Medal of Honor a Posthumous Award Only?

The Conservative Wahoo makes an interesting point: “Are There No Live People Worthy of the Medal of Honor?”

News yesterday of the upcoming posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to SFC Jared Monti, USA for conspicuous gallantry in Afghanistan. I am humbled and awed any time I read of the bravery and selflessness of those who earn this most sacred of honors, and my debt as an American to SFC Monti is incalculable.

That said, I wonder why it is that this country has been at war for nearing eight years and to my knowledge, not a single live person has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for action in Afghanistan or Iraq. Yes, I know that the standards are high, and that is where I want them to be.

But I would surely like to see the President draping that Medal over the head of a living, breathing hero. I hope that we haven’t reached the point where one must give his or her life for the MOH.

Looking at the list of Medal of Honor recipients, it certainly seems that we have.   We’ve awarded two for action in Afghanistan (Navy LT Michael P. Murphy and Army SFC Monti) and four for Iraq (Army SFC Paul R. Smith, Marine Cpl Jason Dunham, Navy MA2 Michael Monsoor, and Army SPC Ross McGinnis).  All died as a result of their heroism.   Similarly, the two men awarded the Medal for the Battle of Mogadishu (Army MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shugart) died in action.

No one has earned a earned a Medal of Honor and lived to tell the story since the Vietnam War.

Contrast this with Vietnam, which saw 246 Medals of Honor awarded, 154 posthumously.  Or Korea:  133 Medals, 95 posthumously.   WWII:  465 awarded, 266 posthumously.   WWI:  124 awards, 33 posthumous.

Clearly, it’s both harder than ever to get recognized with the Medal of Honor and harder still to do so and live to see it.

Correction: The original version said there had been no MOH action by a living awardee since the Liberty incident, for which CMDR William L. McGonagle was recognized. That’s not true. I was looking at a list arranged by conflict and, of course, Vietnam started before but continued after 1967.

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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. DC Loser says:

    I think the nature of the current COIN type wars we’re involved in makes the threshold of nominating someone who lives through an incident worthy of a CMH to be rather high. Most of the awards thus far involved heroic acts under extremely tenous circumstances where small number of US forces are overwhelmed by large numbers of the enemy, and often are cut off from reinforcements for extended periods of time. In Vietnam, it was still more or less a conventional fight without the isolation and the preponderence of boredome mixed with moments of sheer terror of Afghanistan or even Iraq.

  2. Jem says:

    The Liberty incident was in June 1967. There were several awards of the Medal of Honor to living military personnel for actions in Vietnam after June 1967. Look at

    for many of their stories.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Yes, we’ve awarded several MOHs for Vietnam and even WWII since the Liberty incident. Which is why I wrote “The most recent engagement in which someone earned a Medal of Honor….” My sense is that the standards have changed since Vietnam.

  4. JB says:

    Just a thought to add to DC Loser’s — which I think is spot on — I wonder how much of the decline in awarding MOHs can be attributed to advances in soldiering? No one wants to send soldiers into a situation where it would take MOH-type valor to survive and with various advances in technology, equipment, intelligence gathering, and procedure one would hope those scenarios have been mitigated.

    In previous wars a unit might have been ambushed by the enemy after marching blindly over a ridge, resulting in a potential fire fight that might yield a MOH. Today that same unit can call in a Predator to check to see if the coast is clear, then call in air strikes to clear a path.

    In the same way that advances in battlefield medicine have extended lives, I’d imagine there has been analogous progress in other areas of war fighting that allows soldiers to win their battles without getting into the diciest of situations.

  5. Crust says:

    James, Jem is correct. There were several MOH’s awarded for actions in Vietnam that took place after June, 1967 (i.e. the action was later than that, not just the award) and who survived the action. E.g. Thomas Norris was award a MOH for an action that occurred in April 1972.

  6. James Joyner says:

    James, Jem is correct. There were several MOH’s awarded for actions in Vietnam that took place after June, 1967 (i.e. the action was later than that, not just the award) and who survived the action. E.g. Thomas Norris was award a MOH for an action that occurred in April 1972.

    Ah! I see what you mean.

  7. tom p says:

    I for one do not think our soldiers, sailors, Marines and Airmen are any less heroic than they once were, or that warfare is somehow less dangerous than it once was.

    They still fight. They still die.

  8. Excellent post.
    I’m a fan of this user !

  9. Bill H says:

    I think, in part, that JB is correct and that the nature of combat has changed. This is a substantially different kind of war, a different kind of combat, and soldiers are heavily armored (with personal body armor), which they were not then. All of that changes things.

    There is also a change in the nature of leadership, where we tend more to stand back and call in arty or air support in cases where, in the past, an infantry charge would be order of the day. I do not say that as criticism.

    Finally, in the Vietnam era medals in general were handed out like candy, and that went all the way up. That started in WW2 and got steadily worse until some time after Vietnam, when it was realized that it had reached a level of insanity.

  10. JB says:

    There is a great article from Nation Journal on just this very issue.

    Turns out there are some very real bureaucratic and cultural issues that are responsible for the decline in awarding not just the MOH, but many other medals as well.

  11. ROB says:

    I don’t agree with JB. If you read the accounts of morethan a few engagements with the enemy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they are very similar to those in previous wars that merited an MOH for the key participant, whether living or died of wounds.

    I really think there is too much of a Peace time mentality amongst approving authorites for medals in general, especially when it comes to the rank of the potential awardee. You will rarely see a low ranking enlisted member receive a Bronze Star, let alone a Silver Star for valor, no matter how valorous their actions were. It’s shameful.

  12. Anderson says:

    In the case of deceased heroes, the temptation to say, “aw, what he did wasn’t so great as all that” tends to be curbed by the wish not to speak ill of the dead. Also, the fact of death tends to suggest that the person did indeed risk himself heroically, tho of course some people do get killed foolhardily.

    Both of these factors lean towards greater posthumous MOH awards.