On April 15, the Pentagon decided against a medal for drone operators, which would have ranked higher than a Purple Heart or Bronze Star. (I waited to note this announcement, since the Boston Marathon bombings happened on the same day.)
It’s fair to say that the “Distinguished Warfare Medal” was universally condemned and mocked in the popular media. Here’s one cartoon about it by Matt Bors, for the Daily Kos.
What made the so-called “Nintendo Medal” so contemptible?
1. As Bors’ cartoon suggests, some find drone strikes to be morally evil, since they have been used outside of battlefields to target specific individuals, and often in violation of what appears to be state sovereignty, the rights of innocent bystanders, and at times our own Constitution.
2. Huffington Post writer (and military veteran) John Bruhns argues that it improperly awards personnel who aren’t physically at risk.
3. Shannon French has argued that drones are at least problematic because they dehumanize the enemy. In combination with the first objection, drones may be thought to (ironically enough) target an individual while at the same time dehumanizing him.
4. Michael Ignatieff argued a while ago that “virtual war” is too sterile, and distances us from the true costs of war.
5. Paul Kahn has argued for a sui generis rule of reciprocal self-defense, which applies only in war, on which “combatants are allowed to injure each other just as long as they stand in a relationship of mutual risk.” He also points out that riskless warfare tempts the more powerful party to adopt authoritarian and hegemonic policies.
These are all good reasons to criticize the Distinguished Warfare Medal. But it’s worth pointing out that at some future point, such a medal might well be an honorable one. After all, it’s just a matter of time until unmanned fighters and drones meet in combat. If two countries have drones of roughly equivalent sophistication, there is no reason I can see against awarding drone “aces” medals for their kills. I can even imagine ace pilots whimsically painting their drones with identifying markers (perhaps a red scarf, or the electronic equivalent?) in order to goad and win fame with their enemy, in keeping with the most ancient practices of honor. (Mutatis mutandis for the computer programmers, who will write the algorithms for fully automated drones.)
So I think the honorableness of drones and the exploits of their operators as we have them now needs to be separated from their honorableness in principle. That said, we needn’t commit ourselves to saying that the honor properly bestowed upon a computer programmer is of the same quality as that we should bestow upon an Audie Murphy.