The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
Where Have All The Medals of Honor Gone
Discussion Board on this DLS topic
by James Dunnigan
December 21, 2006
During the last five years of combat, only two Medals of Honor (MoH),
the highest American award for bravery in combat, have been awarded. A lot more
MoHs were awarded in past wars. During World War I, 124 were awarded. During
World War II- 440, Korea had 131 and Vietnam, 244. This has raised the question
of whether the military are 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.
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.
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 1,492 deaths.
by this measure, a soldier in Vietnam was nearly eight 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
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).
Deaths per MoH Award
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. 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.
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. 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.
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 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 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.
said, if we were fighting World War II with todays 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 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 the last 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