A botched drone mission in Afghanistan kills 13 civilians, mostly women and children. Pilot Darwin Cole, controlling the unmanned aircraft from a bunker in Nevada, watches in horror as his anti-terrorist strike becomes a massacre.
One year later, Cole is a drunken recluse, ejected from the military with a dishonorable discharge, living in a trailer with “broken windows, [and] bottles in the yard.” He has lost his nerve, his wings, his career, and his wife and kids. He has been unmanned.
It is this double meaning—an unpiloted aircraft and utter emasculation—that Dan Fesperman invokes with the one-word title of his new novel, “Unmanned” (Alfred A. Knopf), a fictional exposé of drone technology.
Cole’s redemption begins when three reporters—two, like Fesperman, former Baltimore Sun staffers—track him down, hoping that in his disgraced status he will be a source for a story they are doing on several questionable drone strikes linked by the involvement of an unidentified CIA agent known as Fort1. Cole agrees to help on the condition that he can move in with the reporters as a full-fledged member of their investigative team. Their inquiries attract the attention of the air force, the CIA, and, most importantly, a Blackwater-style private military contractor IntelPro, which is based out of Hunt Valley with training facilities on the Eastern Shore.
The book’s opening chapter, a blow-by-blow account of Cole’s failed mission in present tense, reads like a magazine feature article. It brings us into the control room in the Nevada desert from which Cole and his sensor operator kill 13 people in Afghanistan. All of the incongruities of drone warfare are nakedly stated and emphasized: that Cole had been in his suburban home only hours before, reading “Goodnight Moon” to his son; that all his commands travel over the peaceful heads of the unknowing American populace; that, due to time zones, the action is happening nine hours in the future. That surveilling people from above made one feel godlike, like “a kindly uncle with a camera . . . until you fired a missile.” Someone who wanted to understand the reality of drone warfare and didn’t mind some heavy-handed editorializing could read chapter one and stop, and take away from it more than half of what Fesperman wants to say with the book.
What follows is a standard investigative-journalist thriller that never gets very thrilling. One expert after another explains things at great length. Cole explains the Air Force chain of command to the reporters. A former CIA agent explains both the Agency’s and independent contractors’ roles in Air Force drone operations to Cole. A doomsaying civilian aeronautics engineer explains the current state of drone technology, and introduces Cole to drone hobbyists. Another ex-CIA agent explains how easy it is for different agencies, including private companies, to have access to the Air Force drone program. It adds up to a compelling piece of reporting, nonfiction cast as fictional conversation.
The fictional trappings are competent if at times clunky. New characters are either introduced with pages of exposition, so the reader knows how and why they are in the story, or they are designated with a specific personality trait that is emphasized over and over again. It means that most of the characters are not just flat, but are barely even there.
Fesperman is both most comfortable and most excited describing the act of reporting. Though Cole is supposed to be a pilot, Fesperman quickly turns him into a reporter once he joins the other journalists in their information gathering. Much thought and discussion goes into figuring out the right approach for an interview or the right tone to use in order to make someone reveal the most information. “This was Keira’s strength, getting people to talk when they didn’t want to, drawing information out of them like poison.”
Cole, watching one of the reporters compose an email, “marvel[s] again at their ease with language, their ability to move to the heart of things in a few quick sentences.” Not exactly an observation you would expect from a pilot, but perhaps an obvious, if self-congratulatory thought, for a reporter.
Unfortunately, a reporter usually arrives at a scene after the fact. As a result, while there is a constant feeling of paranoia, represented by Cole’s hyperawareness of security cameras, there’s very little sense of impending danger. Even when the heroes have a gun pulled on them, the situation is diffused before the reader can get anxious. And when shots are finally fired, the protagonists show up at the crime scene after the police have already arrived, the action lost in the past.
This problem is compounded by the fact that drone warfare is very low-risk for the drone pilot. When Cole finally takes the controls again, he is safely miles away from the action. The sense of urgency and excitement lies elsewhere.
Despite the absence of thrills, the implications of “Unmanned” are terrifying. Fesperman hammers home the idea that the drones are quiet enough and can fly high enough to provide high-definition video good enough to read license plates, undetected. So people can, and probably are, using them on U.S. soil and no one knows. Cole thinks, “You could fly these things just about anyplace, right past security checkpoints and every metal detector known to man.” At one point in the book, insect-sized drones fly into a house and make copies of computer hard drives with USB sticks. No more need for spies, and the only thing at risk is the cost of the drone.
Towards the end of the novel, someone asks Cole, “How were you handling it—the sense of power, of being God, choosing when to bless and when to damn? You’d watch all those lives up close for hours at a time, and then manage their fates for them.” Cole gets defensive, insisting that everyone is culpable, the engineers, the chain of command, and the pilots. But “Unmanned” wants you to worry that not everyone who has the technology will have Cole’s conscience. The person at the controls might only get as far as feeling like God. In fact, he may already be out there and probably is.