Since at 2004 more Americans have been wondering why so few awards for bravery in combat have been given to American troops who, according to news reports, have been performing well in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. An analysis of “War on Terror” awards versus those in previous wars shows a sharp decline of these medals in the 21st century. That has changed recently as older awards are upgraded to reflect what the recipient had done in comparison to those who received such awards in previous wars. Over a decade of growing criticism finally had an impact.
So far over 2.7 million Americans have served overseas, often under fire. That did produce a new policy of awarding combat support troops a “been there, got shot at” award similar to the Army Combat Infantry Badge. That satisfied a lot of support troops who saw more time under fire and getting wounded than their contemporaries in past wars. The combat troops and veterans have not been demanding more awards but many veterans and their families have become increasingly curious about whey the number of such awards per 10,000 military personnel has been so low during the last 18 years of combat. There were some explanations but these did not entirely address the discrepancy.
The army, which has always handled most of the heavy combat and suffered most of the casualties, has always received most of the top three valor in combat awards. These are the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star. During World War II 69.9 of these top three awards was awarded per 10,000 troops. In the Korean War it was 38.5 and in Vietnam, it was 52.3. But in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 it was, until the recent flurry of upgrades, 5.9. Surveys of commanders and the combat record of troops and units indicates that there were plenty of instances of exceptional performance by the troops. That may be part of the reason for so few awards. The army that went to war in 2001 was, like the one in 1991, the “Hundred Hour” war to drive Iraqi troops out of Iraq, fought by an all-volunteer force. Not only were there no conscript (unlike World War II, Korea and Vietnam) but the post-Vietnam army was deliberately more professional, effective and better trained, equipped and led than any peacetime American army in history. As a result, this new type of army actually suffered much lower (about a third fewer) combat deaths than was the case in Vietnam and Korea and much lower than World War II. The troops attribute this to the professionalism, training and equipment. Historically that is usually the case and the ancient Greeks and Romans demonstrated that. But even the Romans, who had several awards for extraordinary bravery in combat, were apparently more consistent in the rate of issuing these awards than the Americans were after 2001.
And therein lies one of the reasons for the sharply lower number of valor awards after 2001. Actually, the decline began during the Hundred Hour war in 1991. Even the troops and their commanders were shocked at how effective the reformed American army was in their first post-Vietnam and post-reforms war. There were extraordinarily few casualties (hundreds rather than the expected thousands) and much better combat performance than expected. That trend continued a decade later. Some say there were fewer awards because extraordinary performance in combat was the new normal. In effect, the troops and their commanders (who identified and wrote up the applications for such awards) had developed a different standard for “extraordinary valor.” But no single factor explains the sharp drop in the number of such awards.
This dearth of valor awards was noticed early on. Between 2001 and 2006 after five years of combat, only two Medals of Honor (MoH), the highest American award for bravery in combat, were awarded. A lot more MoHs were awarded in past wars. During World War I (when fewer Americans were in combat than during 2001-19), 124 were awarded. During World War II- 440, Korea had 131 and Vietnam, 244. This has raised the question of whether the military is deliberately holding back from awarding the nations’ 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. During the first five years in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was one for every 1,492 deaths and for the last 18 years, it's one for every 423. That’s about the same as World War I, which for the United States lasted 17 months, with 200 days in combat. But after five years of fighting the rate of MoH awards was the lowest in history, yet after 18 years it caught up to World War I levels. More awards are under consideration for upgrading lesser awards (usually Distinguished Service Cross) to an MoH. To a lesser extent, this has also been done for World War II and Vietnam. But such upgrades make a bigger difference for 21st century combat vets, who have received so few.
Thus, by this measure, a soldier in Vietnam was nearly eight times more likely to receive an 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
Army Air Force 861.0
Medical Corps 1124.0
Coast Guard 811.0
The air force awards mainly went to aircrew. Note that it was more dangerous (you were more likely to be killed) than to be in a heavy bomber crew over Europe during 1942-45, than to be in the infantry down below. 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 included all armored forces but particularly the "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. This actually got out of control in Vietnam and even the troops complained. 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. 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.
Which brings us back to the 21st century situation. Not only are higher standards being applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have also been some dramatic changes in how combat is 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 serving now in Iraq. Casualty rates are even lower in Afghanistan. This is the result of much better-trained troops, better protection (truly bulletproof 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 2001-6 fighting. That translates to another two, or three, MoHs. Those guys got Distinguished Service Crosses (DSC) or Silver Stars. If you went over the citations (recap of events) for the DSCs and Silver Stars awarded during that first five years, you could probably pick out the three 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.