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.
Peter Olsthoorn said:
I think the main problem here is that drone operators do not put themselves at risk; it is for that reason that their conduct is not seen as honorable. Especially military honor has always been seen as involving physical risk. As Welsh writes in his book on honor:
For men to join in battle is generally thought to be honorable, but not if they are so situated as to be able to kill others without exposing themselves to danger whatever. On the contrary, the willingness to risk one’s life – it could be in an act of passive resistance – comes as the test of honor we most often hear invoked (A. Welsh, 2008. What is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives (New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 4).
In earlier days, bows, catapults, and firearms were vilified for being the weapon of choice for cowardsm, but today’s use of unmanned weapon systems push things even further by doing away with risk altogether. Journalists Thompson and Ghosh from Time describe how in Waziristan, the region in Pakistan that has seen a lot of drone attacks on Taliban leaders, the use of unmanned aircraft is certainly seen as dishonorable and cowardly (M Thompson and B. Ghosh, 2009. The CIA’s Silent War in Pakistan, Time, June 1). Although at first sight not a big concern, or at least not our concern, this perceived dishonorableness can have some adverse practical consequences. In that same Time article Baitullah Mehsud, the Pashtun commander of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed that each drone attack brought “him three or four suicide bombers,” mainly found among the families of the victims of the drones. Using drones is an effective method, though: Mehsud was killed by an drone in August 2009.
dan demetriou said:
Great comment, Peter. I think I agree with everything you say here. But is the dishonorableness the lack of risk per se, or the lack of symmetrical risk? In the last paragraph in my post, I imagine a scenario where drones fight drones. In that case, there would be no risk to any operators. But I can imagine an “ace” operator getting feathers in his or her cap for downing lots of enemy drones. I think kids who play online video games revel in this sort of honor already.
Suppose you agree with that much. The next question for me would be is whether such honor would be *military* honor? Maybe late medieval warriors asked the same questions when they imagined a world where wars would be fought with guns and cannon. I can see military honor continuing without personal risk to operators if:
1) the technology of antagonists is roughly equal
2) drone pilots or programmers are somehow identifiable
My reasoning is that military honor is just honorable conduct in a military exploit or setting. That is, military honor is not a sui generis sort of honor. Would you agree with that?
That said, I’ll be the first to agree with Welsh that the higher the risk, the greater the honorableness the conduct may rise to. In my opinion, there are lots of honor games—in actual games, in academics, in athletics, in war—but that doesn’t mean that the honorableness of those engaged in those various spheres isn’t commensurable. Maybe being a great Dungeons and Dragons player just doesn’t hold a candle to being a Nobel Prize winner. And maybe winning a Nobel Prize just isn’t as honorable as being a warrior who risks his or her life. In that case, the diminished risk for warriors will in turn diminish the honorableness of being a warrior. But even in a scenario where warriors are at no more risk than civilians, it wouldn’t follow in my opinion that there would be no such thing as military honor—if, again, the above criteria were met.