Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chuck Hagel Backtracks on Drone Medal, and Thoughts on the Sukhomlinov Effect

Former Senator Chuck Hagel received more than the usual controversy after his nomination to be the successor to Leon Panetta as the Secretary of Defense, and for good reason.  Now that he is ensconced in that position, after the narrowest Senate confirmation vote in history (58-41), he is bungling one of his first public handlings of a Defense issue.  Though not vital, it nevertheless is important to the culture of the US military.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (NYDailyNews)

Hagel inherits a number of issues left on his plate by the departing Panetta, who signed a series of controversial changes (not the least of which was the effort to put women into direct combat billets) as he was figuratively walking out the door with the appearance that the ink would not yet be dry before Hagel had to deal with the socio-political mess left him. 

One of the issues was the issuance of a new Distinguished Warfare Medal, created to recognize notable efforts of American military servicemembers in the area of drone operations and cyber warfare.
My first thought on hearing of its creation was that it added to the dreaded Sukhomlinov Effect, a term coined by Professor Roger Beaumont of Texas A&M, which holds somewhat tongue in cheek that an army with the more decorous uniforms, particularly in regards to medals and other bijou and baubles typically found within an army more dedicated to the politics of peacetime, is more likely to face defeat at the hands of more dedicated and austere combatants.  The name was associated for sonorous effect, I expect (for there are so many examples from which to choose), with General and War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov of the Imperial Russian Army, which performed so disastrously at the outset of World War I.  Dedicated readers of this humble web log are aware that I have spent a not inconsiderable amount of time among foreign militaries, and I often shake my head at the enormous variety of medals and ribbons available to the US military, over and above the campaign recognition that reflects our very active participation in theaters overseas.  (My mind will automatically compare our system with the highly respected British: if someone has three ribbons on his service uniform, then he is a  man of accomplishment.)  With this new DWM, that adds one more to the pile.

General Vladimir Sukhomlinov and staff
But the main objection that is embodied in the chorus of criticism is the ranking of the medal.  The DWM, awarded to servicemembers controlling unmanned drone aircraft while sitting at Scott Air Force base near St Louis, or foiling a Chinese cyber attack while seated in Arlington, Virginia, is to rank above the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, both of which are supposed to be awarded for action in combat.  (It is shameful that there are blithering exceptions to this norm for these two medals and others, but the legion of shortcomings in the American military decorations system is a subject for another time.)  Thus, someone who is thousands of miles from a combat zone, whose only personal danger is the risk of spilling his Starbucks onto his ubiquitously worn field uniform (the wearing of which now has nothing whatsoever to do with the 'field'), or worse yet, a flight suit, can receive a higher recognition than a soldier or Marine dodging the bullets of jihadis actively engaged in trying to kill him.


This is not to stay that the cyber and drone warriors (now there is a double entendre) don't put forth more than a yeoman's effort in accomplishing their missions, and put in long and stressful hours.  They deserve some form of recognition, sure, but a medal that ranks their actions above those on the battlefield? 

As of yesterday, Secretary Hagel has announced that he has assigned General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with a task to study again the criteria for the DWM with a deadline of 30 days hence.  Until such time, the awarding and even the production of said medal is to be curtailed.  Secretary Hagel, who should be sensitive to the topic for no other reason than the fact that he is a combat veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, is receiving praise for his back-from-the-brink review of this inane decision of his chairborne predecessor and his bemedaled staff (see Sukhomlinov Effect above). 

What is missing in this recent reportage is the fact that Secretary Hagel, only a few days before, already defended the new medal and its placement within the order of decorations. 

He at least recognizes that he knows when to fold on a losing argument that has created a firestorm of criticism.  But he hasn't done himself any favors by placing himself in the John Kerry "I was for it before I was against it" category.


  1. A friend who earned a Silver Star in Vietnam trading hand grenades with the enemy, used to like to say that my Bronze was the "showing up for work on time" medal. Work, of course, being patrolling and fighting. The definition would take on new meaning with the drone medal. Perhaps the "punching the clock on time" medal?

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