02/22/2013 10:03 am ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

The Distinguished Warfare Medal: A Sign of the Changing Times

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently announced the creation of the "the Distinguished Warfare Medal" to recognize outstanding achievements by unmanned aerial vehicle pilots. The new medal will rank above the Bronze Star with Valor and just below the Distinguished Flying Cross. This is an interesting twist of events in military culture, as medals and honors are traditionally bestowed upon individuals whose acts of bravery and valor, in the face of grave physical danger, go above the call of duty. The entire notion behind bestowing such recognitions is that a service member has put acted selflessly, facing danger and possible death, for the sake of his comrades, the mission, or country. These medals are tokens and symbols of the military virtue par excellence: courage.

Yet how can one evaluate acts in war when the fighter is not on the battlefield and is in no physical (or even imminent) danger? Panetta's feelings on the matter are quite clear: "I've always felt, having seen the great work that they do, day in and day out, that those who performed in an outstanding manner should be recognized. Unfortunately, medals that they otherwise might be eligible for simply did not recognize that kind of -- of contribution." While such a sentiment is thoughtful, it is misplaced. "Doing great work" is fundamentally different than acting courageous. For instance, Aristotle reminds us that the virtue of courage is best understood as a "mean concerning matters that inspire confidence and fear," where one acts in the right way, at the right time and with the right motivations in the face of such fear. Combat and war, are of course, the primary theaters of fear. Yet unmanned aerial vehicle pilots are not, in any way, in danger and thus do not face the types of "fear" that traditional manned aircraft pilots or any combat soldiers face. While they are technically engaging in "combat" operations, they are not in the theater of combat.

Panetta seems to recognize this when he claims that "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." But why, then, even incorporate such acts into a system of recognition based on courage? Indeed, one must ask what the purpose of a medal for UAV pilots serves. If it is "department wide recognition," then some other sort of merit scheme that does not presuppose valor or courage on the battlefield could achieve this. Of course, it could be that the fear is that not recognizing such achievements threatens to create two classes of soldiers.

Or, perhaps more tellingly, the entire notion that we must determine how to assign merit to UAV pilots -- or perhaps future "cyber warriors" points to a different set of questions (and problems) in contemporary war-fighting. In other words, what is the nature of war and "courage" in such wars, when either one side (or both), is no longer in any sort of danger? Can we even begin to call these acts war, or are they only "war" for those experiencing violence? War is a conflict between two or more parties carried on with a "force of arms," yet the entire purpose of the use of such force is to make one side capitulate the demands of the other, usually for some political purpose. The coercion employed is to be costly on both sides of equation, which is why there is typically reticence to embroil oneself in such conflict. Though, in this new terrain of warfare, the costs appear -- for at least one side -- to be only monetary. Blood is not spilt, only equipment (or property) is damaged.

Another way of thinking about the new nature of war and how this new medal fits into recognizing a new generation of warriors is from the opposite end of the spectrum: cowardice. If we believe that we can attribute acts of courage and valor to soldiers whose actions achieve "extraordinary... impact on combat operations" though those actions involve no physical risk, how might we think of the opposite? What would constitute an act of UAV pilot cowardice? Is it even conceivable? If it is not, then we have something very telling about the new nature of war. For if soldiers cannot act cowardly in battle, then they also cannot act courageously, and so cannot be awarded medals based on those assumptions.