In a statement variously attributed to George Orwell and Winston Churchill, and perhaps uttered by neither, citizens of prosperous democracies are periodically reminded that “we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Today, we also rest comfortably because attentive people at consoles sit ready to do the same.
The concept of valor lies at the heart of the Pentagon’s April 15 cancellation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, intended to recognize service members directly impacting combat operations from locations outside the battlefield. The demise of the so-called “Nintendo medal” was widely acclaimed in both the media and large swaths of the military community as a restoration of martial virtue and a fitting rebuke to “cubicle warriors.”
According to Plutarch, a Spartan king witnessing a catapult for the first time in the fourth century B.C. lamented “the end of manly virtue.” The Second Lateran Council convened by Pope Innocent II in 1139 decried crossbowmen and archers as practicing a “murderous art” against fellow Christians.
The military historian John Keegan writes that medieval knights summarily executed captured crossbowmen, “on the ground that their weapon was a cowardly one and their behavior treacherous.” In Cervantes’ literary masterpiece, the self-styled knight-errant Don Quixote bemoans the “diabolical invention” of artillery, by which “a base and cowardly arm” is empowered “to take the life of a gallant gentleman.”
American history furnishes its own examples of hand-wringing over technological advancements in war. Nathaniel Hawthorne proclaimed that ironclad ships marked the death of “pomp and splendor” in naval warfare. “Even heroism,” he predicted, would “become a quality of very minor importance,” with the sailor ensconced in “the iron crust of his own armament.” As the assistant Navy secretary remarked to veterans of the first ironclad battle, “you don’t look as though you were just through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record.”
In his Civil War poetry, Herman Melville went so far as to bemoan that mechanization was making war “less grand than peace.” More recently, Colin Powell recalled that the "shooting gallery" images of unobstructed allied planes leaving a trail of destruction along Iraq’s “highway of death” ushered the political decision to end the first Gulf War hastily.
The problem with romanticizing personal danger and insinuating cowardice among those who devise ways around it is that it contradicts the point of war, which is to achieve the nation’s stated objectives while making opposing forces bear as much of the risk as feasible. The tactical outgrowth of this strategic imperative is that each hostile engagement favors the side who exercises lethality outside the range of the adversary’s weaponry or vision. The best fight is one where the enemy never even knew you were coming.
Americans have always shown a knack for devising headier ways to fight. At Bunker Hill, a British soldier complained that colonials “conceal themselves behind trees” before “taking a shot at our advance sentries, which done they immediately retreat. What an unfair method of carrying on a war!” Indeed, the historian Thomas Fleming has described the hallmarks of “the American way of war” as reconnaissance, flanking movements, and artillery,” making “headwork and firepower as important as courage.”
The upshot is that our military reliance on unmanned vehicles, cyber capabilities, and future innovations yet unseen is only going to increase as budgets tighten and threats proliferate. A democratic nation with an all-volunteer force simply cannot risk the bodies of its youth when and where it can substitute machines.
If the future is now, we had best get used to it. Medal or no medal, it is both unhealthy and counterproductive to harbor anything but the greatest admiration for those volunteers who fight and win our wars, whether with muddy boots or technical savvy. It would be sadly ironic to honor our remote warriors less even as we lean on them more.
Those “rough men” purportedly hailed by Orwell or Churchill will always hold the most exalted place in the military pantheon, and deservedly so. But if the longest spear wins, must we only celebrate those wielding daggers?
Kels is a major in the Air Force Reserve and an attorney for the Department of Homeland Security. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Departments of Homeland Security, Air Force, or Defense.