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Op-Ed: It's Time To Recognize The Valor Of Cyber Warriors


Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new military medal last week. It's the Distinguished Warfare Medal. And unlike others, this one is specifically reserved for those not in combat. Instead, it's awarded to those who engage in warfare from afar - drone operators, for example, cyber-warriors, those who fight in war's frontiers from thousands of miles away, through the windows of their computer monitors. We'd like to hear from service members who work in drone warfare, maybe in cyber-intelligence. What do you think is worthy of a medal in your field? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. The email address is, or you can join the conversation from our website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But joining to talk about this new medal is Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He joins us from a studio at Brookings. And Peter wrote an op-ed on the topic last week in The Washington Post, and says the medal makes sense in recognizing the changing the nature of warfare and the military. Peter Singer, welcome to the show.

PETER SINGER: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: What is different about this medal from other military medals?

SINGER: Oh, it's an odd sort of medal, in that the very description of it, the official description says that it, quote, "may not be awarded for valor in combat under any circumstances," which we've never seen happen in a medal before. Essentially, the idea is that it's to recognize accomplishments that are exceptional and outstanding, but not bounded in any geographic or chronologic manner - that is, it's not taking place in the combat zone. And so, essentially, it's recognizing that people can now do extraordinary things because of the new technologies that we're using in war, drones and cyber, but that the system wasn't prepared to recognize them.

HEADLEE: But, you know, explain for me exactly how - when a person distinguishes themselves if they're a drone pilot, for example. I mean, how do you go above and beyond if you're sitting at a computer, piloting a drone?

SINGER: Well, you're putting your finger on one of the controversies that surrounds this, and that's what a lot of the spin around has been. But let's use the case of the mission that got the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Zarqawi. So there was a team of unmanned aerial systems, drone operators, that tracked him down. It was over 600 hours of mission operational work that finally pinpointed him. They put the laser target on the compound that he was in, this terrorist leader, and then an F-16 pilot flew six minutes, facing no enemy fire, and dropped a bomb - a computer-guided bomb - on that laser. Now, who do you think got the Distinguished Flying Cross?

HEADLEE: Whoa. The...

SINGER: The people who spent 600 hours, or the six-minute pilot? And so that's really what we're getting at. Actually, the drone operators, in that case, they didn't get the medal, but they did get a nice thank-you note from a general. This is a true story, here.

So, essentially, you know, what we're hitting at is, one, you have this growing portion of the military that's engaged in these kind of operations. It's important to the future of the military. But at the same time, the system wasn't set up to recognize some of their accomplishments. But the other thing that's playing out here - and it's what I went into in the piece - is that we have to recognize that technology has always changed what we think of as heroism.

So, you know, when the first guns came out in the 1400s, there was a nobleman back there who, you know, essentially said: Anyone who uses a gun is a coward. We've changed our notion of that. Or there's a great saying from a - in World War I where this French general was complaining that three men with a machinegun can defeat a battalion of heroes. I mean, we've seen this play out. We've seen the story play out before. It doesn't make it something, you know, that we should celebrate or be happy about. It's just the cold, hard reality of war, is that technology continually reshapes our notions of the values that we look for in it.

HEADLEE: But, you know, I mean, to play the devil's advocate here, there is an argument to be made that in the example you gave, the fighter pilot, who only spent six minutes, spent six minutes in danger, right? I mean, he or she could have died, whereas the people - although they've spent 600 hours - they were never in bodily danger, where they?

SINGER: No. I mean, that's the argument to be made. Now, let's be clear. There was no - we're talking about Iraq. There was no enemy fire. I mean, essentially, it was the same as any training mission. The underlying point here is that we have to figure out - and this is what the medal was trying to do, is figure out a manner to recognize both that the battlefield is changing, the way people operate on it is changing, and how do you recognize people that are doing extraordinary things?

Now, the main argument I was making in the piece is not just, you know, hey, this, you know, like it or not, makes some sense but that we also, frankly, need to catch up the public understanding that the nature of war is changing. So we also have sort of a civilian side of this discourse, which is the fact that, you know, we have a president who can, on one hand, rightly say in his second inaugural that our era of wars is ending, and yet the very same day, we carry out a drone strike in Yemen. Or we have this strange fact of our Congress, which has somehow, you know, changed its discussions about war into thinking that it's getting the job done by just asking tough questions at a confirmation hearing, rather than actually voting on these various shadow wars that we have out there.

I mean, what I'm getting at here is that technology is affecting, it is having impact on war, how we recognize accomplishments in it within the military, but also we need to catch up the public side of this recognition.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Peter Singer, who's with the Brookings Institution. We're talking about this new medal, which could be awarded, only awarded to people who don't engage in combat. And we want to get your take on this, especially if you work in drone warfare or cyber-intelligence. What is worthy of a medal in your field? 800-989-8255.

I wonder, Peter, that if, going along with this misunderstanding about cyber and drone warfare, you think people understand the special difficulties for, say, a drone operator. There are some things that they say are harder for somebody sitting at that desk than somebody, you know, out in a tank. What are those things?

SINGER: Well, it's interesting. It goes to what you're trying to recognize with a medal, with an award. Is it the hardships that a person faces, or is what the medal designation says is to recognize something, quote, "so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from comrades or from other persons in similar situations."

So, you know, traditionally, medals have not been about saying, well, you had a really tough time of it. That's the only one that fits into that category, is the Purple Heart. But for all the others, it's to recognize that you've done something extraordinary, something different than others in a similar situation. And that's the category that this medal is for. It's not saying it's the same thing as a combat medal. It's saying it's not for combat.

So I think, again, it turns on what our notions of medals and what are they for and what's the role they play in war? But I should put my finger on one part of it, though, is that part of why this has been controversial, not in the public but within the military, is not the creation of the medal itself but it's precedence; that is, where one can wear it. And that's where there's been a lot of controversy in the military because if it was (unintelligible)

HEADLEE: The rank, you mean, of this - yeah.

SINGER: Yeah, the rank of it, is that someone will be able to wear it above a Bronze Star with Valor, which is something that's awarded for combat. And so, that's what a lot of the controversy within the military has been. It's not been about the medal itself but the precedence, the rank of the medal. And, again, that's, you know, something to go back and forth on. You know, there's an argument to be made there. I can see it.

HEADLEE: So under this medal, though, couldn't it be that you invented a brand-new drone that did all kinds of wonderful things on the battlefield - wonderful when it comes warfare, which is, obviously, a dubious distinction? But say you invented a really advanced drone. Would you be eligible for this medal?

SINGER: Maybe. And that's one of the things that's, again, so different about it, and it's driven in part by the technology. You know, what's happening in warfare today is we have a whole new generation of weaponry that's moving the human role both geographically but also potentially chronologically from the point of action. That is, you can be thousands of miles away from the physical battlefield but still be carrying out action that matters. Or maybe what you did that matters most is something that happened days, months or even years earlier from when the bomb was dropped or when the computer virus actually kicked in.

And so that's what the medal is also trying to recognize, is that, hey, you have this kind of fundamental shift going on in the technology of war. And so if we're trying to recognize the human role in it, we may need to shift our definitions of that.

HEADLEE: Let's take a call here from Greg in San Francisco, California. Greg, you're in the Army. What do you think? What would be worthy of a medal in this field?

GREG: Well, thank you for asking the - thank you for having me on. Firstly, I'd like to say that there are quite a lot of contributions that people who work in the intelligence services, as well as in things like, you know, piloting drones and that sort of thing make that are not able to be recognized. I'm not even able to give my real name when I called down here, you know? The problem with a lot of covert and sort of behind-the-scenes missions is that we're not able to say that we're basically even part of the Army, you know? It's a just a matter of making us feel included for things that have - that we've done that do go beyond the scope of normal day-to-day activity.

HEADLEE: So you're saying, Greg, that a medal like this actually helps for all these, I assume, thousands of soldiers who may have a bit of an identity crisis or morale problem.

GREG: I'll give you an example. My unit, for example, last year, put in I think it was around 2 1/2 million man hours decrypting an - I work in the Arabic language transcription, decryption and encodation program. And we put in, you know, millions in man hours. But yet, we weren't really able to be recognized, you know, for doing so even though very often we work more than our scheduled hours under, you know, under conditions that most people would not do for a regular job. We did have to be trained just as any other soldier in the army and there are quite a few of who have served under fire. But yet, the only types of medals that we're able to win are those who are serving directly under fire, you know?

HEADLEE: Yeah. That's a really good point.

GREG: So I'm...

HEADLEE: Yeah. Thank you very much.

GREG: No problem. Thank you very much for having me.

HEADLEE: That's Greg calling from San Francisco, California. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And then let me go back to Peter Singer. He's director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative, author of "Wired for War" and is at The Brookings Institution, which is where he joins us right now. So, Peter, what does this that's pos - I mean, why create the medal? What does it accomplish?

SINGER: Well, it's a couple of things. One, is it gives a mechanism actually to recognize people in these fields that have done extraordinary things. There wasn't a way to recognize them before. And so that's one positive out of it. The other is that it maybe a way of threading the needle on what you reference, this sort on ongoing identity crisis that's being raised within the military by these new technologies in the growing fields in them. I mean, essentially, you have this odd conundrum where technologies like unmanned systems or cyber are seen as part of the future of the force.

I mean, we've seen cyber command is set to quintuple in its size to about 10 percent of all the airstrikes out in Afghanistan today are operated by unmanned systems. So they're seen as the future. But the career prospects for those in the present in them are fairly dicey. So, for example, in the Air Force, among majors, if you're coming out of the unmanned systems community, the remotely part of the community, you are actually 13 percent less likely to be promoted than all your peers...

HEADLEE: Hah. That's interesting.

SINGER: ...whether they are meteorologists or a fighter pilot. Even, though, again, you're now part of the fight. If you're going to the next level, at colonels, the Air Force has approximately 4,500 colonels. Only 43 of them have experience in the unmanned systems community. So it's statistically insignificant. And so this is a matter of, you know, saying, hey, we're able to recognize people who have been, you know, done extraordinary things in these roles and also, frankly, maybe help their career prospects. And also it's sending the signal to the rest of that community, hey, you matter too. That's the two positives about it.

HEADLEE: Well, and we have this call here from Mark in Orlando, Florida. And, Mark, I take it you're not a big supporter of this idea of a medal for a drone operator or a cyber-warrior.

MARK: I'm an infantry man by trade in the military, and I don't want to say that I don't want to say that I don't support this medal. But what your guest spoke of earlier is how it's given precedence over the Bronze Star with Valor. That cuts deep to me because that's very important and honored treasured award for a large part of the military. And to say that a medal like that is more important by where you place it on your rack is mindboggling to me because these are award that people die for. And, you know, I understand what your guest is trying to say here. But I will never put a drone pilot's actions on the same level as people who die for their country and for their military. And I just really have trouble, you know, hearing somebody say that that award is more important than a Bronze Star.

HEADLEE: Thank you very much. That's Mark in Orlando, Florida. Peter, do you have a response to Mark?

SINGER: Well, I think it's two things. One, Mark put his finger on the really heart of the controversy within the military right now, which is not, you know, can we recognize these people, but where in the precedent should it be set? And, frankly, that's, you know, something the military is going to have to work out. I'm not in the position to say, hey, it should be above or below bronze or above or below silver. To me, the fact that by its very definition, it's very clear that it is, you know, again, this is the definition. It may not be awarded for valor in combat. It's an indicator that this is a medal, but it's also something different.

But there's a second part to this that - I mean, I'm a little bit concerned about from this heat, from this controversy around it, is that the first time this medal is awarded, it's going to go to someone who's done something extraordinary for the nation. And yet, the reality is they're probably going to be mocked by a fairly significant portion of the military and or the Twittersphere, or however you want to say it. That is, we're going to focus on what was not done rather than was done. And that's a shame, in a certain way, coming out of this controversy.

HEADLEE: I think that's a larger problem, though, Peter, that I think there is also a distaste among the American public. And this is just my sense that, perhaps, because of misunderstanding, perhaps of not really knowing what's going on. People get this idea that drone warfare is like playing a video game. And that makes people feel like that's inappropriate when it comes to life and death.

SINGER: Absolutely. And, really, one of the challenges in this field right now is that what we're talking about is the U.S. military role in support of forces in places like Afghanistan. And yet, most of the public perception, most of the media discourse around drones, so to speak, is actually about the CIA counterterrorism strikes into places like Pakistan or Yemen or the like; that is this medal is for people that are involved in overt wars. But much of what we think about when we talk about drones is the shadow war side of it.


SINGER: And that's the part that, frankly, again, I think, the public and the Congress need to catch up to.

HEADLEE: Peter Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and author of "Wired for War." He's also a senior fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution and he joined us from a studio there. Peter, thank you so much.

SINGER: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, Neal Conan is back with Political Junkie Ken Rudin. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.