Last month, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta raised the Internet’s (hypothetical) eyebrows when he announced plans to commemorate “extraordinary achievements” in drone and cyber warfare through the creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, effectively removing the “geographic limitation” that previously defined medal recipients.
While we’d all cherish the possibility of translating time spent playing Bioshock Infinite to time spent morphing into a decorated war hero, pundet reactions were mixed at best.
CNN took issue with the notion that recipients would be able to earn a coveted military medal without actually engaging in physical warfare. According to author Rubin Navarette Jr., a soldier could “press a few buttons and eliminate a few people” while ”sipping coffee and checking … e-mail thousands of miles away in a control room in Virginia.” This, of course, is an assessment that simplifies how to operate a drone and exaggerates man’s ability to multi-task. But it is a solid point nonetheless.
USA Today columnist Duncan Hunter called the plans an “insult to soldiers,” citing precedence of the award over the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. According to Hunter, attempts to assign a higher rate to unmanned warfare medals is indicative of the “Pentagon’s unrelenting attempt to redefine the nature of war and the dangers commonplace on the field of battle.”
Still, Peter Singer, in a piece for The Washington Post, lamented the criticism launched against the medal campaign because “those who fight from afar still make tough and consequential decisions that both save and cost lives.”
The stir made its way back to newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who no doubt is sensitive to all things drone — especially after Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster heard ’round the world highlighted the public’s major concerns with unmanned warfare. On March 12, Hagel ordered a review of the Distinguished Warfare Medal and halted production of “what some have derisively dubbed the ‘Nintendo’ medal” (“some,” in this case, is really just Fox News and a blogger for NintendoLife.com…).
But the investigation is set to review the “order of precedence” of the medal, as opposed to the actual validity of having a medal for unmanned warfare.
Not that it’s necessarily invalid to have a Distinguished Warfare Medal. In a lot of ways, the U.S. has passed the point of no return in regards to unmanned combat. Today, the Air Force trains more people in drone piloting than jet piloting. And every country who’s any country is acquiring (or attempting to acquire) the technology for drones.
But there is still something unsettling about giving a pilot in D.C. a medal for a drone in Afghanistan (also, where is the drone’s recognition – didn’t that little flying bot serve our country too?). Not because – as CNN suggests – drone operators only push a “few buttons” to receive a medal. And not because the medal is an insult to soldiers, like USA Today posits (drone pilots are soldiers too, after all).
The Distinguished Warfare Medal seeks recognition for those who conduct military activity from afar. But uproar over whether or not a two-inch piece of metal should be made circumvents the real conversation about these new warfare methods. Unmanned warfare is a dangerous and effective weapon that has yet to receive the sort of public scrutiny one might expect a dangerous and effective weapon to receive.
If this new style of war is really hear to stay – and it definitely is – the national conversation cannot focus on whether soldiers ought to receive distinguished recognition for their work.
Instead, the conversation must put pressure on lawmakers and the Obama administration to be more transparent about the use and limitations of unmanned warfare. It should require officials to answer the (numerous) questions and concerns of U.S. citizens. And it should focus less on ‘to medal or not to medal’ and more on the adverse effects of touting unmanned warfare as the new norm.