies were used to by pass destroyed bridges on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and when the Serbs used cheap microwave ovens to fool expensive anti-radiation missiles in Kosovo.  And as Cockburn shows, this has proven true again in the ongoing war on terror, and its mirror image, the war on drugs.

Any one who doubts that this critique applies to drones used in a counter-terror strategy should be asked to explain the collapse in Yemen — a place where drones reached their apotheosis as the centerpiece of American counter-terror strategy.

Cockburn has provided a highly readable, and logically devastating story, written from a bottom-up empirical perspective.  He explains why our strategy in Yemen was doomed to fail, as indeed it has in recent weeks. His meticulously referenced historical and empirical research makes this book hard to pick apart. No doubt, there are some small errors of fact.  For example, not all the drone/bombers deployed in ill starred Operation Aphrodite (which blew up JFK’s elder brother) in 1944 were B-24s as Cockburn incorrectly suggests; the operation also used B-17s.  But I defy anyone to find a single thread or family of threads that can be used to unravel his tapestry.


Chuck Spinney

About Chuck Spinney

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney retired from the Defense Department in 2003 after a military/civilian career spanning 33 years, 26 of them as a staff analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is author of many articles about US military and geopolitical affairs. Read his bio here.

He posts at his website, The Blaster. Many of his articles are published at CounterPunch. Some of his major publications:

  1. <Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch (1985).
  2. The Defense Death Spiral (2000).
  3. Bill Moyers Interviews Chuck Spinney – Won an Emmy as the best news magazine show of 2002.
  4. The Domestic Roots of Perpetual War“, chapter one in The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It, ed. Winslow Wheeler (2011).
  5. A contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (2012)
  6. The Enablers: The Central Role of Faux Republicans in the Anatomy of Decline“ — review of Mike Lofgren’s book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted.

Other posts by Chuck Spinney at the FM website:

  1. The Taliban Rope-a-Dome.
  2. Can Obama, or anyone else, outmaneuver the war advocates?
  3. Chuck Spinney describes the next phases of the Afghan War: defeat, retreat, & demobilization.
  4. Chuck Spinney explains our broken OODA loop.
  5. The Ukraine crisis gives us a peak behind the curtain into the workings of our government.
  6. Chuck Spinney asks why we choose to lose at 4GW.

For More Information

Another review of Kill Chain: “Andrew Cockburn Understands Assassination: He knows it doesn’t help” by David Axe at Medium. For another perspective see the War Nerd’s “Assassinations: Where Accounting Meets Human Resources“.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about assassination as a tool of war. and drone assassins. Especially see these posts:

  1. “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt.
  2. The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”.
  3. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy.
  4. America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired).
  5. Killing Machines: Promises and Limits.
  6. The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us.
  7. Victory through airpower! We always believe the promise, despite the past.

13 thoughts on “Review of “Kill Chain: Rise of the High-tech Assassins””

  1. FM has been on a roll for the last month or so. I have no comments for the simple reason that FM is covering everything so well, and summing up the current situation so succinctly, that there seems little point in adding anything, other than a superfluous, “Yes, that’s true,” or “Exactly right,” or “Why aren’t the mainstream news media covering these issues?”

    Example: in his recent piece about the Biotech bubble, FM writes: “Three of our most profitable sectors — education, defense and health care — show America evolving into a grifter economy, where our elites exploit their political power to extract “rents” from the rest of us. It’s the natural result of growing inequality, with wealth and income concentrating in the 1%. Of course they use their strength to future increase their power.”

    Really, what is there to add to this, other than, “Exactly right”?

    1. Thomas,

      Thank you for the feedback, but your comment raises the big question — the important one: these get few hits. I too believe that these are good work, but they’re not box office. They get 500 hits in the first day, 1,000 in the first week — for a total of 80-100 thousand per month. That’s below average on a per post basis from before I started focusing on the website (more time available when I left my job, so better content and the posts per week increased from 6-7 to 12).

      And that’s after a major upgrade of the website, plus massive effort at optimizing for Google (unsuccessful), plus intense promotion via Twitter (unsuccessful), and a little promo at Facebook (I haven’t figured out how to use it).

      This isn’t working, and I don’t know why.

  2. Chuck Spinney’s review proves as insightful as usual. In a larger sense, the American military’s foolishly futile obsession with reducing war to engineering problems results from the retrograde and cartoonishly crude American military mindset of 2GW, where war gets viewed as an effort to “put fire on target.” Drones, like so many other counterproductive hi-tech U.S. Rube Goldberg war machines, excel at putting fire on target.

    Alas, as Spinney points out (and as John Boyd and Napoleon before him reminded us), the moral is the physical as 3 parts are to 1. So no matter how much fire the U.S. military puts no matter how accurately on target, giving up the moral high ground to do it (i.e., repeatedly blowing up wedding parties with those drones) represents an elaborate and highly sophisticated method of self-defeat.
    Watching America’s military at work today is a lot like watching a man armed with a fabulously sophisticated laser-guided explosive-bullet-firing rifle shooting himself constantly in the foot. If only the rifle could be made more accurate…if only the laser guidance system could be improved…if only the cyclic firing rate could be increased…that would solve the problem!

    At a certain point, you just have to shake your head and walk away.

    1. Thomas,

      “At a certain point, you just have to shake your head and walk away.”

      Remember Spinney’s larger point: the US defense apparatus is a powerful and brilliantly designed machine, perhaps among the most successful ever at its purpose. That is, of course, extracting money from America for distribution to its stakeholders. So walking away is a win for them. After all, you can’t walk away from paying them — just influencing them.

      This is 21st C American citizenship: impotence leads not to redoubled effort but surrender. That’s what distinguishes crew from passengers (crew are responsible for the vessel, passengers just pay for it) — citizens from subjects. We will be what we decide to be.

      This is connected to my previous comment: this is a message that few want to hear. News and analysis have become entertainment for the outer party, catharsis by booing and cheering “my” tribe. I read National Review and Naked Capitalism, and have deja vu. What’s the difference?

      “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  3. I find the drone topic incredibly boring. Of course we’re going to use the latest technology. Napalm was advanced tech in Viet Nam. What do you expect from them? BTW, last time I checked 11 countries had developed armed drones another 50 or so have surveillance drones. The “oops, we killed some women and children” excuse goes back to the slaughter of native Americans, dontcha know? Mass murderers don’t care — they never have.

    1. Gloucon,

      I don’t believe you understand the primary objection. Drones have allowed us to do mass assassinations, these have clearly proven ineffective.

      “Mass murderers don’t care — they never have.”

      If you are an American, these are done by your government in your name. You share the responsibility. If you do nothing then you prove the accuracy of your statement with respect to yourself.

      “I find the drone topic incredibly boring”

      That’s the saddest thing I have read today. But not surprising. Our apathy and passivity are our own punishment; there’s an element of cosmic justice in that.

  4. It’s boring because if drones were miraculously banned, they’d just send in a cruise missile which would kill even more innocent people. The focus should be on stopping the killing not the method of killing.

    1. Gloucon,

      That’s totally false. The rate of assassinations increased markedly with the availability of drones, as they made targeting easier, reduced the cost of strikes, and reduced (not eliminated) the “collateral damage”. This has markedly increase people’s hatred of us.

  5. “This has markedly increased people’s hatred of us.”

    Do you really think there is anyone over there who doesn’t hate us by now?

    You’re focusing on one minor part of this war. To our leaders it’s all one war. The number of conventional airstrikes against ISIS is approaching 3000. They’re about to put troops on the ground again. Didn’t they wanted to send cruise missiles into Syria during the chemical weapons incident? They’ve never cared about civilians. They just made this guy into a movie hero; I think they have the same attitude:

    “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.”

    ― Chris Kyle, American Sniper

    1. Gloucon,

      There is no need to to speculate about this, as there has been ample research.

      To mention just one factor, strikes motivate people to act against us more than hearing news about events elsewhere (e.g., in next village). People are not light bulbs, either hating us or bin laden.

  6. Carter Griffin

    If I may be so bold, I agree with the sentiment of being bored with discussing drones.

    Quite frankly disscussions of drone sad drones misses the actual issue, that the American government has decided to wage war via assassination (or more uncharitably extrajudicial execution) without real consideration about whether this makes any sense as a policy or has even the slightest potential to be effective. Those such as those who write here and have their material published here in my mind have that recognition, but with the vast amount of pontificating all around about drones as drones, it’s understandable for people to grow weary of such and begin to confuse the issues at hand.

    And as others have said before, the content posted here leaves little else to be said other than keep it up.

    1. Carter,

      While I see your point, experience has shown that writing about things in purely abstract terms — assassination — doesn’t reach everybody. Some people are reached only by making the issue more tangible — drone assassins!

      I recommend focusing on the big picture, and not getting bogged down in the details. This you, imo correctly, identify as the underlying policy. Efforts to build a mass audience are necessary for change, and will necessarily involve marketing methods you might dislike.

    2. Carter,

      “And as others have said before, the content posted here leaves little else to be said other than keep it up.”

      I appreciate the praise, but must unfortunately disagree. Political change involves marketing as much as analysis. Marketing without sound analysis risks disaster following success; analysis without effective marketing is a hobby (or business, if someone pays for it). Here we’re guilty — me, my coauthors, most of the people I repost — of the latter. Definitive evidence is the inability to grow the audience. 100 thousands page views a month is a dot on the great internet ocean.

      I’m exploring options. I’ve tried a few advertisements (with our limited funds). I tried Twitter (as others have realized, it’s a closed system — high follows do little for the FM website). I’m exploring use of Facebook (tips appreciated!).

      Suggests are welcomed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top