Medal Fatigue


After a bitter controversy over how to recognize the contributions those who fly drones stateside make to the fight against global terrorism, the Pentagon is undertaking a “comprehensive review” of the entire awards system. It’s long overdue.

Last February, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced the creation of a Distinguished Warfare Medal to provide “recognition for extraordinary achievement, not involving acts of valor, directly impacting combat operations or other military operations.”  Furthermore, it explicitly did “not include a geographic limitation on award, as it is intended for use as a means to recognize Service members who meet the criteria, regardless of the domain used of the member’s physical location.” The roll-out made it clear that the medal was intended for those who piloted Predator and Reaper drones from the safety of office chairs in remote locations like Nevada and yet made “extraordinary” impact on battlefields from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen.

Those familiar with the military’s culture were not surprised that the notion of a medal specifically designed for “armchair warriors” who didn’t get their boots muddy, much less risk getting killed by enemy snipers or IEDs, was met with instantaneous backlash, ridicule, and outrage. It didn’t help that the DWM was going to be the nation’s fourth highest combat award, outranking the Bronze Star in precedence.

Among Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first acts when he succeeded Panetta was to suspend the medal pending more review. By April, the man who had earned multiple Purple Hearts for wounds suffered as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam rescinded the medal entirely, with a promise to create a drone “device” for attachment to other medals. Nine months later, there is still no device. Instead, Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby announced that Hagel had decided to order a “comprehensive review” of the entire awards system rather “than looking piecemeal at any specific one.”

This is the right call. While details are scant on what the review board’s mission will be, it’s time for a substantial culling of the current inventory of medals and ribbons, which is bloated because of parochial service interests and the creation of a plethora of peacetime medals 30-plus years ago. Further, we need a standardization of awards, instead of the present system where the same medals and devices mean different things depending on what uniform one wears.

Indeed, the controversy of the Distinguished Warfare Medal illustrates some of the shortfalls of the system.

The DWM was essentially a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with a new name so as not to antagonize people who fly manned aircraft, ranking one notch below the DFC but having the same requirements. Requirements which, incidentally, do not include heroism in battle unless one happens to be in the Army. In the other three services—the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force—one can earn a DFC for “extraordinary achievement” that doesn’t involve getting shot at by the enemy.  Those who do earn the award for heroism append a “V” device denoting valor. But, since the Army does not award the DFC other than for heroism, the “V” device is redundant and therefore not awarded. Thus, it’s not only easier to earn a DFC in the other three services but, perversely, members of other services who see a soldier with a “naked” DFC will assume that it was awarded for something other than heroism.

Meanwhile, the notion that Panetta was breaking faith with our nation’s military heroes by awarding a medal “higher than a Bronze Star” for actions outside a combat zone was silly, in that there were already a multitude of awards higher than a Bronze Star that are solely awarded for non-combat duty. We’ve long since larded our awards system with the proliferation of what I call “FOGO Achievement Medals,” non-combat awards for very high ranking (flag or general officer) personnel.

So, while the Medal of Honor sits atop the food chain, followed by the Distinguished Service/Navy/Air Force Cross, there are now six medals available for non-heroic distinguished service: the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Homeland Security DSM, (Army) DSM, the Navy DSM, the Air Force DSM, and the Coast Guard DSM. That’s followed by the Silver Star, which is available only for heroism in combat and then two more non-combat awards, the Defense Superior Service Medal (high rank, joint service) and the Legion of Merit (middle rank, non-heroic). Then comes the DFC. Then a quartet of service-specific medals for non-combat heroism, with the Soldier’s Medal being the most well-known. Then comes the Bronze Star, which is awarded for heroism or superior achievement in combat. Then the Purple Heart, for wounds in combat. And then what seems like nine hundred awards (there are actually only a few dozen) for low level achievement or being someplace you were ordered to be for long enough.

Out of all those medals, then, we have only three awards—the Medal of Honor, the Crosses, and the Silver Star—for which heroism in combat is a requirement and two more—the DFC and the Bronze Star—that are combat-only awards that can be awarded for heroism or not. And only the top two of those—the Medal of Honor and the Crosses—aren’t outranked by medals available for outstanding performance of paperwork while wearing stars on one’s collar.

Now, the tongue-in-cheek tone above notwithstanding, I don’t actually begrudge high awards for outstanding performance in high level billets. Three years running a combatant command is almost certainly more impressive than fifteen minutes of derring-do when the bullets are flying and the adrenaline is pumping. It’s hard to argue, for example, that anyone who earned the Medal of Honor in Iraq or Afghanistan made a more meaningful contribution to the war effort than did General David Petraeus.

The reason I call them “FOGO Achievement Medals” isn’t because they’re unearned but because, for the most part, they’re awarded at the end of a tour in a given billet and based almost solely on the basis of what is customary at a given level of seniority. Thus, while a junior enlisted soldier would get an Army, Navy, or Air Force Achievement Medal upon completion of the assignment; a more senior NCO or junior officer would get a service-appropriate Commendation Medal; a middle ranking officer or high ranking NCO a Meritorious Service Medal; a higher ranking officer or very senior NCO a Legion of Merit; a general or admiral will get one of the Distinguished Service Medals. Again, those billets are genuinely harder to attain and come with more responsibility; but an end-of-tour award is an end-of-tour award, not recognition for any particular achievement.

Regardless of the debate over precedence, though, we have far too many awards and issue them differently from service to service.

The Medal of Honor, of course, has a unique status and is instantly recognizable to anyone who served. It’s not obvious why each of the three major services needs their own design, but they’re all instantly recognizable as the Medal of Honor and are awarded so infrequently that it’s probably not worth the fuss.

Given the post-Goldwater Nichols emphasis on jointness, it probably makes sense to keep the “Defense” variants of the Distinguished Service, Meritorious Service, Commendation, and Achievement medals to recognize those who have served in joint billets. But we should merge all the others into single, service-neutral awards. Similarly, there’s no reason to have service-specific Good Conduct, Overseas Service, Sea Service, and Professional Development medals and ribbons.  In addition to radically streamlining the awards list, it would have the additional benefit of making everyone’s ribbon rack recognizable to members of other services. Not only do the six Distinguished Service Medal variants, to take one example, look completely different from one another but another service’s variant is easily confused with similar-looking but completely different medals from one’s own service.

Beyond that, the Pentagon should standardize the way we recognize school completion, skill attainment, longevity, and the like.  Currently, some services award medals or ribbons for completing required schools, qualifying with a weapon, hitting time-in-service milestones, serving as a drill instructor, and so forth while others instead award badges or service stripes or offer no recognition at all. My instinct is that medals and ribbons should be reserved for special achievement, rather than meeting required standards. Regardless, however, all services should recognize the same accomplishments in the same manner, preferably with identical ribbons and badges. In addition to preventing, say, an airmen from having twice the ribbons as a Marine with comparable achievements, it simply makes sense to have both be able to instantly recognize the other’s achievements.

Aside from needing streamlining and standardization across services, the American military has a serious case of medal proliferation.

It wasn’t always thus. My dad retired from the Army as a First Sergeant in 1982 after 20-plus years of service with only a handful of medals, mostly related to his stint in Vietnam. Until his retirement award of a Meritorious Service Medal, his highest award was an Army Commendation Medal with umpteen oak leaf clusters.

At the tail end of his career, the Army came up with a passel of minor awards to deal with the fact that, after several years of relative peace post-Vietnam, there really wasn’t any way to boost morale by handing out trinkets to junior personnel. So, the Army Achievement Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, and Army Service Ribbon all came into being on 10 April 1981.  Note that the last three are mere “Ribbons;” they don’t even come with a medal to be worn on the full dress uniform.

As a young lieutenant, I had the Army Service (“Rainbow”) Ribbon–awarded for the impressive act of completing the required training that allows one to go on to a billet in an actual Army unit–to go with my Airborne and Air Assault badges. Most of my lower enlisted soldiers, on the other hand, had an “impressive” rack of ribbons to denote having gone on to schools (NCO Professional Development), having served somewhere (Overseas Service Ribbon or Army Expeditionary Medal), and managing to complete a tour without committing a criminal act (Good Conduct Medal). It was mildly comical.

Desert Storm changed that. I got a Bronze Star upon returning home to go along with a Southwest Asia Service Medal and two campaign stars. Everybody who happened to be in the US military in some capacity—even reservists and military academy cadets—got a National Defense Service Medal. Upon leaving the Army a year later, I got an Army Commendation Medal and the Overseas Service Ribbon. While I was in grad school, I got a Liberation of Kuwait Medal from the Saudis and, quite some time later, another from the Kuwaitis. Oh, and it turned out that sitting around Kuwait and Saudi Arabia waiting to fly back to Germany was actually a combat campaign, so I got another bronze service star to pin on the Southwest Asia Service Medal.

My contemporaries who remained in, colonels now, look like South American field marshals. The Army has been in so many engagements in the last twenty years, each with their own campaign medals and associated foreign awards, that I no longer recognize many of the awards being worn by today’s soldiers. And, of course, they never got rid of all those medals they created for the peacetime military of 1981.

Hagel’s commission is unlikely to radically reverse this. We’re not going to take medals and ribbons away from those who have them now and admitting that most of the ones we do have are of low value risks hurting the feelings of those who wear them. But consolidating, streamlining, and standardizing our awards system would at least make it more fair and transparent.


James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force