Criminalizing Lying about Heroism

Medal of Honor It’s against the law to falsely claim you’ve been awarded the Medal of Honor. The NYT’s Adam Liptak has an interesting discussion of the matter.

“You don’t want to stifle speech about opinions and ideas,” Mr. Missakian said. “But Congress, and rightfully so, recognized the great sacrifice that people awarded the Medal of Honor made on behalf of their country. To the extent we have phony Medal of Honor winners running around like Alvarez, it dilutes the value of their sacrifice.”

That rationale is reflected in Congressional findings. The law, Congress said, is meant “to protect the reputation and meaning of military decorations and medals.”

Some First Amendment experts worry that criminalizing speech about symbols is a dangerous business and is reminiscent of laws against flag burning that the Supreme Court has held unconstitutional. “If the government cannot under the First Amendment compel reverence when it comes to our nation’s highest symbol,” asked Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington, “why then can it compel reverence when it comes to lesser forms of symbolic expression?”

While I’m inclined to agree with Eugene Volokh that “false statements of fact generally lacks constitutional value,” I’m nonetheless skeptical about the law.

Fraud, of course, isn’t protected speech. And if someone claims to be a veteran or a war hero in order to bilk someone out of benefits to which he’d otherwise not be entitled, it should be illegal on that basis. But why is pretending to be a hero in order to get admiration against the law?

Unseemly? Absolutely. But punishable by state action? Something for which one should be deprived of liberty or property? Something for which scarce law enforcement resources should be expended?

Phil Carter offered the following insights upon returning home from a combat tour in Iraq:

Soldiers and civilians also share a different moral code, something highlighted by those different definitions of heroism. Soldiers exist for their team; they will do anything for love of their brothers and sisters in uniform. Civilians, by contrast, live for themselves. Americans have become the quintessential rational actors of economic lore — pursuing their self-interest above all else, seeking enrichment and gratification.

To be sure, Americans engage in a great deal of altruism, and this is to be praised too. But the sporadic acts of selfless service performed by civilians cannot compare to the life of service chosen by our military personnel.

So when civilians approach us in airports and cafes to thank us for our service, it frequently causes some degree of discomfort and alienation. Although grateful for the warm reception, many of us don’t know how to respond. Our service means a great deal to us. We will never forget the sacrifices, hardships or experiences we had in combat, nor will we ever forget those with whom we served. But I have never felt that such service merits praise, and certainly not the label of heroism.

I judge myself by the code of a warrior. That ethos demands selfless service, not aggrandizement. It praises the team, not the individual. And it saves its highest accolades for those who distinguish themselves through extraordinary acts of valor. As veterans, we know the real heroes among us; many of them did not come home. Awarding this distinction to everyone cheapens the accomplishments of those who earned it — and makes the rest of us feel guilty that we have somehow stolen recognition from the worthy.

Claiming medals that one has not earned violates the warrior’s code. Admiral Mike Boorda, the highest ranking admiral in the United States Navy at the time, killed himself when it was revealed he’d worn a relatively minor award to which he wasn’t entitled rather than endure the shame.

It’s not clear to me why that code should be enforceable against mere wannabes; that’s an honor reserved for those who have served. The penalty for failing to live up to it is scorn from those who have.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, Supreme Court, US Constitution, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brian J. says:

    Is there an actor’s clause exempting thespians? Or does this explain the reason why Hollywood is stuck on stories about unheroic service members, that it’s making sure it’s not in violation here?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Is there an actor’s clause exempting thespians?

    Yes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the reason military uniforms are invariably screwed up in the movies is not fear of “impersonating an officer” but rather inattention to detail.

  3. davod says:

    It is quite simple. There is nothing in the constitution that protects fraud. The law will hold up under constitutional scrutiny.

  4. James Joyner says:

    The law will hold up under constitutional scrutiny.

    Could be but that’s not the point of the post. I’m not arguing the law’s unconstitutionality, merely its inadvisability.

    Why is this particular lie worthy of prosecution?

  5. legion says:

    if someone claims to be a veteran or a war hero in order to bilk someone out of benefits to which he’d otherwise not be entitled, it should be illegal on that basis. But why is pretending to be a hero in order to get admiration against the law?

    The speech is protected, but the fraud to gain benefits is not. While intangible benefits, like “respect” and “favors done for war heroes” are things I’m not sure can be defined legally, other things are. To address this and your most recent comment, I (reluctantly, but in this instance the research seems to be properly documented) refer you to this:
    By law, recipients have several benefits:

    * Each Medal of Honor recipient may have his or her name entered on the Medal of Honor Roll (38 U.S.C. § 1560). Each person whose name is placed on the Medal of Honor Roll is certified to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs as being entitled to receive the special pension of US$1027 per month. As of December 1, 2004, the pension is subject to cost-of-living increases.
    * Enlisted recipients of the Medal of Honor are entitled to a supplemental uniform allowance.
    * Recipients receive special entitlements to air transportation under the provisions of DOD Regulation 4515.13-R.
    * Special identification cards and commissary and exchange privileges are provided for Medal of Honor recipients and their eligible dependents.
    * Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements.
    * Recipients receive a 10% increase in retired pay under 10 U.S.C. § 3991.
    * Those awarded the medal after October 23, 2002 also receive a Medal of Honor Flag. The law also specifies that all 143 living Medal of Honor recipients receive the flag along with all future recipients.(14 U.S.C. § 505).
    * As with all medals, retired personnel may wear the Medal of Honor on “appropriate” civilian clothing. Regulations also specify that recipients of the Medal of Honor are allowed to wear the uniform “at their pleasure” with standard restrictions on political, commercial, or extremist purposes; other former members of the armed forces may do so only at certain ceremonial occasions.

  6. Triumph says:

    * Children of recipients are eligible for admission to the United States military academies without regard to the quota requirements.

    Is this really true? It seems kind of antithetical to the whole merit-based system of the Academies.

  7. Bob says:

    “Is this really true? It seems kind of antithetical to the whole merit-based system of the Academies.”

    Yes it is. And almost all MOH recipients are awarded because they were killed in line of duty. Actually all since Viet Nam. So there just isn’t a large number of children ever eligible.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:


    Yes, the military academy acceptance is true. Since many if not most medal of honor winners come posthumous or with severe injury, I do not begrudge ensuring that their children will receive a top notch education at government expense if the same children agree to the resulting duty to serve, abide by the academy’s code of honor, etc.


    Ask yourself the question why would someone hold themselves out to be a medal of honor winner when they are not. I think you will find that, with the exception of being mistaken, they seek to reap a benefit. The benefit may be tangible or intangible, but it would be a benefit. Tangible benefits can be handled with existing fraud laws. But how do you undo the intangible benefits?

    Now if I (falsely) said that I saved 6 orphans from a fire, I could also reap intangible benefits in the same sort of manner. So why act in the medal case and not the false rescue? Because as a nation the medal of honor recognizes someone who had a duty to put themselves in harms way (by being a member of the military during a conflict) and went above and beyond that duty. Not all action above and beyond the duty (e.g. a distinguished flying cross or navy cross) is being protected. Only the highest of honors. I consider it a way for the government to not let the honor won be cheapened by those who falsely claim it reap the intangible benefits (or tangible benefits). To not act is to debase the honor to some degree.

    In a perfect world, I agree. We would live in a country that someone who would do such a thing would be denied fire or shelter. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

  9. DL says:

    “why is pretending to be a hero in order to get admiration against the law?”

    Don’t our politicians do this all the time, depending on what your meaning of “Hero” is -unless this now falls under the banner of – “Character doesn’t matter.”

    What good are any laws to enforce this kind of deceit when we cleary live in a society of relative morality -relative truth -and we reward the biggest liars with the best “photoshopped” images – the highest offices in the land?

  10. JimT says:

    This is completely unnecessary. There already exists adequate punishments for this ‘crime’. If you do it while on active duty, the UCMJ will get you. If you do it to receive government benefits described by legion’s post – fraud laws will get you. If you do it for money and services from others – they can take you to court and get you. If you do it to gain the admiration of people around you – once discovered you’ll lose it and any chance of ever getting it again. And if you do it around vets like me – we’ll get you.
    This is just another ‘feel good’ law that politicians use to make us think they’re working.

  11. Houston says:

    I haven’t seen ADM Mike Boorda’s name in print in years. (and while he was an “Admirable” man, i think you meant to say “Admiral”…)

    I worked for him for two years. He was an inspiration to us all, and his death remains to this day shocking to me. He obviously was so ashamed of his behavior, which comparatively speaking these days was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The man was a hero.

  12. vnjagvet says:

    As a matter of policy, ISTM it might be better to make claiming to have won a MH punishable by law rather than to have veteran vigilantes exacting the punishment.

  13. John says:

    Just to clarify about ADM Boorda, he was wearing authorized awards. The controversy was about the bronze “V” (for valor) device on the award. Such a small detail that caused such a tragedy.