New book explores Barack Obama’s special relationship with a lethal technology
by REED PEEPLES
Weapons shape wars. Like leaders and enemies, they become active characters in our narratives of armed conflict. However the United States’ post-9/11 wars are resolved, we can already confidently assign their emblem — the drone.
In his new book Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone, New York Times national security journalist Scott Shane tells the story of the most consequential drone sortie ever flown — the mission, personally ordered by Pres. Barack Obama, to kill Anwar Al Awlaki, an American citizen.
Objective Troy is neither technological history nor defense policy treatise, but rather a narrative of how two relentless, innovative enemies leveraged emerging technologies to lead, fight and kill on a global battlefield.
As young men, neither Obama nor Al Awlaki imagined their life’s work would involve killing. Both were charismatic, non-conformist intellectuals, struggling to reconcile American upbringings with non-western, Muslim-heritage ancestry. The two young Americans were thinkers and communicators, men whose calling was to promote the ideas they believed most central to building good and just societies.
Their “characters” read almost like alter-ego reflections of each other. It’s not just an amusing contrast — their common experiences and mutual commitment to intellectual leadership shaped how they fought each other. Obama prioritized targeting Al Awlaki in part because, informed by his recent electoral victory, he understood how charisma and a mastery of social media could mobilize youth and upend social inertia.
When Al Awlaki mailed bombs to synagogues in Chicago — “Obama’s city” — the addresses he selected referenced religious grievances dating back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Al Awlaki’s enthusiasm for such political theater stands in contrast to Obama’s sterile utilitarianism. He is neither naive nor callous regarding the human suffering his decisions may cause. In Shane’s account, Obama considers civilian casualties part of a broader moral arithmetic, an equation that also accounts for risk associated with an unwillingness to kill the people who, in the president’s words, “are trying to kill us.”
The president in Objective Troy — a man who spends much of his workweek contemplating the act of ending human life — will be unfamiliar to many readers. This contrast with the president’s tranquil public persona is perhaps most surprising to Obama himself who, in a moment of self-aware incredulity, observed, “It turns out … that I’m really good at killing people.”
How should we kill those people? The president, Shane explains, believed that technology could offer direct solutions to ethical problems, and drones seemed well-suited to the type of precise, judicious killing he favored.
When coupled with mature precision aerial munitions, drones seemed to allow him to kill a specific person at a specific time and location. Pilots could observe an “objective” — either human or material — and release weapons when they were certain they would kill only the people who needed to die.
That expectation, we know, was overly optimistic. During Obama’s presidency, drones have become infamous for killing civilians and transforming peaceful Muslims into committed jihadis. Much of that narrative, of course, springs from jihadist propaganda.
While Shane withholds judgement on the consequences of the broader “drone campaign,” he does try to understand what transformed Al Awlaki himself. Why did he fight? Why did a bright and charismatic American Muslim, born in New Mexico and raised to admire the real-world bounty of science and reason, commit to a worldview that all but promised discomfort, scarcity and an abrupt, violent death?
Shane offers an intriguing angle on those questions, but we’re left with the sense that any satisfying answers died with Al Awlaki on a bare Yemeni desert.
In his story of the events that led to Al Awlaki’s death, Shane helps us understand the interplay of technology, ideology, and values in America’s wars since 9/11. Students of recent military history will be reminded of the narrative oral history in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down.
Like Bowden’s account of that evolution in American warfare, Objective Troy will likely also become a benchmark in our effort to describe how and why we kill.