Medals and Merit in the Age of Drone Warfare

Military awards for valor in the field are in many ways inseparable from our conception of military service. Recipients of awards like the US Congressional Medal of Honor have come to embody the very notion of the ideal soldier—one who brazenly risks life and limb to serve his country and fellow citizens. However, technological advancements, including the advent of tools like Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPA, or drones) have diminished the centrality of ground troops to US grand strategy. As missions become more effectively, if not entirely, managed by operators several thousands of miles away from the battlefield, we see for the first time a total divorce of gallantry from strategic utility.


Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force, ©2010, some rights reserved.

In light of this, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta attempted to introduce a new decoration, the “Distinguished Warfare Medal” (DWM) to award drone pilots for excellence in service. The medal—though later cancelled—stirred controversy within the ranks. Although seemingly innocuous, the DWM has come to underscore a growing tension between the traditional meritocratic military hierarchy and the new methods of warfare that undermine it.



While the practice of awarding military honors dates back several millennia, the functionality of military decorations—as we understand it today— arose at the turn of the 19th century. In the Napoleonic era, when European militaries became tied to the new concept of the nation-state, as opposed to individual leaders and their small polities, armies expanded massively. This required the professionalization of the armed forces and the adoption of a merit-based hierarchy to enforce discipline and implement strategy as effectively as possible. It was around this time that awarding individuals on the basis of demonstrated valor irrespective of class became commonplace. Naturally, the receipt of such awards implied increased chances of upward social mobility.

Military awards did not become widely used in the United States until the time of the First World War and even then remained fairly limited in scope. Intuitively, more awards allowed for greater distinction between soldiers’ diverse achievements, in terms of both character and significance.  The past century has seen a rapid and widespread diversification of medals (and their distribution) roughly coinciding with periods of major conflict. With every new medal comes a consideration of the so-called “order of precedence” which, much like the rank system, defines what awards are worth in relation to each other. The system is so explicit that distinct “administrative point” values are assigned to individual decorations. These values, when considered in conjunction with other criteria like general duty performance and education, constitute a “score” that is perhaps the most key aspect of promotion boards’ consideration process. Military awards have become a sort of currency on which much of the social economy of the armed forces is based.

Therein lies the central problem: when the military’s entire hierarchical system weighs heavily on a meritocracy based on bravery in the field, what happens when that bravery loses relevance? Even when major technological shifts like military aviation and submarines change the nature of warfare, traditional logic behind the application of awards is still applied. I doubt that militaries will ever discard ground forces entirely, but the growing efficiency of applied robotics means that courage on the battlefield is becoming obsolete. The cancellation of Panetta’s DWM illustrates some reluctance within the military to adjust its traditional power structure in the face of the evolving character of war, pointing to the question at the heart of the debate: what is it that we’re really rewarding, and why?



Following a fairly simple line of reasoning, decorations for valor incentivize future bravery in the field. Further than that, heroism, both as a means and an end in itself, is a virtuous trait that many would argue is inherently deserving of recognition. The bravery required to willingly risk one’s own life in a foreign land is something only those who actually do it can fully comprehend. Still, does that necessarily mean that the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty should take precedence as a distinguisher of military merit over non-deployed servicemen?

Many would argue in the affirmative. Though attributes such as intelligence, strategic awareness, discipline, and leadership are massively important to the armed services as whole and can be exhibited on and off the field of battle, gallantry is a virtue above the rest. There are many more departmental and civilian awards that distinguish service off the battlefield rather than on. Granting an award like the DWM, which ranks above the Bronze Star or the Purple Heart[1], would undermine the morale of those serving on the ground. The potential of honoring combatants sitting in offices several thousands of miles away from combat over those actually engaged is seen by many to be a direct affront to those who have risked their lives in the line of duty.



Again, it’s important to we critically examine why these awards have been created in the first place. If distinction amongst the ranks is truly essential to the functioning of the armed services, and this distinction is based on individual’s meritorious service, then it would be logistically foolish not to offer some higher recognition within the fastest growing wing of the armed services. By the end of 2016, the number of RPA operators will have grown to 1,650[2] and that in the midst of major defense spending cutbacks. There are currently more drone pilots being trained than bomber and fighter jet pilot trainees combined.[3] More importantly, drone attacks have been directly responsible for killing over 3,300 suspected terrorist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen, severely limiting the abilities of other subnational guerillas to gather and train, and  aiding in the missions (and saved lives) of the US’s other conventional forces by providing real-time battlefield information from above.[4] It might even be argued that by providing more information to soldiers on the ground, RPAs are also reducing the necessity of traditional bravery in the field.

This lack of recognition exists even beyond decorations. Drone pilots have seen a significant decrease in promotion rates over the past five years, despite their contributions to US grand strategy.[5] While many factors are at play in this decrease, it is hard to overlook the constitutive role of external characterizations and judgment. It’s quite common to hear derision of RPA due to the comparative lack of risk of their military engagement. However, physical distance from violence does not equate emotional distance. Fear can be a constant reality for troops on the ground and the risks they take are unparalleled, but drone pilots are not immune; they face an entirely separate sort of monster. Working day in and day out, tirelessly monitoring grainy images of a faraway land, forced to watch helplessly as their brothers in arms are shot down, or as the lives of strangers are extinguished with the mere press of a button, these men carry their own scars. Where life at home and life in operational areas are temporally and physically separate for conventional forces, RPA pilots must return to their families each evening, all the while remembering the horrors they witnessed or caused earlier the same day. The stark reality that is slowly gaining recognition is that drone operators suffer from comparable rates of PTSD as deployed troops, and have a higher attrition rate than traditional pilots.

Even if recognition of valor is the foremost purpose of military decorations, it certainly takes strong kind of person to step into a RPA flight screening room to serve their country. In the fear that a special award like the DWM would trivialize the service of conventional troops, the RPA pilots instead have been trivialized.



Ethical arguments against drone warfare often amount to little more than misplaced judgments of the ethics behind strategies of the “War on Terror.” Morality aside, drone technology has had a profound impact on the way we fight and conceptualize war, and it is here to stay. As the character of warfare continues to shift towards RPA and eventually increased robotic autonomy, it will be necessary for militaries to adjust their traditional meritocratic system to compensate. For now, however, it seems recognition for US drone operators’ service will continue to sit below that of their fellow military servicemen.



[1] Which respectively imply valor and sustained injury.

[2] Up from 50 in the late 1990’s.

[3] Hoagland, Brad. “Where are all the good drone pilots,” Defense One. Published Aug. 6, 2013.

[4] Byman, Daniel. “Why Drones Work,” Foreign Affairs. Jul/Aug2013, Vol. 92 Issue 4, p32-43.

[5] Hoagland

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