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In February 2013, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Department of Defense would begin awarding the Distinguished Warfare medal to U.S. combat drone pilots. Panetta noted that these medals would outrank the Bronze Star—an honor awarded to service members who have demonstrated “heroic achievement in connection with military operations against an armed enemy” [1]. 

    The publication of these awards sparked immense controversy among U.S. citizens—in particular U.S. Veteran groups, many of whom expressed adamant opposition to this new system of ranking. Much of their contestations were made on the grounds that remote drone pilots do not risk their lives in the way that other, on-site combatants do, and are therefore unworthy of such commendatory titles. 

    Some scholars have elaborated on this critique, proposing that drone pilotry, given its remote nature, requires no courage at all; for courage emerges through one’s encounter with an impending risk of bodily injury and what such risk can we afford to drone pilots stationed thousands of miles from the site of their targets?

    For Dr. Nicholas Brown, Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, it is precisely this method of risk/courage attribution that renders these arguments insufficient. Namely, to reduce the emergence of courage as originating exclusively through exposure to physical harm supposes an erroneous dichotomy between the mind/body and its experience of pain. We experience harm as a unified self, not, as the aforementioned scholars suggest, as divided corporeal-cerebral entities. Thus, when we consider the extensive psychological distress experienced by drone pilots, we begin to see the immense moral valor and valiant courage the position requires.     

“Unmanned? The Bodily Harms and Moral Valor of Drone Warfare.” 

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Brown generates a great deal of his argument addressing the claims of Christian Enemark in his book "Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age"[2]. In the book, Enemark discusses the long-established implications of “just” warfare. For Enemark, these implications entail a mutual risk shared between participating agents. For Enemark, it is only through this mutual exposure to potential bodily injury and physical harm that courage is acquired.

“…The use of military drones does in fact constitute a qualitatively new form of combat that cannot be entirely subsumed under the penumbra of the just war tradition…it requires probing and answering some more fundamental questions, questions like what is courage? How does one demonstrate courage in the context of combat, and what kind of practices and skills are both essential to and commensurate with the flourishing of that particular kind of courage”[3].

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Given this brief synopsis of Enemark’s argument, it is evident why Enemark would so adamantly dismiss the plauditory titles attributed to drone pilots. In drone warfare, pilots often operate thousands of miles from the site of their targets, thereby depleting the mutually-shared risk Enemark views as essential to the “just” war tradition and destroying what Enemark sees as an intrinsic connection between courage and embodiment [4].

“What drone warfare thus brings into sharper focus then is that the trauma of combat does not lend itself to a strict bifurcation between the nominal and the corporeal. Indeed drone pilots experience and process the harms of warfare as psycho-somatic wholes. That their trauma takes place in a location thousands of miles away from a physical battlefield makes the pain of their suffering no less real, nor any less severe”[5].

         It is precisely this connection that Brown wishes to dismiss in his article “Unmanned? The Bodily Harms and Moral Valor of Drone Warfare”. For Brown, we cannot compartmentalize injury in the way that Enemark proposes; for the body does not experience harm separately from the mind, or the mind from its bodily counterpart. On the contrary, we experience injury as a unified self. Furthermore, Enemark’s assessment of courage and embodiment creates a specious hierarchy prizing the components of physical risk over those of a more psychological kind. This hierarchy is notably misguided not only because we experience injury as a wholly unified being, but also because it significantly undermines the psychological injury inflicted on drone pilots.

         For Brown, this injury is severe, long-standing, and should not be overlooked in any case that considers the moral valor of drone warfare. For one, drone pilots experience an acute emotional intimacy with their targets by watching them for extended periods of time (sometimes days on end). One such pilot cited by Brown remembers watching his targets drink tea with their friends, play with their children, and have sex with their wives on rooftops [6]. This intense emotional intimacy, furthermore, is only exasperated by the stark remoteness of the job. While on-site combatants have the support and camaraderie of their fellow soldiers, drone pilots often work in isolation with no opportunity for this shared commiseration. 

          Both Dr. Brown and Christian Enemark raise some compelling questions regarding courage, moral valor, and the qualifying characteristics of the modern day hero. Does one accumulate courage only through exposure to potential bodily injury? Or can courage be born through one’s knowing commitment to acts imparting immense psychological distress? For Brown, the answer is certainly the latter. While  moral valor is surely demonstrated on the frontlines, the same type of courage can be exhibited in other arenas, too, as is the case for drone pilots, whose courageous fortitude boldly surpasses the confines of the battlefield. 

To see a list of references used for this article click here.
Read More:

Dr. Brown’s article can be found in Bart Custer’s "The Future of Drone Use: Opportunities and Threats from Ethical and Legal Perspectives" 

For more information on this book click here

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