Skip to main content

Don't give medals for drone attacks

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 11:29 AM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A policy is under review that would make it feasible to award medals to drone operators
  • Ruben Navarrette: Pentagon officials should scrap this medal altogether
  • He says unlike other medals, drone operators are never in harm's way
  • Navarrette: Handing out award for drone strikes reinforces fantasy of war as a video game

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette.

(CNN) -- My kids -- 4, 6 and 8 -- love the movie "Wreck It Ralph." It's about a video game character that desperately wants to win a medal.

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reviewing a new policy that awards medals to drone operators who might think they're in a video game.

Predatory drones have changed the art of war. As to the question of whether it's been a change for the good or the bad, that coin is still in the air.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This much we know: This is not your father's brand of warfare. That was more up-close and personal. When your dad served in Vietnam -- let alone, when your grandfather fought in World War II -- they took the fight to the enemy, and they had to step into the theater of war to do it.

Soldiers exchanged gunfire. Sometimes, they even engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Fighter pilots were shot down. Those captured by the enemy became prisoners of war.

And in recognition of such acts of valor, the military gives out medals -- the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star and Medal of Honor.

That's how it has always worked. In defense of your country, you put yourself at risk of death or at least great personal harm. And your country shows its gratitude by giving you a medal. When you receive this kind of commendation, you are assured that your service has been exemplary and your sacrifice significant.

Now things are different. Oh, the military still awards plenty of the traditional medals -- the old school way.

Yet under a policy approved by Hagel's predecessor, Leon Panetta, on his way out the door, military officials are also preparing to offer something called "The Distinguished Warfare Medal." It recognizes "extraordinary direct impacts on combat operations." But -- and here's the important part -- it has no "geographic limitation."

So if you kill an insurgent in Afghanistan, you don't really have to be physically present in Afghanistan. You don't even have to be in that part of the world. You can be sipping coffee and checking your e-mail thousands of miles away in a control room in Virginia. You press a few buttons and eliminate a few people. Then, at the end of your shift, you wrap up and drive to your kid's soccer game. It's all in a day's work.

What's legal in drone warfare?
CNN Explains: Drones

When it was announced that drone operators would now be eligible for medals, lawmakers and veterans groups raised concerns that the medal would eclipse those typically given for bravery in battle. They don't want the medal scrapped. They just want it downgraded and put in its proper place in the pecking order.

Those objections are fair. But concerns like that are not likely to resonate with most Americans who -- let's face it -- can't tell one medal from another.

Critics are right to be angry. But they're upset about the wrong thing. These special medals are really a bad idea, and the reasons for that have less to do with the pecking order among medals and more to do with the detached way that drone operators carry out their remote-control missions.

First, these high-tech cowboys are never in harm's way. You simply can't compare what they do from behind a desk with what others do on the battlefield.

Second, the whole concept is morbid. We know that innocent civilians have died in drone strikes in Pakistan. Sooner or later, the criteria for this medal may become: "How many kills do you have?" The more kills, the more likely you are to get a medal.

Lastly, handing out rewards and incentives for drone strikes only reinforces the fantasy of war as a video game, where you do well when you advance. We have enough of that already among a young generation of soldiers that grew up playing video games. We shouldn't encourage more of it.

Pentagon officials are expected, in the next month, to decide the fate of the medal for drone operators. Heading up the review will be Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. He could make the award less prestigious, raise the qualifications, do away with it or just leave things the way they are.

Here's the way forward.

Dempsey shouldn't bother downgrading the medal, so the other medals don't get jealous. He should just recommend that it be scrapped altogether. While there are those who want to turn war into a video game, someone needs to have the decency to pull the plug.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT