Saturday, October 31, 2009


A late-great friend of mine, a dedicated warrior, observed that war is a full-contact sport. He was right, of course. Combat is graded pass-fail, and sometimes you can do everything right and still flunk the course.

However, in the 21st century, some people believe that all human endeavors should be graded on a curve—or not graded at all. It’s indicative of the declining standards and feel-good attitude that infected humans in recent decades. Outcome-based education is but one example: “educators” concluded that since lower-performing kids’ self esteem might suffer if some were designated “winners,” the solution was to give everybody a trophy or an attaboy just for showing up.

That’s bad enough. Unfortunately, now the grade-on-the-curve philosophy is being applied to courage.

Earlier this year Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California opined that too few Medals of Honor are being awarded in the Global War on Terrorism. As of this month, since 2001 six men have received the nation’s highest award for valor in Iraq and Afghanistan: three Army, two Navy, and one Marine. All those awards were posthumous.

“We haven’t given one (Medal of Honor) to a living person yet,” Hunter says, “so does that mean not a single living soldier, sailor, airman or Marine has committed an act of valor and something so courageous that he’s earned the Medal of Honor?”

Hunter certainly is qualified to comment on the situation: he’s a Vietnam combat veteran with extensive military-affairs experience on The Hill. But as a former soldier and experienced politician, he must know that the military awards process has been broken for approximately forever.

I’m unusually familiar with the Medal of Honor: I’ve been privileged to number seven recipients among my friends and several more among my associates. In writing two books on the subject, some patterns emerged, and chief among them is that frequently people receive medals for doing their job. It started under political influence in the Civil War and continues so today. The problem is systemic: if it were ever going to be fixed, it would have been corrected decades ago. Witness Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye’s receipt of the Medal 55 years after WW II with 20 of his friends: the nation’s highest award handed out by the bucketful. (Never mind that his 442nd Regimental Combat Team already was the most-decorated outfit of the war.) Or even a century later: among Bill Clinton’s last official acts was presenting the Medal to Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson. In 1898 Teddy had led his Rough Riders up Kettle Hill in Cuba—a commander who commanded his troops, nothing more. In fact, nearly all Spanish-American War medals were awarded for lifesaving rather than direct combat.

Yes, some partisans claim that waivers for the statutory time limits are justified because of lost paperwork or perceived injustices, but it still boils down to politics. Think about it: when the President of the United States receives the Nobel Peace Prize for two weeks in office, the value of other awards become diluted by commonality and lowered standards. That situation should not apply to the Medal of Honor.

The thing about the Congressional Medal of Honor Society is that it does not get to select its members. Those eligible for membership are first approved by the U.S. Government, and the numbers are declining steadily. Currently there are fewer than 100.

Which brings us to the lack of living recipients. It’s obvious that neither the Bush nor Obama administrations would tolerate walking-talking heroes who might say something, um, impolitic. There is no smoking gun for such a policy—no signed directive saying, “There will be no more living Medal of Honor recipients.” But clearly that’s what’s at work. (In contrast, during the Vietnam debacle, the loathsome Lyndon Johnson used to tell an aide, “Trot me out a hero. I need to make a speech.” LBJ knew all about working the system: the citation for his WW II Silver Star was an outright fabrication.)

Mr. Hunter recommended that current Medal of Honor recipients serve on a panel to provide the Department of Defense recommendations for combat awards from the Silver Star upward. It’s a good idea. Though the veterans’ recommendations would be nonbinding, at least there could be a semblance of consistency in the awards process, assuming DoD pays attention.
However, a problem persists: the nature of the GWOT is different from previous wars. By far the greatest number of combat casualties is due to roadside bombs. Obviously, that situation does not lend itself to the kind of action that produces Medals of Honor. The MoH citations thus far all involve direct action against hostile fighters, not IEDs.

Rep. Hunter says, “I’ve got guys telling me stories about killing terrorists with their helmets, knifing them, getting in fistfights with them when they’re out of ammunition,” he said. “That sounds like old-time warfare to me.”

Agreed. But every war/feud/conflict involves people killing people mano-a-mano. The point is, that’s what soldiers do. Killing the enemy in and of itself is not “above and beyond the call of duty,” the operative phrase in MoH citations.

But there’s duty and there’s duty. I am slightly acquainted with a former Army sergeant who, in 2004, with other GIs he entered an Iraqi house full of goblins and covered the withdrawal of several wounded soldiers. Then he returned to pursue other enemies and, though shot in one shoulder, he emerged after killing five jihadists, the last by using a personal knife. He was recommended for the Medal of Honor but received a Silver Star—apparently because he survived. Certainly The Big One has been awarded for far, far less. (In the 1930s an aged general received the MoH for “a life of splendid public service.”)

So let’s not further dilute the Medal of Honor by awarding it on some sort of quota system. Instead, let’s recognize the unusual nature of the current “conflicts” and retain the standards intended for America’s most cherished decoration—whether the recipients are living or dead.