Unmanned aircraft like the drone have dramatically changed the art of surveillance and warfare as we know it. The Predator has been flying reconnaissance missions for years, circling over areas of interest and helping our military watch suspected insurgents in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.

The specialists who stare at screens and control the craft are far removed from the actual scene, reminding us more of a video game than an actual battlefield. Sophisticated vehicles like the Predator, which cost upwards of $4 million, are however, lethal firing weapons. There's no accurate account of how many people drones have killed but one report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said the number of casualties in the past five years could be as many as 2,000.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research and development arm of the Pentagon, is responsible for developing new technologies for the military. Their work has also helped bring about new civilian technologies, such as computer networking.

Established in 1958, DARPA's original mission was to prevent a technological surprise like the one the Russians gave us by launching Sputnik, which thrust us into the space race. Today's mission is still to prevent that kind of surprise, but also turn the Sputnik experience around by surprising our enemies.

In one example, a few years ago DARPA was interested in "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect cyborgs." A number of armies have already developed tiny drones, some as small as insects, that can conduct reconnaissance missions without the risk of being detected.

Not too many years ago, that kind of futuristic thinking was relegated to fiction thrillers and scifi comic books.

One byproduct of the cyber warfare technology, however, is not setting well with the VFW, America's largest combat veterans group. Last Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that a new medal for drone strikes and cyber-warfare would rank higher than the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which is given to service members killed or wounded in battle. This means that a person using a joystick to kill terrorists would receive greater honor than soldiers engaged in physical combat in a hot battle zone.

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the medal recognizes "extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails."

It's obvious that drones and cyber warfare are changing the way we fight, but VFW spokesman Joe Davis is right in calling this medal fiasco "a boneheaded decision" that sends a horrible message to troops in the field and that it will only hurt morale.

"It's like, 'Why am I slogging through the mud, dirt and sand when someone who can go home every night to their family gets recognized?' Davis said.

In a memorable line from the 1986 movie "Heartbreak Ridge," Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway, a grizzled Medal of Honor recipient played by Clint Eastwood, is introduced to his colonel who asks if they ever served together. Sgt. Highway recalled serving under the colonel in Vietnam.

"We sure as hell chewed some of the same dirt, sir," Eastwood said.

It's just hard to imagine a hard-charging Marine like Sgt. Highway fighting the bad guys of today with nothing more than a joystick and a computer screen.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com