The Limits of Armchair Warfare
By JACOB WOOD and KEN HARBAUGHMAY 20, 2014
BOTH of us have a deep appreciation for the work of drone pilots. Whether patrolling the Helmand Valley with a sniper team or relying on drone-driven intelligence to plan manned aerial missions, we often prayed that the drone operators supporting us were cool, calm and collected.
But neither of us ever imagined that drones would do anything more than augment the manned systems that provide aerial reconnaissance and close air support for troops on the ground. We took for granted that humans on the front lines would always play the lead role.
That is why a series of proposed measures over the last year and a half by the Pentagon have us concerned. It is increasingly clear that our military leadership has become so enamored of the technological mystique of drones that they have lost touch with the realities of the modern battlefield.
Perhaps the most glaring example, especially for former snipers and pilots like us, is the Pentagon’s recent decision to scrap the A-10, a heavily armed close-air support plane officially nicknamed the Warthog but known to troops as the Flying Gun. This battlefield workhorse flies slow and low, giving pilots a close-up of what troops on the ground need. Those pilots are an aerial extension of the units below them, working in a closer relationship than a drone and its operator ever could. But the A-10 is not sleek and sexy, and it doesn’t feed the brass’s appetite for battlefield footage delivered to screens thousands of miles away, the way a swarm of drones can.
True, the A-10 fleet is more expensive than a drone program, and in this era of budget consciousness, it’s reasonable to argue for cutting it as a cost-saving measure. The problem is, the decision also fits a disturbing pattern.
In February 2013, the Pentagon announced plans to create a new award — the Distinguished Warfare Medal — for drone pilots and “cyberwarriors,” which would rank above the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. In other words, a drone pilot flying a mission from an armchair in Nevada might be afforded greater recognition than a rifleman wounded in a combat zone.
That is ridiculous. As much as we both came to appreciate the work of drone teams, we never once prayed that they be brave. Those on the front lines require real courage because they face real danger. But if a drone overhead gets hit, a monitor somewhere might go fuzzy, and its operator might curse his poor luck for losing an expensive piece of equipment.
After a public outcry, and under criticism from Congress, the Pentagon relented, and the award was canceled.
Still, these two episodes raise troubling questions about how policy makers view the longest wars in American history. Our most senior leaders in the Pentagon, civilian and military alike, increasingly understand warfare through the literal lens of a drone camera. And this tendency affects decisions much closer to the front lines than awards ceremonies.
If the secretaries and flag officers responsible for the Distinguished Warfare Medal spent as much time (or any time) in a sniper hide or an A-10 cockpit as they did monitoring drone feeds, they would not consider elevating a “Nintendo” medal above those awarded for true heroism and sacrifice.
These leaders deserve some of the criticism, but they are not the only ones to blame. The American public, which has largely absolved itself of responsibility for sending nearly three million of its citizens to fight, neither knows nor cares to know the real price of war.
The controversy surrounding the A-10 retirement and the Distinguished Warfare Medal should be a wake-up call, a reminder that after over 10 years of fighting, we still need to educate the broader American public about the true cost of the wars fought in its name. Lost in all the allure of high-tech gadgets is the fact that, on the ground and in the air, thousands of men and women continue to risk their lives to promote America’s security and interests.
When Americans venture into harm’s way, the last thing we should want is a fair fight. We both owe a great deal to the drones and operators that cleared routes ahead of us or provided intelligence for a manned flight. But while we appreciate their role, we know that they can never provide the kind of truly connected battlefield support that a well-trained pilot can. And when we recognize them, we do so for their skill, not their courage.
The moment we conflate proficiency and valor, we cheapen the meaning of bravery itself. Without a true appreciation of the cost of war, more sons and daughters will be sent to fight without the consideration such a decision deserves.
As events in Eastern Europe force us to rethink military assumptions and post-Cold War diplomacy, we will soon face the reality that future conflicts cannot be won by joystick alone. War is ugly, and attempts to lessen its horrors will put yet more distance between the American public and the men and women fighting on its behalf.
Jacob Wood, a former Marine Corps sniper team leader, and Ken Harbaugh, a former Navy pilot and mission commander, served in Afghanistan and now work for a disaster-relief organization.