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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT