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 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT