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The Medal of Honor Shortage
by James Dunnigan
August 6, 2009

August 3, 2009: Recently, an U.S. Army NCO (Sergeant First Class Jared Monti) was awarded, posthumously, the Medal of Honor (MoH) for uncommon valor, above and beyond the call of duty,  he displayed in Afghanistan three years ago. This touched off a flutter of media activity over why there were so few MoHs awarded during the current war, compared to past ones.

During the last eight years of combat, only six MoHs, the highest American award for bravery in combat, have been awarded. A lot more MoHs were awarded in past wars. During World War I, there were 124. During World War II- 440, while Korea had 131 and Vietnam, 244. This has raised the question of whether the military are deliberately holding back from awarding the nation's highest medal for bravery in combat. To find the answer, you have to take a look at how the MoH was awarded in past wars.

One way to compare the rate of MoHs awards in different wars is to calculate the number of combat deaths per MoH awarded. After all, it’s in combat, during life and death situations, that actions take place deserving of an MoH. During World War I, one Medal of Honor was awarded for every 432 combat deaths. During World War II, it was one every 629 combat deaths. During Korea it was one for every 257. During Vietnam, it was one medal for every 193 deaths. So far, for Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s one for every 848 deaths. Thus, by this measure, a soldier in Vietnam was four times more likely to receive a MoH. But you’ll note that the rate of awards varies with each war. So there must have been different conditions, or criteria, operating in each war.

For example, take a look at the relationship between the number of awards and casualty rates among the various branches of the service during World War II (where, on average, one MoH was awarded for every 432 combat deaths).

Branch    Deaths per MoH Award


 Air Force              861.0

 Artillery             1688.4

 Cavalry                594.4

 Engineers           1665.5

 Infantry               800.4

 Medical Corps   1124.0


 Navy                   550.0

 Coast Guard       811.0

 Marines             368.9

The air force awards mainly went to aircrew. Note that it was more dangerous (you were more likely to be killed) to be in a heavy bomber crew over Europe, than to be in the infantry down below during World War II. So it’s no surprise that the air force rate was close to that of the infantry. The artillery troops got fewer awards because most of their deaths came from enemy artillery fire. But when enemy troops got real close to the guns, the artillerymen had an opportunity for MoH level heroics. The Cavalry here was “armored cavalry,” a force that performed dangerous reconnaissance work. Plenty of desperate situations resulted, and many acts of bravery. The engineers were often in a situation like the artillery, just doing their jobs while being fired at by enemy artillery, or machine-guns. Same with the medical corps, although most of the MoHs went to medics attached to combat units. The navy had a high rate because when a ship was hit, very dangerous rescue and damage control work had to be done. The Coast Guard rate was lower because they were more of a patrol, not a combat force. The marines were assault troops, usually sent into very desperate battles, where opportunities for brave acts were more abundant.

But the difference in award rates between different wars was also the result of different criteria, and policies about how many awards would be allowed. Since Korea and Vietnam were unpopular wars, more MoHs were awarded, basically as a morale building measure. Men who would have gotten a Distinguished Service Cross or Silver Star (the second and third highest awards) during World War II, got a higher one during Korea and Vietnam. The system was debased so much during Vietnam that many Silver Stars were for actions that would have warranted no award at all during World War II.

The army, in particular, was not proud of this. So after Vietnam, there was much agitation within the Department of Defense to make the standards matter. Then, during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, there were more awards than people participating. There were no MoHs, but there was a collective agreement among the brass that, for these awards to mean anything, they have to be reserved for exceptional acts. Changes were finally made in how the award standards were applied, especially in the army.

Which brings us back to the current situation. Not only are higher standards being applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have also been some dramatic changes in how combat was conducted. Many people outside the military have not noticed that the casualty rates in the current war are the lowest in modern history. For example, you were three times more likely to get killed or wounded in Vietnam, versus in Iraq (2003-9). Casualty rates are even lower in Afghanistan. This is the result of much better trained troops, better protection (truly bullet proof vests) and more effective weapons and equipment. Smart bombs, UAVs, night vision equipment, personal radios (for each infantryman), computers all over the place. It’s a different kind of war.

Moreover, most of the casualties are from roadside bombs, not what we typically think of as combat. That said, if we were fighting World War II with today's troops and equipment, we probably would have had one MoH for every 800 or so dead. So, even by the fairly strict standards of World War II, there would be about twice as many MoHs during the last five years of fighting. That translates to another four, MoHs. Those guys got Distinguished Service Crosses (DSC) or Silver Stars instead, and most of them are still alive (all the Iraq/Afghanistan MoHs have been awarded to those killed in combat). If you went over the citations (recap of events) for the DSCs and Silver Stars awarded during the last seven years, you could probably pick out the four additional soldiers or marines who would, under World War II criteria, qualify for a MoH. But if you asked these troops about it, they would probably shrug. That’s because you do the deed to help your buddies, not to win a medal. But that’s another story.
Note that the World War II stats were those complied in the late 1940s, and thus do not include some dozens of awards that have been made since for various reasons -- especially to correct the sidelining or downgrading of recommendations due to then-prevailing racial policies that saw awards to  Jews, Blacks and Asians downgraded, or not given all.

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