We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age

  • Published

We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age by Laurie Calhoun. Zed Books, 2015, 416 pp. 

Laurie Calhoun’s We Kill Because We Can sets out to tackle a range of complex questions about national security policies. What interactions govern technology and policy, particularly on the MQ-1 Predator program? How do we reconcile legal implications in combating the work of militants in light of domestic and international frameworks? What is the value of not killing a particular individual, even if involved in planning terrorist acts against the United States? Calhoun does not just claim that the Predator’s mechanics pose a difficulty for just war theory, she goes much further to challenge the just war tradition itself, essentially asking whether there is such a thing as a just war.

First, the author asserts that in the case of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), “technology is driving policy, not the other way around.”1 As evidence, she cites the use of linguistic artifacts meant to clarify the status of America’s enemies in the post-9/11 environment, specifically the terms “unlawful combatant,” “imminent threat,” and “hostile.”2 Since the terms are not unique to RPAs but represent a larger legal question about how to define the status of those engaged in hostilities against the United States, it is not clear what this observation has to do with the link between RPAs (or any other technology) and policy development processes. Yet by chapter 10, she states, “The means to kill by remote control was sought by the Pentagon. . . .”3 It is unclear whether she claims the emergence of technology drives policy (as initially quoted) or people making policy drive technology (as later stated). If she wished to describe the relationship between technology development and policy goals as interdependent or endogenous, she never stated as such. The phrase the author seeks is “technological determinism,” but does not appear to be familiar with it.

An adequate literature review might have led to “Karl Marx and the Three Faces of Technological Determinism,” Bruce Bimber’s 1990 paper on the disambiguation of the term, and then to “Do Machines Make History?,” Robert Heilbroner’s 1967 discussion of society evolving along a predetermined course of technological discoveries.4 With conflicting claims, no evidence of a causal mechanism and no literature review of the phenomenon or use of relevant terms from authoritative works, her discussion of technology is inconclusive.

On policy arguments, Calhoun takes deep exception to the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) but does not address the complications of combatting nonstate armed groups that see themselves as transnational.5 There is no formal discussion of geopolitics: no reference to Sir Halford Mackinder’s work, no response to Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” or any other influential text on the subject. There is no indication that Calhoun considered the work of Mao Zedong or how al-Qaeda sought to adapt his principles of insurgency to build its “unassailable base” in zones of lawlessness where it had freedom of operation against the “near enemy” (what Ayman al-Zawahiri saw as the Egyptian regime and more broadly as corrupted Muslim governments) and the “far enemy” (the United States).6 One very powerful and noble direction she might have taken her research would have been to develop a systematic approach for a nonviolent basis to combat terrorism, one based on international legal norms and emphasizing primarily police (rather than military) responses. Unfortunately, there is no analysis of international legal frameworks in the text. The author seems unaware of legal positivism, or Harold D. Lasswell’s and Myres S. McDougal’s policy-prescriptive approach, or any other well-known framework, making only one secondary source citation from an online interview of a professor of law and presuming that a sufficient basis to prove “drone strikes” are illegal.

Shockingly, Calhoun’s writing appears sympathetic to jihad against America, arguing that US inattention to al-Qaeda’s demands prior to 9/11 are to blame for the attacks and goes so far as to say that the right course of action was not to retaliate at all, but to “stop doing what it was that led the perpetrators to react with their own shock and awe.”7 She even praises Osama bin Laden as “clever and charismatic” and calls 2 May 2011 the day “he was irrevocably silenced.”8 Calhoun commits the classic error of treating all of Sunni Islam as monolithic—an ironic misstep when criticizing others for cultural insensitivity. Just as she was unable to identify distinctions in Western jurisprudence, she did not differentiate the Sunni schools of law (Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Hanbali). There is no evidence she noticed that al-Qaeda and its affiliates represent a specific, violent sect of Wahhabism, Salafi Jihadis, or that they have deep disagreements with the rest of Islam, yet exhorts the US government with paraphrased advice from Sun Tzu: “Know thine enemy.”9 Should the United States work diligently to improve its cultural competence and promote mutual respect in discussing matters of foreign policy? Absolutely—and so should the author.

Calhoun apparently located the causes of war definitively at the individual (head of state) level, which was remarkable considering that a century of international relations scholarship debates that very question, none of which she addressed. She proceeds from an untested assumption, that if rephrased as a legitimate research question would read: “Does the presence of personal risk to leaders who are deciding on war inversely correlate with the frequency of wars?” She assumes so, and her untested assumptions couple with substantial bias in selecting and responding to sources. Notably missing is a 2015 RAND report that concluded from an econometric analysis that patterns in US strikes in Pakistan did correlate to reductions in levels of terrorist violence.10 She provided no response to Daniel Byman’s “Why Drones Work,” and cited it simply saying there continues to be “heated debate.”11 Breaking her original 328 endnotes into distinct statements, there are 464 substantive entries, shown in the table.

Table. Frequency analysis of citations 

Note Type



Scahill, Dirty Wars

Ahmed, The Thistle, and the Drone

Martin and Sasser, Predator

Geraghty, Soldiers of Fortune

Johnsen, The Last Refuge

Klaidman, Kill or Capture

Hastings, The Operators

48 others cited fewer than five times

130 (28 percent of total)

18 (13.8 percent of books)

8 (6.2 percent)

8 (6.2 percent)

7 (5.4 percent)

6 (4.6 percent)

6 (4.6 percent)

5 (3.8 percent)

(Average of 1.5 citations)

News Articles and Periodicals

New York Times


Washington Post

The Guardian



31 others cited fewer than five times

116 (25 percent of total)

29 (25 percent of news and periodicals)

17 (14.7 percent)

8 (6.8 percent)

6 (5.1 percent)

5 (4.3 percent)

(Average of 1.4 citations)

Comments/Conjecture by the Author

99 (21.3 percent)

Film and Television References

64 (13.8 percent)

Other (government documents, activist journals, nongovernmental organization reports, and opinion journals, reports, activist websites, blogs, etc.)

51 (10.9 percent)

Scholarly Articles

4 (1 percent)


464 (100 percent)


It is possible to extract insights out of film and television sources with an interpretive process that others can examine and reproduce, for example, the symptomatic approach that investigates films as cultural artifacts.12 What is less acceptable in serious writing, however, is to cite film and television as primary source evidence or unqualified “insights,” which the author does throughout the book. Her interpretation of the words and writings of former members of the RPA community is likewise skewed by massively reductionist logic. She concludes Lt Col Matt J. Martin and Charles W. Sasser’s Predator is credible evidence of the culture of the community because Martin “is an active-duty officer in the US military—indeed, a lieutenant colonel—his work must have been vetted by the powers that be. Martin’s is not just some outlier piece of screed scrawled by a “bad apple” or low-level grunt. . . Predator is a book-length account which has been approved by some of the very administrators who decide when and where other people should die.”13

Laurie Calhoun is the victim of a cruel joke: someone let her believe that Martin’s ridiculous writing was vetted or taken seriously anywhere. In reality, Martin’s book is the target of an aircrew tradition called “A Reading from the Good Book,” where one stands before the squadron and reads in overly dramatic tones to mock the book’s laughably unrealistic and self-aggrandizing substance. Poor source selection and unverified assumptions cripple Calhoun’s book from cover to cover. For example, “A consideration of the counterfactual scenario, had weaponized drones never been developed, reveals that they make killing more, not less, possible, in perfect conformity with the military’s longstanding quest for maximum lethality.”14 Counterfactuals are hypothesis-generating, not hypothesis-testing tools. Logically, had technology taken another path, war would still be an extension of politics, and casualties might be lower, higher, or relatively the same. The book ends with the same question begun in her critique of the philosophy of war, but offers no suggestions for improvement, leaving the reader wondering what philosophic system for managing violence she would instead recommend.

Speaking emotionally and repetitively into papers and books may be protected constitutionally, but it does not constitute legitimate public debate. To find a scholarly contribution, we must examine her worldview through a research question: why are certain antiwar activists so acutely frustrated by RPAs? We might derive a hypothesis from Calhoun’s essay “The End of Military Virtue,”15 and restate it this way: radical activism parasitically relies upon friendly casualties to survive—they leverage domestic bereavement to support their cause—thus all weapons that minimize friendly casualties are existential threats to the identity of the movement. Make no mistake, peace is the most noble end, but there are no shortcuts to achieving it, and this book failed to conduct rigorous analysis to advance our understanding of how to do so. Instead, it brazenly linked the jihadi agenda to radical anti-drone groups (with whom Calhoun is closely aligned), claiming, “Insurgents who rise up in response to criminal wars differ from antiwar activists only in their tactics.”16 The author does not seem to understand the deadly seriousness of expectations for rigor and self-disciplined research when contributing to public policy debates, but connects readily with film and television, so perhaps an accessible explanation resides in dialog between actors Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt in the 2015 drama Sicario. Del Toro cautions, “You are not a wolf. . . and this is a land of wolves now.

Capt Michael W. Byrnes
                                                    Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
Medford, Massachusetts


1. Laurie Calhoun, We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (London: Zed Books, 2015), xiii.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 227.

4. Bruce Bimber, “Karl Marx and the Three Faces of Technological Determinism,” Social Studies of Science 20 (1990), 333–51, and Robert L. Heilbroner, “Do Machines Make History?,” Technology and Culture 8, no. 3 (July 1967): 335–45.

5. Authorization for Use of Military Force, Public Law L. 107–40, 14 September  2001.

6. Fawaz A. Gerges (reviewed by L. Carl Brown), “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2005), accessed 10 January 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2005-11-01/far-enemy-why-jihad-went-global.

7. Calhoun, We Kill Because, 17.

8. Ibid., 18.

9. Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29, no. 3 (September–October 2006): 207–39.

10. Patrick B Johnston and Anop K. Sarbahi, The Impact of U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan, RAND Report, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 21 April 2015.

11. Calhoun, We Kill Because, xviii.

12. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Influence and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1991): 71–104.

13. Calhoun, We Kill Because, 167.

14 Ibid., 226.

15. Laurie Calhoun, “The End of Military Virtue,” Peace Review 23, no. 3 (2011): 377–86.

16. Calhoun, We Kill Because, 311.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."