PARIS -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that the Pentagon has created a new military award for keyboard cyber-warriors and drone joystick jockeys.
The Distinguished Warfare Medal will recognize those whose ability to incinerate a designated target from the comfort of an office chair wasn't prohibitively affected by a jumpy trigger finger on the joystick from a mid-shift java jolt. Or, as Panetta put it: "The medal provides distinct, department-wide recognition for the extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails."
Given that this new medal doesn't involve any actual courage beyond resisting the office vending machine treats, common sense would dictate that it must rank well below any honor given to someone who threw themselves atop a grenade, right?
Wrong. The new award will outrank even the Bronze Star with Valor, which is awarded for combat heroism under fire. For civilians to understand exactly what that means, let's have a look at the profile of a Bronze Star recipient whose combat heroism will soon rank below the act of overcoming carpal tunnel syndrome and computer-monitor eye strain to fire a missile from a continent away.
Last summer, Navy Diver Taylor Morris received the Bronze Star with Valor in a ceremony at Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was recovering from quadruple amputation. As the Navy News Service reported: "While part of the lead clearing element for a combat reconnaissance patrol (in Afghanistan), Morris was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED) in an abandoned compound. Though he sustained catastrophic injuries to all four limbs, he continued to report to his Explosive Ordnance Disposal team leader the details of the procedures he was conducting at the time of detonation, as well as what other hazards may still exist."
It's not just drone operators whose awards will rank above those of combat heroes like Morris. The American Forces Press Service also provided the example of "a soldier at Fort Meade, Md., who detects and thwarts a cyber-attack on a (Department of Defense) computer system."
In other words, glorified tech-support troubleshooters will be decorated on par with combat troops. That will look amazing on their resumes when they move on to jobs at Verizon or AT&T.
It looks like the same old story of the Air Force balking about getting fewer medals than the Navy, Army and Marines. In 2000, the Pentagon wrist-slapped Air Force brass for giving out 185 medals to those involved with the Kosovo mission when only about 10 percent of the medal recipients were actually involved in combat. Many of those decorated had never even left the base, where their only attacks were launched on the mess-hall chili.
The decrease in legitimate opportunities for decoration is bittersweet: As fewer pilots are given the opportunity to be shot down over enemy territory and are replaced by unmanned drones, there are fewer opportunities for Air Force personnel to earn combat decorations. On the bright side, there are also fewer opportunities to come back to America in a body bag.
So, what's the solution? Well, if the opportunity to risk your life in combat is something that Air Force personnel really want to continue to pursue, they can put pressure on Pentagon leadership and the White House by insisting on not being replaced by drones. A formal push would also show the public that the military's rank-and-file is still up for assuming conventional risks, regardless of public squeamishness over casualties of war.
The alternative would be to accept the increased use of drones and decreased operational risk as a trade-off, meaning that although you'll probably have no chance of getting a combat medal, your survival and well-being is virtually guaranteed.
Turning military decorations into the equivalent of Sports Day participation awards -- like when someone gets a Bronze Star for "responding to supply requests at a moment's notice," as was the case with a Kosovo-era Air Force lieutenant colonel -- will eventually diminish the actions of someone who did something truly heroic.
Perhaps those being positioned for military decorations based on the ability to maintain steady control of a drone-controlling joystick while licking the potato chip flavoring off their fingers ought to be considered for distinction in a far more suitable contest: competitive video-gaming.