Drones have changed the face of modern warfare. Killing enemy soldiers is no longer the intimate, brutal act it was just a century ago, as the distance between the target and the targeter has increased at an unprecedented rate. That grim task is looking less like warfare as we’ve known it for thousands of years, and more like a video game.
These days, a “pilot” operating a remote drone from an Air Force base in Nevada can push a button and kill someone he believes is an al-Qaeda commander in a convoy on a Pakistani back road. From the perspective of the dead man and whatever collateral damage results from being targeted, it doesn’t matter whether an attack was launched by a U.S. soldier 200 feet away or a drone attack from the safety of a bunker 7,000 miles away. He’s going to be dead in either case.
Perhaps that’s what has compelled the Pentagon to make soldiers who operate drones thousands of miles from combat zones eligible for new Distinguished Warfare Medals. But recognizing the role of drone operators isn’t the problem, critics of the award say.
Instead, they object to the decision to elevate the Distinguished Warfare Medal to a level higher than the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star — honors that can be earned only in actual combat. The Purple Heart goes to wounded soldiers, but in the new hierarchy it will rank lower than an award given to a soldier pushing the buttons of a drone.
The morality of using drones in countries we’re not officially at war with is already problematic to many critics. The logic of elevating the Distinguished Warfare Medal over more-established honors is inexplicable.
Should the soldier who kills from a distance, then goes home to his family at the end of his shift, get an award that ranks higher than one earned by a Navy SEAL who was injured in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound? This is not to minimize the psychological impact of killing from afar, but it is not the same as being exposed to return fire.
It’s absurd to tell a soldier who has lost a limb in combat, or worse, that a soldier who never has to fire a shot has extended himself more by pushing buttons. War is supposed to be hell. Drone warfare isn’t even inconvenient.