Saturday, February 16, 2013

Medal for Cowardice

As of mid-February, 2013, the US military is honouring drone pilots with the Distinguished Warfare Medal, for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” As this article points out, the new medal is more prestigious than the Bronze Medal or the Purple Heart, meaning that someone who sits in an air conditioned basement playing the equivalent of a video game can receive a higher honour than someone who risks his life as a soldier in the field, getting shot at by the enemy.

A spokesman for a US veterans group called the decision to honour drone pilots in this way “boneheaded.” I think this adjective is unintentionally revealing. What’s boneheaded about Leon Panetta’s decision to award the medal is that it indicates the extent to which a leader of a decadent military, whose fighting is done for the soldiers more and more by machines, comes to think himself more like a machine. 
My explanation of why the US military would praise drone warfare follows from what I've said elsewhere. In a decadent society, actual courage and other martial virtues mean less, because human life itself is trivialized by the population’s high-tech environment. People lose in their competition with machines. For example, many manufacturing jobs are currently being lost. And guns and drones kill more efficiently than swords. Assuming efficiency is your greatest concern, because you’re a postmodern liberal who’s lost faith in your Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and rationalist utopia, and so you’ve been reduced to a nihilistic, pragmatic systems manager, you’ll be in favour of winning wars regardless of the moral cost to your society. You’ll think less of old school martial virtues and you’ll scientistically assume that heroism can be measured. Because drone strikes are more precise, because they kill the enemy without endangering friendly soldiers, because drones are relatively cheap to produce--for those utilitarian, Philistine reasons, you’ll really think that drone pilots are heroic. Your notion of heroism will have thus been warped by the environment you’ve been stewing in. You’ll mistake decadence and mere usefulness for heroism. The cowardly act of killing with impunity, with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety, will be honoured with a medal as though the act were an “extraordinary achievement.” This is Orwellian and our first task should be to appreciate the dark humour in it. 

[Note: this post was added as a PostScript to The Vileness of Guns and of Just Wars.] 


  1. But are assuming that the "martial vitues" ARE virtuous. As you yourself note, war exists to serve our corrupt oligarchy. Hasn't that always been the case? Just like religion, which serves the rulers, war serves the rulers.

    "Decadence" is also a pretty loaded term, redolent of pining for superior olden days of Golden Warrior Leaders and the like?

    My own tragic nihilism, I guess, does not allow me to do that.

    1. My argument against guns here is an internal criticism of gun culture. Gun enthusiasts care about martial values, but they don't realize that those values should compel them to think poorly of guns.

      Mind you, as I say in "Games, Sports, and MMA," I'm not opposed to martial values. Wars may usually be fought for bad reasons, but martial values may still be needed for existential purposes. For example, we might want to see ourselves as being at war against nature (the undead god). As I say elsewhere, we should think of grim humour as a sort of battle song to keep our spirits up despite our understanding of life's absurdities and tragedies.

  2. Ah. Fair enough.

    And I don't necessarily disagree with your skepticism towards the "valor" of the keyboard drone warriors. :)

  3. The modern American Warrior/Commaando. One example of why "transcending nature" is not always virtuous. :)