Brave Enough to Kill

Brave Enough to Kill July 19, 2012

The Pentagon is considering awarding Distinguished Warfare Medals to drone pilots and Glen Greenwald is furious.  He sees it as an attempt “to depict drone warfare as some sort of courageous and noble act.” Greenwald and I are in accord in condemning the use of drones for assassination, but I don’t know that I agree with his critique here.  Greenwald says flying a drone cannot meet any of our traditional criteria for valor because:

Whatever one thinks of the justifiability of drone attacks, it’s one of the least “brave” or courageous modes of warfare ever invented. It’s one thing to call it just, but to pretend it’s “brave” is Orwellian in the extreme. Indeed, the whole point of it is to allow large numbers of human beings to be killed without the slightest physical risk to those doing the killing. Killing while sheltering yourself from all risk is the definitional opposite of bravery.

I just don’t think he’s right that the pilots are really ‘safe.’  Wired and NPR both report that drone pilots are experiencing high levels of stress and PTSD that takes a toll on their families.  The soldiers are safe from physical damage and death, but psychological wounds can’t be written off; they’re harder to diagnose and treat and more difficult for a family to compensate for.  This kind of danger seems to be what one of the pilots quoted in Greenwald’s piece is referring to when he says:

Luther (Trey) Turner III, a retired colonel who flew combat missions during the gulf war before he switched to flying Predators in 2003, said that he doesn’t view his combat experience flying drones as “valorous.” “My understanding of the term is that you are faced with danger. And, when I am sitting in a ground-control station thousands of miles away from the battlefield, that’s just not the case.” But, he said, “I firmly believe it takes bravery to fly a U.A.V.” — unmanned aerial vehicle — “particularly when you’re called upon to take someone’s life. In some cases, you are watching it play out live and in color.” As more than one pilot at Holloman told me, a bit defensively, “We’re not just playing video games here.”

Which seems like an echo of one of the themes in Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. She introduces the second chapter with:

And in the Civil War, it was killing, not dying, as Orestes Brownson observed in 1862, that demanded “the harder courage,” for it required the more significant departure from soldiers’ understanding of themselves as human beings, and, in mid-nineteenth century America, as Christians.

And that leads me to ask what, exactly, the military is trying to valorize when it awards medals.  If they are singling out soldiers as role models, then perhaps drone pilots should be excluded.   But, a lot of the time, these decorations are framed in terms of recognition of sacrifice.  You can end up in sin-eater territory pretty fast once you start admitting that the sacrifice you’re commemorating is the sacrifice of  peace and innocence.  What are you supposed to say at the speech, “Thank you for putting aside your natural revulsion to killing, even at the cost of your own stability!”

So what’s the appropriate way to handle this?  For starters, we should probably think long and hard about what’s worth a war, if we know it requires the kind of sacrifice that we feel ashamed of asking for.  If we don’t think these sacrifices are something noble to aspire to, if we think that they diminish or wound something good in humans, then maybe the appropriate tone is more mournful, more like the way we would behave at the funeral for a person who stepped into the path of a bullet to save someone else.  We can commend their desire to protect others but it would be bizarre to say there was anything particularly good about sustaining a gunshot wound.  We need to praise the why but not the what and think seriously about whether this is a particularly desirable way to express love of countrymen.


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  • Ted Seeber

    I appreciate sin eaters, just as I appreciate the more sanctioned version, the Anchorite. If I didn’t have a family to take care of, I think such a lifestyle would fit somebody like me just fine; and it seems to me to be a quite honorable sacrifice.

    But the problem with it is this- I would want to be sure the orders were lawful first before pulling the trigger. I do not believe sufficient evidence of this exists in the current, highly secretive way in which targets in this Drone War are selected that the order is lawful. And it is that lack of rationality, that lack of evidence, that causes the PTSD and the stress- the nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you have become evil while doing something somebody else told you was right and just, without actual evidence that it IS right and just.

    I often shock fundamentalists by being a Pious Catholic and saying “If My Lord Jesus Christ Sends Me to Hell, I shall gladly go there to minister what aid I can to the damned”.

    • leahlibresco

      “I shall go gladly to Hell to minister” is pretty different than “I will damn myself to preserve mortal life.” In the first, you aren’t sullying yourself. Care to expand?

      • Ted Seeber

        Preservation of the mortal life of the innocent is the motivation behind a large number of Martyrdom stories. St. Joan de Arc comes to mind, as does St. Maximillian Kobe. Even the good part of the Inquisition comes to mind- the attempt to preserve human life by rooting out the forces against the Church and the State that seemed to be against human life.

        I *CAN* see a situation where drones would be a good weapon for a Just War Scenario- autonomous drones, properly programmed and placed, could be far more effective than either a fence or human guards for making sure nothing living crosses an arbitrary border or stopping an invading army. Likewise, while evil, there is certainly a consequentialist argument for the concept of narrowly targeted assassinations.

        But our current breed of drones (which didn’t even exist 15 years ago, the closest back then was the guided missile) have a rather high noise-to-signal ratio when it comes to collateral damage, PLUS I don’t trust EITHER the current administration OR all probable replacements of the current administration to have the wisdom needed in either target choice or timing. And I don’t trust any of the current contenders for leadership in the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial Branches, incumbent or otherwise, to ignore material and ideological profit enough NOT to turn such weapons on our own citizens.

        Regardless of your political bent, the use of such weapons in the hands of our current political leadership should scare you. It would scare any reasonable human being. Even if your side is in power right now, all it takes is a vote and the other side is in power and a different set of targets is being labeled terrorists. I am pro-life from conception until natural death- I want to see Planned Parenthood clinics CLOSED, not pulverized into clouds of dust with the patients and doctors still inside, any more than I want to see Catholic Parishes suffer the same fate during Sunday Mass.

        Kind of like why I’m against potential neo-natal testing for homosexuality or autism; in the eventuality that it is inborn, I do not want to see people suffering from same-sex attraction going down the same road that people suffering from Downs Syndrome have (because, after all, what strongly heterosexual parent wants a same-sex attracted child, and what neurotypical parent wants the pain of raising an autistic child?) Pre-natal testing seems to be a perfectly reasonable good that allows a family to prepare- but 90% of Downs Syndrome children are now aborted.

        It doesn’t matter whose idea of “Should be allowed to live” or “Should be allowed to go to heaven” is true- the converse is always discrimination, prejudice, bigotry and homicide when taken to it’s logical end. Human beings simply have been proven, over and over again, to not be wise enough to make decisions over life and death.

  • Reminds me of this from Chesterton:

    What cannot be defended is something really peculiar to Prussia, of which
    we hear numberless stories, some of them certainly true. It might be called
    the one-sided duel. I mean the idea that there is some sort of dignity in
    drawing the sword upon a man who has not got a sword; a waiter, or a shop
    assistant, or even a schoolboy. One of the officers of the Kaiser in the
    affair at Saberne was found industriously hacking at a cripple. In all
    these matters I would avoid sentiment. We must not lose our tempers at the
    mere cruelty of the thing; but pursue the strict psychological distinction.
    Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust
    or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else
    but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things;
    any more than with poisoning or picking pockets. No French, English,
    Italian or American gentleman would think he had in some way cleared his
    own character by sticking his sabre through some ridiculous greengrocer who
    had nothing in his hand but a cucumber. It would seem as if the word which
    is translated from the German as “honour” must really mean something quite
    different in German. It seems to mean something more like what we should
    call “prestige.”

  • Albion

    There once was a raging debate in the US Air Force about whether it was honorable for servicemen to engage the enemy without also placing themselves in harm’s way. Honor is a very important virtue in military circles. That debate seems to have been settled. Drones are here to stay. The psychological effect of killing people from the comfort of bunker 1000s of miles away is hard to imagine. It’s probably worse because there is no risk; that is, it could be perceived by the pilot that this kind of killing is dishonorable because it is risk-free killing. I think Stanley Hauerwas is helpful here because he rightly sees war as a sacrificial system and that the greatest sacrifice in war is the sacrifice of our unwillingness to kill. The emotional harm that does requires a community to say it’s okay. So we decorate men and women for their “valor.”

    So Greenwald may be right. There is no valor in what they do. But he is wrong to dismiss the need for these people to be welcomed, accepted, reintegrated into a world they are losing via the psychological dissonance of killing another human being.

    • Mark

      Well said Albion.

  • Brandon B

    This reminds me of the bomber pilots in “Dr. Strangelove”, whose captain gives them a pep talk before they go to drop a nuke on Russia. The moral ambiguity poisons the sense of nobility.

    Maybe a weapon is just a weapon. However, if there is something morally wrong about using drones, then the pilots don’t deserve medals. There is a world of difference between sustaining a physical injury and sustaining a moral injury. A physical injury doesn’t harm your relationship with God.

    I guess that means I disagree with you, Leah, in part: if sustaining a gunshot wound saves someone’s life, then it is the sort of thing that we want to encourage, because it reflects valuing the (mortal) other’s life over your own (mortal) life. Doing evil to save someone, however, values someone’s mortal life over your own eternal life, and that’s disordered. That would be like jumping in front of a car to entertain someone.

  • Mark

    The reality is this: Either you believe that Islamic extremism is a threat to the world or you don’t. If you don’t than the idea of killing human beings while ensconced thousands of miles away is barbaric. If you do than these drone pilots should be awarded for their service to the country and to the rest of the free world. “The proposed medal would rank between the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Soldier’s Medal for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone.” Let’s be real, it’s not the Medal of Honor that they’re talking about.

    I love these guys who have never put themselves in harm’s way. “Furious” Glen Greenwald is typical of most critics of our service members.

    These pilots are not randomly flying their drones around Afghanistan looking for their first hapless victim driving down a dirt road. They fly very ordered and very structured missions. Their targets are identified beforehand based on the reconnaisance of the “Boots on the ground”. Much of their function is itself reconnaisance missions for the security of our troops.

    They are assisting in the war effort regardless of their geographical location when they fight it. When they do have a kill mission, they get the permission to take action prior to doing so. The idea that these guys are cowards who hide in a bunker and blow up innocent muslims while they pray in their mosque is ridiculous. That is what the enemy does… as well as schools, shopping malls and buses.

    • Skittle

      Your very first paragraph does not follow. Believing that Islamic extremism is a threat to “the world” (hmm, who or what precisely is included in this?) does not necessarily mean that you approve of sending unmanned drones to kill people in a far-away country that has (among other problems) issues with Islamic extremism, nor that you think the people piloting the drones should be rewarded.

      You might, actually, think that there are more moral actions that could be taken to reduce the threat to “the world”. You might even think that doing something wrong would still be wrong, even if it was the most effective way to counter that threat.

      You might even think all that while bearing no malice or ill-will to the soldiers at all. One of the most consistent anti-war messages in the UK, for years, has been from concern for our own soldiers and the toll it takes on them. People were angry with Tony Blair for wearing his poppy on Remembrance Day, and standing at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, after sending our soldiers to war. Mothers of soldiers were disgusted with him. The good or even noble intentions of the soldiers do not make their actions (whether following orders or not) right or even brave, although they can be.

      Perhaps it is the cultural memory of the First World War (“Lions led by donkeys”) that allows this disconnect?

      And the language of bravery and cowardice when it comes to this particular “enemy” is meaningless. Who is brave: the one who sits in a remote bunker and pilots an unmanned drone towards a target they have been told to kill, or the one who straps explosives onto themself and walks towards a target they have been told to kill, knowing they will die with the target? Brave doesn’t mean right.

      When we pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Right Judgement is named in a pair with Courage, because neither is enough alone.

      • Hibernia86

        It seems like Bush and the neo-cons wanted to be cowboys and Europe wanted to be Neville Chamberlain. Can we have something in between please?

        P.S. I don’t think a terrorist is brave if they think they are going to paradise and are getting rewarded with 72 virgins. You could say Nazis or Japanese soldiers were brave or especially Atheist Soviet soldiers who didn’t expect a reward after death at all, but Islamic terrorists seem much less brave to me if they think they are getting eternal rewards for their killing.

        • Skittle

          “P.S. I don’t think a terrorist is brave if they think they are going to paradise and are getting rewarded with 72 virgins.”

          Being brave is also not the same thing as being selfless.

          A child I know abseiled down an abseiling wall, even though she was so scared she was shaking. She did not selflessly sacrifice herself, she knew she had a safety harness and would soon reach the ground, she didn’t gain anything for anyone else, but she was still brave.

          Walking up to the target and clicking the button to painfully destroy yourself is brave. It may also be morally repugnant, stupid, motivated by desire of future reward, and so on. But that doesn’t stop it being brave. Brave doesn’t mean “things I approve of”.

          • I’m not going to condone it one atom either. Motivated by future reward, though, isn’t that interesting? It’s not the only Faith where you have to win Heaven and escape Hell. I’ve said elsewhere that Peter Roder probably shot George Tiller in church and in front of kids because the notion of Hell filled him with revenge fantasy and a flimsy justification. Please go one further on the moral repugnance, then; as Voltaire would say “Whoever can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. Mormonism promises you your own planet when you die and Vanilla Christianity promises Heaven; which is right? But how about Atheism? Well, enjoy it while you’re here and play nice. Make the most of it because we won’t sugar coat it; nobody knows for sure. Although flat brainwaves are a bit of a giveaway. And weren’t we all “dead” for untold millenia before we were born? Now, on the basis of that, can you be manipulated? Not so easy without all the spooky hellfire and speculating about existence in the afterlife.

          • Scott Roeder

          • Peggy Hagen

            Make the most of it while you’re here and play nice; but why? And since you have to go out, why not with a final act that’s sure to have everyone talking about you, that can have absolutely no consequences? The cartoon can be drawn both ways, Zack.

          • Well, you don’t seem to understand that Atheists do care and you haven’t cornered the market on it. Play nice because of social censure, because of mutual respect. As opposed to seeing everyone as “fallen”, it’s harder to respect people who are “fallen”. Don’t you think it’s easier to respect a code which makes sense?
            And there’s the Double Standard; you want us to respect your beliefs but you won’t respect ours. And one of your beliefs that you want us to respect, is that it’s okay to disrespect everyone else’s beliefs…

          • Peggy Hagen

            True. If people weren’t fallen, disrespect wouldn’t be a problem. 😉

            What if social censure and the respect of others do not matter? There are people like that. The goal is money, or power, or just “Australia!” What is there in your system to hold them in check?

          • Thanks. And I’d say that people trying to get ahead like that need dupes; make it so people are harder to dupe.

    • Mark

      Skittle wrote:
      “Believing that Islamic extremism is a threat to “the world” (hmm, who or what precisely is included in this?)”

      Who or what precisely is included in this?… hmm,… um, Well, I guess what I meant by “the world” was, the civilized world as we know it in the 21st century. Those who do not desire to live in a worldwide Caliphate under Sharia law, which is their goal, as you know. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be born in a region of the world where we can enjoy a sense of self determination. Perhaps I was even talking about those, who were born in that region of the world and who yearn to breathe free. Maybe the young girls who desire to grow up to become something other than some man’s property. Maybe the widow who would prefer to work to support her children rather than being forced to beg in the streets. Maybe the gay guy who knows that he will hang at the end of a rope if it gets out. Or… the man who heard about this “Jesus” and would like to know more without the fear of being killed.

      You see our enemy, as an innocent victim if he hasn’t been given the chance to surrender before he gets killed. I see him as a target until he puts down his arms. But I also see him as our friend once he puts down his arms and works to negotiate for peace.

      War is ugly! There’s no doubt about that, and this war is a clash of two diametrically opposed world views. For those of us sitting at our computer, it is very noble to decide what we should or shouldn’t do with regard to our enemies. We risk nothing. The men and women in uniform however, risk everything. And, if those drone operations bring back even just one American father to his kids or a son or daughter to their parents or if they save an innocent child or mother from a suicide bomber in Kandahar, then they are worth it. And yes, the pilots should be recognized for their service. (as I said earier, its not the Medal of Honor. In fact, it ranks right above the “Soldier’s Medal for exceptional conduct outside a combat zone”, whatever that is).

      • Ted Seeber

        Surrender to Shariah Law won’t help. The theology of the Muwahhiddun does not accept *ANY* human authority. Islamic Anarchists would be a much better description than Islamic Extremists.

    • Ted Seeber

      My problem with this is that while I believe Islamic extremism is indeed a threat to the world (the Muwahiddun might only number 10 million or so out of 950 million Islamics, but at an average of 40 victims per suicide bomber, they *could* potentially wipe out 1/14th of the human race) I do not believe the current generation of drones offers us the precision, nor the current generation of intelligence agencies the data, to say that the drone war *is making any difference at all* in the fight against Islamic extremism. And it could actually be doing the reverse.

      • Mark

        “the Muwahiddun might only number 10 million or so out of 950 million Islamics”

        I doubt the accuracy of that number.

  • kenneth

    It’s disgusting that they’re even contemplating such a thing. It is one thing to give a commendation recognizing someone’s overall service to their country, or unit, or theater of war. If we’re really at the point where we’re going to call execution via camera a “heroic” act, then it’s time to stick a fork in this republic and take it off the barbie. We’re done. We need to then drop whatever mental self portrait of America as a moral force and admit that we’re just another “regime” with a raw power agenda. Just another Syria with a few more decimal places in its military budget.

    If this is heroic or valorous, why not create medals for guys like John Yoo or the “black site enhanced interrogation centers.” ? Maybe we could come up with a “Distinguished Justice Medal” for whichever governor signs the most death warrants each year (Texas, hands down). Or a “Golden Needle Award” for whichever Death Row teams put down the most inmates or do so most efficiently.

    If they truly roll this damn thing out, or anything like it, I’m done. They can find some other fools to wave the flag at Veteran’s Day parades.

    • Adam G.

      The proposed medal isn’t for bravery or heroism. Its for exceptional performance.

  • Noe

    When I’d first thought about the consequences for UAV pilots, I specifically did think of video games – granted that they’re not JUST playing them; there’s all kinds of disconnect – but there is a connect to the media of the video game and death;

  • B. R. Lind

    I was with you until near the end, but I’m confused about this: “For starters, we should probably think long and hard about what’s worth a war, if we know it requires the kind of sacrifice that we feel ashamed of asking for.” I agree, but what evidence is there that we, as a society, feel ashamed to ask soldiers to sacrifice their “peace and innocence?”

    • leahlibresco

      Well, I think we ought to. But more to the point, I think there’s some evidence we feel ashamed or uncomfortable acknowledging the kind of sacrifice we’re requesting, or we would frame most of our discussions in terms of bravery and honor. We’d make treating PTSD more of a priority and place less of a stigma on psychological problems in the military, since they are the logical conclusion of giving up peace and innocence.

      • deiseach

        That’s why the cynic in me thinks this is at least partly for political/PR reasons; it’s easier and cheaper to hand out medals than to put the money into looking after the troops when they come home.

      • B. R. Lind

        I guess I had interpreted these as indications that we don’t really value the innocence of not-having-killed, and therefore don’t feel ashamed to ask soldiers to give that up. I’d still say that’s true to some extent, but I think you’re right too: we don’t want to consider our collective culpability when a soldier on his fourth deployment comes undone and kills a bunch of civilians.

      • B. R. Lind
  • Adam G.

    The military can and does honor soldiers for doing their job very well. If you kill a bunch of America’s enemies, you can get a medal for that, regardless whether you suffered a psychological toll or not.

  • Hibernia86

    My general view on drone warfare is that if we have good evidence to show that a particular person is a terrorist, then it would be moral to kill them with a drone (though if they are in America, the police should arrest them since we have that ability on our soil). The question, of course, being A) do we have that evidence? and B) can we do it without causing (too many?) civilian casualties. I don’t think it will ever be possible to get the number of civilians killed down to zero. That will just let terrorist hide behind human shields and continue their killings. But we can work to minimize it.

    I can see how drone pilots could be more at risk to psychological damage from killing since they have to watch it calmly while a soldier on the battlefield might kill out of pure fear and perhaps be saved from the realization of what he’d done. Still, I think soldiers on the battlefield suffer far more psychological damage from the risk that they take on themselves physically. A person piloting a drone can learn to justify the killings in his mind. A soldier on the ground would be harder pressed to build a wall in his mind against the deadly risk to himself.

    • Skittle

      If it is acceptable to kill civilians (unavoidable collateral) in the pursuit of a terrorist, would you equally consider it acceptable for the police to kill civilian American citizens (unavoidable collateral) in the pursuit of a terrorist on American soil? Or would you think that the police should find another way, even if it leads to the terrorist getting away for now, if the proposed method of catching/killing the terrorist is likely to cause civilian deaths?

    • Ted Seeber

      Not to mention the new theory that being close to High Velocity Explosives going off can create brain damage when the shock wave rolls over you (this is a suspect cause of veteran suicides).

  • Tom

    Leah, are you aware than the F-15 is 40 years old and has never been shot down in combat? What difference does it make if someone is using a camera? No fighter pilot is scared that he’s going to be shot down while dropping their ordnance. Full disclosure: I completely support Drones for military and police use. Anyway, reading your post made me think about single moms. Is there anything noble about getting knocked up out of wedlock or being divorced. Why are single mothers so brave and and heroic. As far as I’m concerned, at the very least, they are a symptom of the greatest problem in America. What is so heroic about practically guaranteeing poverty and difficulty for your child?

    • Kristen inDallas

      There is nobility in not aborting a child even if the tough situation you’re in is (partially or to whatever extent) your own doing. Just like there is nobility in a soldier that drags his wounded friend bak to camp, even after he didn’t do a particularly good job of the shooting. There is a kind of heroism and lying in the bed you made, and taking care of the others in it with you.

      • Mark

        “There is nobility in not aborting a child even if the tough situation you’re in is (partially or to whatever extent) your own doing.”

        Agreed Kristen.

      • Tom

        Well I can get on board with that. Abortion is heinous. I guess I never looked at it from that angle, thanks.

    • Ted Seeber

      I saw the words “in combat” and I guess it depends on your definition of combat:

    • Also lending to the heroicism is the self-sacrifice every mother makes- single or non. Single mothers just do it without the economic, social, and emotional support marriage provides, often meaning at a greater cost to themselves. Assuming the woman herself had some culpability in becoming a single mother (which, needless to say, is not always the case), any person who’s sinned should be able to respect women who’ve shouldered the load of responsibility that our personal sins might not bring us.

  • Doragoon

    Is there an obligation in war (or in a fight) to let your opponent think they can hit you?
    Is Superman valorous?
    If risk makes something valorous, is it increased with recklessness and diminished when the risk is managed?

  • Alex Godofsky

    Greenwald and much of the media is misunderstanding the medal. Previously, the military had medals for various sorts of exceptional and/or valorous conduct in combat, but some kind of physical danger was one of the criteria. It also had medals for exceptional conduct in non-combat situations, which didn’t require physical danger. Drone pilots occupy this weird space they hadn’t really considered before where someone is both in combat and not in any danger. The new medal is better thought of as an extension of the “exceptional conduct in non-combat situations” medals.

  • Kristen inDallas

    I’ve always thought we needed to give purple hearts to those who suffer psychological damage in the line of duty. Whether thats on the field or as a drone pilot seems about the same to me. Medal of Honor seems to be pushing it though, as it’s not quite the same as rescue missions, saving someones life, or continuing to fight with a serious injury… which is what most of these (given when we still fought in wars with real names) were:

  • jason taylor

    Drones are in this respect no different from artillery. There is nothing new here.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    I just came across this image and thought I’d pass it along.