Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Medaled Out: Pentagon review of military awards should include drone operators



Last year’s announcement by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta establishing a medal for drone pilots caused quite an uproar among veteran’s groups and active duty combat troops. However, the anger has since subsided and the proposal is off the front burner at the Pentagon – and rightfully so. Pushed aside by Middle East violence in Syria and Iraq, as well as tense negotiations with the Karzai government regarding the status of a US pullout, debates over medals for drone pilots are hardly top priority.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, announced a review of military awards by 2015. The decisions surrounding how medals and ribbons are issued in a peacetime military may further irritate combat troops, as the future of military operations are increasingly driven by drone operators and cyber warriors.
There’s no debate that drone operators are a necessary part of U.S. defense policy. The outrage surrounding their proposed award didn’t question their place in the defense or special operations apparatus, but rather the hierarchy of the award. While I do agree with those who argue the Distinguished Service Medal should not be placed above the Purple Heart and Bronze Star (It’s tough to justify sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Vegas is just as traumatic and arduous as combat wounds or selfless heroism on the battlefield), drone operators most certainly should be recognized for their role in combat.
As the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan and debates aid to Iraq in the wake of a resurgent al-Qaeda, it is the drone war that lumbers on throughout hot spots in the Middle East and Asia. A (stalled) plan is even in place to transfer control of drone operations from the CIA to DoD, further legitimizing it as a form of warfare. If the U.S. is serious about adopting lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan regarding counterinsurgency and low-intensity warfare, policymakers will treat drone operations as a legitimate alternative. Don’t be surprised to see Hagel open existing medals and ribbons to drone operators when his review concludes in 2015. 

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