KILL CHAIN by Andrew Cockburn


The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins
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An examination of the rise of the present generation of killing machines, antiseptic and seemingly inescapable.

It’s not just the technology that makes a difference on the modern battlefield. It is, by Harper’s Washington editor Cockburn’s (Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy, 2007, etc.) account, the development of a doctrine that augments—and sometimes replaces—the old order of battle with the notion that enemy leaders are objects fit for assassination, adding a necessarily political dimension to the military one. This shift was marked, Cockburn writes, in the Kosovo War, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, a “high-value target,” became a candidate for execution from afar: “Assassination, officially forbidden and always denied, was still in the shadows but edging ever closer toward public respectability.” Arguably, it’s still disreputable, but assassination happens all the same, as witness the demise of Osama bin Laden and, less notoriously, the recent deaths of several ISIS commanders in Syria. Cockburn carefully charts the rise of the new doctrine and its supporting scholarship. It was anthropologists, for instance, who provided rationale for the unseemly bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s family compounds, killing his sons and grandchildren, on the grounds that “in Bedouin culture, Qaddafi would be diminished as a leader if he could not protect his immediate family.” Given that current Army doctrine, developed by the enthusiastic counterinsurgency fighter David Petraeus, has a section on targeting enemies for elimination—and given that current political doctrine allows the killing of anyone who even resembles a terrorist—it appears that we’ll have to shelve any remaining romantic ideas of single combat and get used to war by murder.

Sharp-eyed and disturbing, especially Cockburn’s concluding assessment that, nourished by an unending flow of money, “the assassination machine is here to stay.”

Pub Date: March 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9926-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2015


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