The Other Stolen Valor: Unrecognized Heroism in Our Recent Wars

May 21, 2019

According to the U.S. military, relatively few heroes have fought in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although more than 2.7 million servicemembers have served on more than 5.4 million deployments since 2001, the number of military awards for valor has reached historic lows. This steep decline is not necessarily because modern combat has become less intense; Pentagon data shows that almost 5,500 servicemembers have been killed in action since 2001, and more than 52,000 have been wounded in action. Instead, a major reason for the striking dearth of awards is also an unexpected one: The U.S. military has changed how it thinks about heroism.

A number of reports have highlighted how few Medals of Honor have been awarded during the recent wars, but the problem extends to other valor awards as well. The tables below show the trend in the U.S. Army’s top three awards for valor since World War II — the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star. (The other services show similar trends, but the Army, commendably, makes its historical data easily accessible, and it deployed far more troops than the other services to the recent wars.) The data shows a staggering drop in the number of these medals for valor awarded to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan — 12 times fewer than the number of these medals awarded in World War II, 6.5 times fewer than Korea, and almost nine times fewer than Vietnam.

U.S. Army Top Valor Awards

Medal of Honor (MOH) Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) Silver Star (SS)
World War II 332 4,710 73,654
Korea 93 734 10,061
Vietnam 173 1,066 21,634
Iraq and Afghanistan 13 42 727


Total MOH/DSC/SS Army Personnel (millions) Total Awards per 10,000 Personnel
World War II 78,696 11.26 69.9
Korea 10,888 2.83 38.5
Vietnam 22,873 4.37 52.3
Iraq and Afghanistan 782 1.33 5.9

Sources: U.S. Department of Defense; U.S. Army; Congressional Research Service; and RAND Corporation.

Despite these plummeting numbers, the military definition of heroism has remained remarkably constant over time, and involves far more than simple duty. Duty requires all servicemembers to perform their jobs even when facing great danger. Infantry soldiers, for example, are expected to attack the enemy even when that puts their lives at imminent risk. Heroism, by contrast, requires extraordinary actions that exceed any reasonable expectations of duty. In order to earn the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor, a servicemember must have “distinguished himself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.” Army Capt. William Swenson, for example, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courageous efforts to rally his small advisor unit in Afghanistan that was about to be overwhelmed by the enemy, repeatedly running into enemy fire to pull out his wounded men. Similarly, Army Staff Sgt. Clint Romesha earned the Medal of Honor for single-handedly leading a counterattack on a large Taliban force poised to overrun his combat outpost, despite being wounded in the battle.

Swenson and Romesha are members of an extraordinarily small group of people who have earned the nation’s highest award for valor. Yet, as shown above, the number of soldiers decorated with other valor awards in the recent wars is a small fraction of what it has been since World War II.

What explains this trend? One reason is undoubtedly the increased professionalism of the force. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by an all-volunteer force, whereas all U.S. wars before 1973 were fought largely by conscripts. The U.S. armed forces now consist of long-serving professionals leading a select group of volunteers. Training and standards are arguably more demanding today than at any other point in America’s wartime history. That professionalism has many advantages, but it can also lead to higher expectations among those that serve. Battlefield actions that might have stood out as valorous or heroic in previous conflicts may now be seen as an expected part of combat performance. The expectations of what constitutes duty may have subtly expanded in a wholly professional force. Perversely, civilian society now routinely characterizes every man and woman serving in uniform as a hero. This unfortunate propensity both devalues the term and further muddles our understanding of what constitutes true heroism.

Second, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have involved fewer close-combat engagements. U.S. adversaries have successfully battled American forces asymmetrically, through rocket and mortar attacks, insider attacks, and suicide bombings. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been the signature weapon of these wars, and they are usually detonated remotely and are rarely followed by a firefight. As a result, fewer U.S. troops may have engaged the enemy in close combat, and been in a position to take heroic actions other than rescuing wounded survivors.

Yet the third, and perhaps most important, reason that there have been so few awards for heroism in the recent wars has little to do with battlefield performance or the shifting character of combat. Instead, it seems to be an overreaction to the large number of valor awards given during the Vietnam War. According to one source, the Army handed out almost 1.3 million awards for bravery in Vietnam, a number that is roughly the same as the total number of soldiers who served there. Those numbers seemed unconscionably high to many who stayed in the military after the war, especially when compared to the number of bravery awards given during World War II (1.8 million) and the Korean War (50,000).

Why were there so many awards for bravery in Vietnam? Most officers left the combat zone with multiple awards, since they were routinely nominated for a generous packet of medals by their commands. These included awards for campaign service and combat zone achievements that did not involve heroism. In some units of the Army, these packages also included awards for valor for those who served in frontline command billets. Some divisions included Bronze Stars for valor (the fourth-highest award), and sometimes even Silver Stars, to company commanders or platoon leaders simply for serving in extended close-combat operations. Enlisted troops, by contrast, typically received far fewer awards. This liberal presentation of valor awards, especially to officers leading combat units, left a bad memory among those who continued to serve.

By 2001, the younger officers of the post-Vietnam years had become the generals and admirals leading the force. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these senior officers and the younger leaders coming up behind them were much more conservative about giving awards for valor. In his memoirs, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalls asking his senior military assistant, then-Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, why so few of those serving in the ongoing wars had been nominated for the Medal of Honor. Chiarelli reportedly told him that “because medals had been passed out so freely in Vietnam, succeeding officers were determined to raise the bar.”

They certainly succeeded in raising the bar — but they raised it far too high (as both Gates and Chiarelli agreed after the exchange above). Even as both wars grew bloodier, exceptionally conservative military standards for heroism awards remained the norm.

The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction, and needs to be corrected. Those who acted heroically in the recent wars deserve to be formally recognized for doing so. Moreover, the military services need to ensure that standards for duty have not become so high that heroism cannot be distinguished from duty. There are at least three ways to begin to address this problem.

Comprehensively review all awards for valor since 2001, especially the Bronze Star. The U.S. military has already reviewed more than 1,400 awards, but so far, only 57 have been upgraded. The fact that such reviews are continuing and expanding suggests that much remains to be done. Furthermore, most of these reviews do not include the Bronze Star for valor. These awards often go to junior enlisted soldiers and marines whose battlefield heroism is often overlooked. They deserve to have their Bronze Stars carefully reviewed for possible upgrade to the Silver Star, whose numbers have declined the most steeply in the recent wars.

Delegate more authority to award medals for heroism in the field. When one of us served as the overall U.S. commander in Afghanistan, he was required to send recommendations for the Silver Star and all higher awards back to Washington for approval. This has eased somewhat, but subjecting heroism awards to lengthy bureaucratic approvals delays well-deserved recognition. It may also discourage junior leaders from submitting valor awards whose resolution may take years. By speeding the approval process, allowing forward commanders to authorize some awards would enable them to be presented in theater in front of the recipient’s peers. This would reinforce the value of the award, and inextricably tie it to the combat action and unit being recognized. Deployed commanders at the two-star rank and above have more than enough combat experience to recognize the type of valor that deserves a Silver Star; four-star theater commanders could be also given authority to approve awards for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Air Force Cross (which are the second-highest awards for valor across the four services).

Encourage battalion and brigade commanders to “pull” awards recommendations after combat engagements. The current awards system requires lower-level leaders to “push” awards nominations upward. Platoon and company commanders have to carve out time, in the midst of ongoing operations, to write up nominations for valor awards. Their immediate superiors are likewise consumed with planning for the next fight. Recognizing heroism during past battles can easily drop to a lower priority, especially when more combat is looming. Mid-level commanders must actively seek out the stories of those who have excelled in combat, and ensure that they are recognized. This all too rarely happens today in the press of events. The generals and admirals who lead fighting forces should do so as well, and should routinely examine the actions of troops who have been recommended for lesser valor awards. They may well discover that those actions were discounted too much by the lower echelons of the chain of command and warrant recommendations for higher awards.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the longest wars in United States history. Yet the Americans who have fought those wars have received far less recognition for their heroism in combat than their peers from previous conflicts. This needs to be corrected by reexamining the valor awards of the last two decades, and redefining the standards for recognizing valor. Military leaders at all levels need to hold candid discussions about how to recognize the difference between heroism and duty within the force. Senior commanders also need to help swing the pendulum away from today’s overly conservative standards for valor awards and find a new, appropriate balance. Those that put their lives in harm’s way deserve to be honored when their actions exceed the demands of duty and cross into heroic performance. Virtually no one serving in the military today believes that everyone wearing the uniform is a hero — but all of those who serve should be confident that their leaders will identify and recognize the men and women who truly warrant that honor.


Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.