Thursday, February 14, 2013

Medals of Warfare

The Old Man was sitting at the table in the Little House we built for him, basking in the brilliant light off the snow and reading the paper.  He likes to read me excerpts of stories that seem particularly funny or absurd or telling.  Today his hands were shaking as he read out the news that the Pentagon had developed a new class of combat medals, a Distinguished Warfare Medal, to be given to those who operate the unmanned drones that target bad guys and take them out from above.

What are they rewarding them for? The Old Man asked.  Courage? Are they sticking their necks out?  He paused and put the paper down. You know, he started to say. I….

But he stopped there.  He put the paper back down, carefully, between the coffee and the plate of toast. He looked at me for a moment. I wonder what this guy Panetta’s military record is. After another long pause, he sighed, turned the page, and started to look at the used car ads.

I am a Quaker.  Not a practicing Quaker in the sense that I go to meeting house.  When I was in college, and the Vietnam War was on, meeting house was a sacred place, full of the crackling energy of a hundred people arrayed on rows of plain benches, all of them facing inward toward an empty center.  After the war wound down, and I was in Texas, going to meeting was a different thing.  It seemed no longer to focus me or to bring into the room what I had understood as the indwelling of the holy spirit.  I took my meeting outside, by myself, and I’ve done so ever since. My alternative service was to run an Institute on American Culture and Life for the U.S. Department of State for 16 years. 

The Old Man is 88. He was a Marine, and he landed with the Marines at atoll after atoll to face the withering fire of pillboxed Japanese and their kamakazi pilots.  And he watched, time and again, as his friends to his left and right went down and he had to leave them to continue the charge up some coral reef or stony hill. He never talks about it.  Except once or twice to me, and to his son Eddie, who was in the Peace Corps in the Marshalls and had to evacuate the Bikini Islanders that second time, after the U.S. had told them it was safe to return, the land was cleaned, and then conceded that it wasn’t, and would never be. The Old Man and his son are bound together by shared sorrows on blue-water havens full of hidden dangers, far from here.

The announcement this morning was brief.  The medal is to be called a Distinguished Warfare Medal. It is meant to reward especially competent service among the technocratic corps manning the controls of the drones. It was invented and pushed through by outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. I’ve never liked Panetta.  He has always conveyed a sort of unctuous manliness that’s the very opposite of the Old Man’s reticence. He’s paid lip service to the Veterans’ Administration, but we have to beg the V.A. to repair the Old Man’s hearing aid. When he needed a wheelchair they told him he'd have to come down to the hospital to be "fitted." 40 miles away. It didn’t excite any interest when we suggested that the necessity of a wheelchair precluded a nice little drive, a long wait, and then a long drive back.  Besides, they told us, we’d have to come back to pick it up.  Sometime.  When it was approved.  And delivered.
Panetta joined the armed forces of the United States in 1963, after law school.  He stayed for three years, starting as a second lieutenant, and leaving in 1966 as a first lieutenant.

1963-1966 were tough years to be a soldier.  Lyndon Johnson had decided to drastically escalate the Vietnam War, with a surge that brought the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—the Vietnam equivalent of George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq after his invention of “weapons of mass destruction.” Between 1961 and 1964, the Army's rosters multiplied from about 850,000 to nearly a million. Shortened tours of duty increased the dangers for inexperienced troops and, more importantly, for the young lieutenants who were to lead them into the jungle battles.

Leon Panetta never went to Vietnam. Despite the vacuum of intelligent, well-trained lieutenants, he stayed at Fort Ord in California, after a stint in Army Intelligence School. Fort Ord is on the Monterey Peninsula, just off the Coastal Highway from the dunes and the ocean.   Panetta was Chief of Intelligence Operations at Fort Ord.

Somewhere along the way, Panetta earned an Army Commendation Medal.  It’s given out, the Pentagon tells us,  to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States other than General Officers who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Army after 6 December 1941, distinguished themselves by heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service. 

In my old office at the university, I had a string of odd awards given out for various reasons.  They were interspersed with a very impressive collection of bowling trophies I had inherited from an old roommate, Bradford Collins, who liked to collect them at yard sales.  I think of Panetta’s Medal as falling in the same category as all of those—somewhere between a meaningless reward for the activities expected of the recipient, and overblown, meaningless junk.

But it’s not surprising that one of Panetta’s last acts as Defense Secretary was to invent a Medal rewarding activity as trivial and yet as deadly and morally, ethically, legally and tactically insubstantial as no doubt was the labor for which he was once rewarded, in another war. It was not hard to volunteer for combat duty in Vietnam if you were a lieutenant.  There was a desperate vacuum of intelligent, educated, well-trained young officers.  Fort Ord, by contrast, is about two hours from the Condor Club on Broadway in the North Beach section of San Francisco, where, in 1964, Carol Doda first danced topless. 

Here’s an excerpt from the DoD’s press release: 
“This new medal recognizes the changing character of warfare and those who make extraordinary contributions to [drone and cyberwarfare],” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The criteria for this award will be highly selective and reflect high standards.”
The most immediate example is the work of an unmanned aerial vehicle operator who could be operating a system over Afghanistan while based at Creech Air Force Base, Nev. The unmanned aerial vehicle would directly affect operations on the ground. Another example is that of a soldier at Fort Meade, Md., who detects and thwarts a cyberattack on a DOD computer system.”

There is an Army recruiting page devoted to the category of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Operator (15W). It shows a boy—perhaps 12—wearing army fatigues, holding up a model airplane glider.  Further down the page is this:

*Interest in remote/radio control vehicles
*Organize information and study its meaning
*Think and write clearly
*Attention to detail

It’s not important that the grammar is wrong at a level to make any 7th grade English teacher cringe.  It’s not important that being able to think…clearly is merely considered helpful. It is important to see the conjunction between that picture of a boy with a toy, and the notion of a grownup with a murderous weapon directed via heads-up video-game technologies. It puts the enterprise within that young boy’s limited moral universe—of good guys and bad guys—that’s also central to the wave of new video games that mimic war without threatening to cause the player pain or consequence.

Almost nothing about the drone program makes sense to me except its extraordinary power to do military and diplomatic harm without the inconvenience of dying American soldiers. What this new reward clarifies is the way the old values of American military mission—courage, bravery, risk, injury or death at the hands of clearly defined military of enemies in declared wars—has been utterly upended. 

The Distinguished Warfare Medal is the first new medal designated since the Bronze Star was initiated in 1944, during the worst of World War II. The Bronze Star also can be given for meritorious service… in a combat zone. 

Only four words.  But they make all the difference.

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