By Alex Escué Limkin
— How can I not remember Harrison? Ripping around the streets of Panama City on a 125cc dirtbike and banging his maid. Either activity could be tisk-tisked as death-defying in its own right. By the time he sat down to breakfast, having run his platoon through the surf at Kobbe Beach, what did salmonella-infested eggs mean to him?
At 5’7″ in boots, he was far from tall, but he carried himself like he was 6’4″ and built like a brick shithouse. When I bested him along with the rest of the battalion in a 12-mile time trial with rucksack, boots and a rubber duck, he congratulated me along the lines of: “I didn’t realize you could do that.”
It didn’t come as much of a surprise when I discovered, years later, that his path eventually took him to the pinnacle of our career field, membership in an elite shadowy organization headquartered at Ft. Bragg. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It might as well not even be named. But as young infantry lieutenants, we knew about it, thought about it and prepared for it in our own ways.
Weaving in and out of traffic on his dirtbike (spray-painted matte black for the ninja factor), doing wheelies across the Bridge of the Americas, and banging his maid, was, for him, all part of that preparation. Harrison (not his real name) exemplified the kind of young men the Armed Forces have always wanted—brash, convinced of their immortality, and willing to die for whatever cause they’re told to fight for.
I thought about Harrison when I learned that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was announcing a new honor, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, the first new combat medal to be announced since the Bronze Star in 1944.
Unlike the other combat medals that involve physical risk, bravery under fire, etc. etc., the Distinguished Warfare Medal is intended for drone operators and their kind, those who do their killing on video screens with buttons and switches and dials thousands of miles from enemy action. This medal will feature a red, white and blue ribbon with an eagle in the center of a wreath-circled globe. It will displace the Bronze Star as the fourth-highest combat award, beneath the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Medal of Honor.
(In some ways, I shouldn’t be complaining, as I, too, spend a lot of time on my ass working up some vicious carpal tunnel. But then, no one’s giving me medals for it, either.)
It is disgusting that the Pentagon is legitimizing and glorifying this type of “warfare,” which is nothing more than exterminating people with the push of a button. To honor this cowardice and disrespect for life with a medal that now outranks the Bronze Star is shameful for all Americans.
Now I can look at my own Bronze Star as a pathetic trinket, signifying nothing. We all know why the medals were created in the first place, anyway. It has little to do with honoring the merits of a particular soldier, and much more to do with glorifying the battlefield, inspiring other youngsters to take similar risks, seek similar recognition. To become heroes in the eyes of a grateful nation.
Only now our soldiers can get the medals without any physical risk. They can become war heroes at their desk job. They can log in and engage in detached violence. Which they’re getting plenty of experience doing on and off duty. It is just a matter of time before “Distinguished Warfare Medal” joins “Medal of Honor” in video game stores. Maybe it will even be funded by the Pentagon.
Harrison will be up for retirement in about four years, at which point I hope he considers telling his story, as several of his Navy counterparts have already been doing (American Sniper, No Easy Day, etc.) I hope to be around then to either help him with the book, get some boxing in or both. It is bound to be more interesting than any of the Distinguished Warfare Medal write-ups that will inevitably emerge as we increasingly rely on button-pushers and robots to do our killing for us.
“While nursing several deep papercuts, and occasionally distracted by a large bowl of Whoppers and Jujubes, Staff Sgt. Joe Snuffy maintained an eagle-like vigilance on his video monitor, deploying several missiles at key junctures by dexterously scrolling through his menu options and clicking unerringly on the right choices without once launching ordinance through a single mistaken key stroke or button click.”
Author Alex Escué Limkin is forming an action and advocacy team, DVR-6, specializing in the recovery and aid of homicidal and suicidal veterans in the backcountry. He blogs about his experience as an Iraq veteran at warriorswithwesthusing.org.