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Cheapening Bravery, And Drone Pilots

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Bravery and drone pilots
(Credit: Reuters)

The effort to depict drone warfare as some sort of courageous and noble act is intensifying:

The Pentagon is considering awarding a Distinguished Warfare Medal to drone pilots who work on military bases often far removed from the battlefield. . . .

[Army Institute of Heraldry chief Charles] Mugno said most combat decorations require "boots on the ground" in a combat zone, but he noted that "emerging technologies" such as drones and cyber combat missions are now handled by troops far removed from combat.

The Pentagon has not formally endorsed the medal, but Mugno's institute has completed six alternate designs for commission approval. . . .

The proposed medal would rank between the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldier's Medal for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone.

So medals would be awarded for sitting safely ensconced in a bunker on U.S. soil and launching bombs with a video joystick at human beings thousands of miles away. Justifying drone warfare requires pretending that the act entails some sort of bravery, so the U.S. military is increasingly taking steps to create the facade of warrior courage for drone pilots:

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The Air Force has been working to bridge the divide between these two groups of fliers. First off, drone operators are called pilots, and they wear the same green flight suits as fighter pilots, even though they never get in a plane. Their operating stations look like dashboards in a cockpit.

And drone pilots themselves are propagating boasts of their own bravery more and more:

Luther (Trey) Turner III, a retired colonel who flew combat missions during the gulf war before he switched to flying Predators in 2003, said that he doesn't view his combat experience flying drones as "valorous." "My understanding of the term is that you are faced with danger. And, when I am sitting in a ground-control station thousands of miles away from the battlefield, that's just not the case." But, he said, "I firmly believe it takes bravery to fly a U.A.V." -- unmanned aerial vehicle -- "particularly when you're called upon to take someone's life. In some cases, you are watching it play out live and in color." As more than one pilot at Holloman told me, a bit defensively, "We're not just playing video games here."

Whatever one thinks of the justifiability of drone attacks, it's one of the least "brave" or courageous modes of warfare ever invented. It's one thing to call it just, but to pretend it's "brave" is Orwellian in the extreme. Indeed, the whole point of it is to allow large numbers of human beings to be killed without the slightest physical risk to those doing the killing. Killing while sheltering yourself from all risk is the definitional opposite of bravery.

This is why the rapid proliferation of drones, beyond their own ethical and legal quandaries, makes violence and aggression so much easier (and cheaper) to perpetrate and therefore so much more likely. In the New York Times today, Thomas Ricks, echoing Gen. Stanely McChrystal, calls for the re-instatement of real conscription because subjecting all of the nation to the risks of combat is the only way to finally restrain America's posture of Endless War ("having a draft might, as General McChrystal said, make Americans think more carefully before going to war"); conversely, cost-free, risk-free drone warfare does the opposite. If the mere act of taking steps that will result in the death of others makes one "brave," consider all the killers  who now merit that term: dictators who order protesters executed, tyrants who send others off to war, prison guards who activate electric chairs.

As for the claim that drone "pilots" are not engaged in the extinguishing of human life via video games, the military's own term for its drone kills -- "bug splat," which happens to be the name of a children's video game -- and other evidence negates that.

Read the remainder of this article at Salon
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For the past 10 years, I was a litigator in NYC specializing in First Amendment challenges, civil rights cases, and corporate and securities fraud matters. I am the author of the New York Times Best-Selling book, How Would A Patriot (more...)

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