May 20, 2014:
Britain finds itself with a morale problem when the leaders of Royal Marines recently decided that their marines could not wear a NATO medal recognizing their service in the Somali Anti-Piracy Patrol. The ban was imposed because that service was not considered dangerous enough. Several hundred Royal Marines participated and, along with some members of the SBS (British SEALs) served as boarding parties to check out suspicious ships, especially smaller ones the pirates liked to use as mother ships. No marines were injured during their service off Somalia, but that in large part was because they look very professional as they approach suspicious ships and if the pirates know of the reputation of the Royal Marines that encourages them to quickly dump their weapons overboard and put their hands up. The British marines involved know that other nations let their troops wear the NATO medal. The Royal Marine leadership would not be moved and their marines had to remove the NATO medal from their uniforms.
Deciding what is required for the award of combat medals is an old problem. Britain has always been more parsimonious in handing out these awards. So is the U.S. Marine Corps, but the U.S. Army is another matter. In 2010 the army revealed that so far some 857,000 medals had been awarded to the 1.2 million soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's 48 percent as many medals awarded during World War II, when six times as many soldiers served overseas. It's also 30 percent of those awarded during Vietnam, where 25 percent more soldiers served. This odd pattern is the result of the excessive number of medals given out during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam medal abuse was not forgotten. In 2005 American troops began grumbling about what was perceived as disrespectful use of Bronze Star medals as "attaboy" awards for officers and senior NCOs who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, or for lower ranking personnel you want to pin a medal on for no good reason (like giving an IED victim, who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, something in addition to a Purple Heart). This inflation tends to be less with the higher awards, especially the Medal of Honor, as events leading to receiving these are extensively investigated, and often publicized.
This awards inflation was a very unpopular aspect of the Vietnam War and became a major embarrassment after the 1983 Grenada invasion (where the army tried to award more medals than there were troops involved, but the public caught wind of it and forced the brass to back off.) It was feared that another such scandal appears to be brewing. Compared to World War II, that is what is happening. The only good news is that it is not as bad as it was during Vietnam.
In the American military, awards for valor go from the Bronze Star (which can also be awarded for non-combat accomplishment), the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. There are also several lesser awards for non-combat service, plus the Purple Heart for those wounded or killed in combat. You can get a sense of the different attitudes towards such awards in Britain and the U.S. if you consider the number of top medals given out. The Victoria Cross was first awarded in 1856 (during the reign of Queen Victoria). The American equivalent is the Medal of Honor. Thru 2010 3,471 Medals of Honor had been awarded, compared to 1,356 Victoria Crosses. The Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1863, during the Civil War (1861-5), and throughout the 19th century was the only award for bravery. But in the early 20th century, the United States created lesser awards (Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross), making Medal of Honor awards much less common. At that point, the Medal of Honor assumed a similar prominence that the Victoria Cross had always had.