Are there fewer heroes in the Iraq war than in previous wars? That's the message the Pentagon is sending, say critics, by not awarding today's soldiers nearly as many of the nation's highest military honors. Three and a half years of combat in Iraq, for example, have produced only two winners of the Medal of Honor, the country's highest military award for bravery in combat. There were, by contrast, 464 Medals of Honor handed out during America's involvement in World War II, which lasted the same amount of time. If the government had been as stingy then as it is now, adjusting for the number of Americans who served, there would have been only 30 Medals of Honor won in the fight against fascism. The same applies to the second highest honor, the service crosses: there were 8,716 of those given out during World War II and just 26 so far in Iraq.
So what's different in this war? For one thing, the process for getting medals has become more cumbersome. Some commanders are reacting against what they see as medal inflation in recent wars, especially Gulf War I. And there may be fewer opportunities for Audie Murphy--style heroics when your enemy is planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or driving a car bomb. But the nearly 3,000 war dead testify to the peril of those fighting in Iraq, and a growing chorus has been speaking out against the Pentagon's parsimony. They're asking why there have not been more élite medals and why there have been huge disparities in the number of awards given by different branches of the military. "We need to look into the criteria used and the timing. There are obvious inequities," says Congressman John McHugh, a Republican from New York.
The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel that McHugh chairs is launching an inquiry this week into the way medals have been awarded in Iraq. The Department of Defense may be required to issue new standards or even reopen cases in which medals have been turned down or downgraded. The Pentagon, meanwhile, says it needed its own review to consider how combat--and how the military quantifies heroism--has changed since 9/11. It is considering whether there should be new guidelines set for consistency across the services. The Army, for example, has displayed a stunning generosity in handing out the mid-level Bronze Star medals: it has given out an astonishing 52,000 since 9/11, compared with fewer than 1,500 for the Marines.
Some critics think a kind of political correctness may be at play in the military. Says retired Lieut. Colonel Steve Russell, an infantry officer who served in Iraq: "Many senior officers who decide these awards have succumbed to the notion that every soldier is doing a great job and no one should be held out as better than another."
At the same time, some commanders have raised the bar for the highest awards because they say they have seen medals handed out too easily in the past. Army Lieut. General Tom Metz says he remembers clearly how a few soldiers in Vietnam took advantage of the system and won "air ribbons" often simply for taking flights in country. "[In Iraq] I was an award approver for all but the top two awards, and I was tough," says Metz, who authorized a handful of Silver Stars during his two years in Iraq. "I am confident those who got an award with my signature on it earned it."