Skip to main content

Don't give medals for drone attacks

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
March 21, 2013 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT