Peter W. Singer is the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.” Follow him on Twitter: @peterwsinger.
It is an odd medal indeed that “may not be awarded for valor in combat under any circumstances.” But that definition is precisely what drives the need for and the controversy surrounding the military’s new Distinguished Warfare Medal.
Announced by Leon Panetta this past week in one of his final acts as defense secretary, the medal recognizes achievements in post-Sept. 11 military operations, accomplishments “so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations.” But what makes the medal so noteworthy is that there is no geographic limit on where the action took place. It was created to catch up to the military’s growing use of unmanned systems (i.e., drones) and cyber-warfare tools, and can therefore be awarded “regardless of the domain used or the member’s physical location.”
Before this medal, a Predator pilot carrying out an important mission, such as the 2006 operation that found the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, or a cyber-warrior taking down a key enemy network couldn’t receive such a high recognition.
The notion of granting medals to those who don’t physically go into harm’s way has elicited indignation (“Awarding war medals to those who operate America’s death-delivering video games” was the headline on a column by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald) as well as mockery (“Medals have jumped the shark when drone operators get higher medals than dudes on ground,” tweeted defense blogger Jason Fritz).
Yet, a medal of this kind was bound to come about eventually. New technologies have changed the operations and makeup of the military; a growing segment of our warriors are fighting from afar. Over the past decade, we’ve gone from a mere handful of unmanned systems to more than 20,000 in the air and on the ground. The Air Force now trains more unmanned-systems operators than it does manned fighter and bomber plane pilots combined. And military spending on cyber-operations measures in the billions of dollars, with Cyber Command set to quintuple in size.
In the past, personnel in these growing fields weren’t eligible for traditional forms of recognition, such as medals, reflecting something of an identity crisis in the armed forces. These new fields are seen as the future of war, but their career prospects remain dicey in the present. Over the past five years, the likelihood of an Air Force major in the unmanned-systems community receiving a promotion has declined by 13 percentage points compared with his military peers, whether they are meteorologists or fighter pilots. At higher levels, the pool is so small as to be statistically insignificant; only 43 of approximately 4,500 Air Force colonels have experience in unmanned systems.
New weapons of war have also continually reshaped our idea of the skills a soldier should have. When guns came along, for instance, one nobleman in the 1500s complained of “so many brave and valiant men” shot by “cowards and shirkers who would not dare to look in the face the men they bring down from a distance with their wretched bullets.” Or as a French general commented after the Battle of Verdun in 1916: “Three men and a machine gun can stop a battalion of heroes.”
Like all important matters, this evolution is best illustrated with Mel Gibson movies. In the days of swordplay, individual ferocity often carried the day in battle and so was the most admired skill of a warrior (think Mel Gibson in “Braveheart”). With the invention of gunpowder, the ultimate value instead became steadfastness. Courage was redefined as standing in a line, with passive disdain for the bullets flying (think Mel Gibson in “The Patriot”). But when the machine gun arrived in war, this old definition of courage became not just tragic (think Mel Gibson in “Gallipoli”) but sheer insanity (think Mel Gibson in “Mad Max”).
New technologies are moving the point of action, and danger, for today’s forces, geographically and chronologically. If you are fighting from a computer far from the front line, there is no real threat other than carpal tunnel syndrome. And there is not merely greater distance from personal risk — as we saw with previous technologies, from the bow and arrow to the manned bomber flying above a city — but a revolutionary disconnection from risk. Moreover, the “exceptional and outstanding” achievement the new medal is to recognize may be accomplished days, months or even years before the missile is fired or the computer virus kicks into action.
Regardless of the timing and location, however, those who fight from afar still make tough and consequential decisions that both save and cost lives. That is why such new forms of recognition are appropriate; indeed, they are overdue.
But another, more important kind of recognition is also necessary. It is not just our old concepts of medals that must shift but also our traditional notions of war.
While President Obama has declared that “a decade of war is now ending,” the reality is that these new technologies enable a different kind of warfare to proceed, the “shadow wars” and not-so-covert operations that range from Pakistan to Yemen. Congress has yet to catch up with these new wars, substituting questions at confirmation hearings for tough votes on these campaigns.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal perfectly encapsulates how war, though changing, in many ways remains the same. Just as it was 5,000 years ago, war today is a story both tragic and glorious, an arena where terrible things take place but individuals distinguish themselves through extraordinary acts. New technology is rewriting major parts of that story, however — the who, the how, the where and even the why of those terrible things and extraordinary acts. We can decry it, we can mock it, or we can simply recognize that this is the reality of our strange new world of robotic planes, computerized weapons and medals that aren’t for valor in combat.
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