A Review of Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves
Before 2020 descended into an annus horriblus of pandemic, wildfires, and riots (not that much has changed yet in 2021), the year started with a bang . . . or, to be more precise, with an explosion as an airstrike delivered by an American unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani on January 2 in Baghdad, Iraq. The successful targeting of Soleimani was merely the latest employment of a tactic that reached its apex during the Obama administration’s “Drone Wars,” when U.S. UAVs conducted over 500 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of between 2,600 and 3,900 militants.
The use of UAVs for kinetic effects, however, is not the sole provenance of the U.S. military. Part of the rationale for targeting Soleimani was increasing Iranian aggression throughout the region, including the use of UAVs to: target anti-Assad forces in Syria and Kurdish leaders in Iraq; threaten shipping in the Persian Gulf; and the successful attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field in September 2019. Indeed, to date, twelve countries have used UAVs in airstrikes. Over three dozen countries currently possess armed drones and numerous non-state actors who have adapted commercial drones for lethal purposes. It is an understatement, therefore, to say that UAVs have revolutionized warfare in the 21st Century.
Yet according to Never Mind, We’ll Do It Ourselves, an engaging memoir by the then-CIA officer and Air Force major responsible for developing the first American UAV missions over Afghanistan in 2000, and a year later, the first armed UAV attacks, this military revolution had far surprisingly mundane roots. Alec Bierbauer and Mark Cooter’s story begins in February 2000 when the Clinton administration, frustrated in its attempts to target Osama bin Laden, tasked the CIA with obtaining actionable intelligence on the al-Qa’ida leader before the 2000 elections. Finding intelligence provided by anti-Taliban militias in Afghanistan unreliable, the CIA turned to technological solutions, initially considering a proposal to airdrop seismic sensors and cameras via “a big lawn dart.” Although Bierbauer’s initial suggestion to deploy UAVs over Afghanistan was greeted “like a steaming turd in the middle of the table,” the CIA settled on this option with General Atomic’s Predator drone selected as the appropriate platform. The remainder of the book recounts how Bierbauer, Cooter, and their team of “hand-picked renegades and patriots” went about overcoming the scientific, engineering, logistical, and – most challenging of all – bureaucratic obstacles to what eventually became the most useful tool in America’s counterterrorism arsenal.
In some ways, Never Mind is an unusual book. It doesn’t discuss broader issues such as the strategic implications or the history of remote warfare. Consequently, it is unclear why Bierbauer’s initial suggestion to deploy UAVs was so shocking – after all, Israel had successfully deployed UAVs in 1982’s Operation Galilee in Lebanon, and the United States had employed drones as a reconnaissance platform in the Balkans in the 1990s. Despite this limited focus, Never Mind is an important addition to the broader historiography of the Global War on Terror and the role of unmanned warfare precisely because it is told at a micro-level rather than from . . . well, a 20,000 foot view.
The authors relate their story in alternating first-person chapters, with each demonstrating specific quirks – Bierbauer uses one-too-many football metaphors, while one imagines that given his propensity for profanity in his chapters, somewhere Cooter owns an overflowing swear jar. Yet their writing is never ponderous, is often humorous (when the first Predator flight crashes on a test mission in Uzbekistan, the authors inform their superiors they had good news and bad news: “The bad news is that we crashed the plane, the good news is that the pilot survived”), and both emerge as relatable figures.
Although dealing with intelligence gathering and counterterrorism operations, most of the book’s action occurs not in glamorous settings out of a James Bond film, but rather in decidedly un-exotic locations such as Huntsville, Alabama; the Mojave Desert; a dusty airfield outside Las Vegas; and a double-wide motor home on Rammstein Air Force Base later relocated to an abandoned parking lot somewhere in northern Virginia. As a result, Never Mind lacks the immediacy of comparable memoirs by various Special Operations Forces veterans. To be sure, their tale is engaging, and Bierbauer and Cooter ably capture the suspense of moments such as when their Predator locates bin Laden in September 2000, its first engagement with a Taliban MiG, and post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan to include supporting hard-pressed U.S. forces in the battle on Roberts Ridge during Operation Anaconda. But as Cooter observes: “We could see the fight . . . and while every day we used phrases like ‘we could die’ or ‘we could crash’ the truth of it was that . . . should our plane corkscrew into a mountainside, or be blown from the sky in burning shreds, we would all stand up, shut down our systems, and go home.”
The authors themselves acknowledge that this is really a book about the bureaucratic and logistical challenges mid-level program managers must overcome to enact a tactical innovation that eventually proves to have revolutionary strategic implications. They are obviously new to this endeavor, however, as they ignore the first rule of bureaucratic memoirs: score-settling to demonstrate how they alone were on the right side of history. Instead, Bierbauer and Cooter are admirably humble, unfailing in their praise for their colleagues, and appreciative of superiors who provided bureaucratic top-cover for their innovations. This last point makes Never Mind essential reading for students of military innovation.
Indeed, the authors provide a veritable gold mine of insight into the importance of interagency and joint service cooperation, working with private contractors and allies, and adapting commercial technology in innovative ways. They also demonstrate the importance of personal relationships, professionalism, and character when operating in a bureaucracy and demonstrate how successful leaders adapt to harness the talents of brilliant – if occasionally difficult – personalities within a team, rather than attempting to pettily force them into a preconceived mold of the manager’s choosing. Observations such as "Few things are as daunting as a bureaucrat vested with the power to make decisions on subjects they don't understand," or "For every action, there is an equal and opposite litigation" alone makes the book worth reading for any policy school graduate entering government service.
The authors also provide an important cautionary reminder that even when successful at navigating the bureaucratic maze, program managers are still ultimately dependent upon elected officials of varying wisdom and fortitude to execute policies. Although Bierbauer and Cooter are appreciative of their CIA and Air Force superiors for taking risks on their behalf, they are understandably derisive of the Clinton administration officials, whom they believe squandered an opportunity to target bin Laden in September 2000, one month before the deadly attack on the U.S.S. Cole. “No matter what miracles of technology we were able to sequent,” the authors conclude, “none of it would matter without the authority to pull the trigger.”
In the end, despite the current vogue for railing against the bureaucratic "Deep State," Never Mind shows how much of the implementation of grand strategy and policy relies on nameless, faceless patriots for success. And whereas current events make it easy to be pessimistic about America’s future, Never Mind should re-instill some faith that sometimes the subject matter experts in our national security bureaucracy do get it right . . . sometimes.
Benjamin Runkle is a Senior Policy Fellow with Artis International and an Adjunct Lecturer with The Johns Hopkins University’s Global Security Studies program. He is the author of Wanted Dead Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) and Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II (Stackpole Books, 2019).