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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.
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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.

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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.

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

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