Medal of Honor Even Rarer in Modern War

Tom Vanden Brook notes that SFC Paul Smith’s posthumous Medal of Honor is the only one awarded during the long fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rate much lower than in previous conflicts.

Only One Medal Of Honor Given In Conflicts In Iraq, Afghanistan (USA Today, p. 6)

American troops have been fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than four years, but just one soldier from those wars has received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor for bravery. The lack of such medals — by comparison, two were awarded for fighting in Somalia — reflects today’s unconventional warfare and the superior weaponry of U.S. forces, military experts say. It’s not that today’s troops lack valor, but they lack opportunities to display it in the extraordinary way that would merit the Medal of Honor.

“The situations today are less likely to warrant the Medal of Honor than in past conflicts,†says Nicholas Kehoe, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. “That doesn’t mean our troops aren’t acting courageously or even heroically.â€
Kehoe, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and not a recipient of the medal, says the dominance of air power and the use of such tools as night-vision goggles give U.S. forces huge advantages. “We don’t charge up hills with machine gun nests anymore,†he says.

The insurgents’ tactics in Iraq — remotely detonated explosives and suicide bombers — also mean U.S. troops often don’t have the opportunity to respond heroically. “We don’t have full frontal battles, like the Battle of the Bulge,†says David Burrelli, a specialist in national defense for the Congressional Research Service.

Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, points out that patrolling where insurgents plant bombs takes courage. However, it doesn’t require the out-of-the-ordinary valor required for the Medal of Honor, he says. “It reflects the nature of this war,†Moskos says. “Not the lack of heroes.â€


Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart received the award posthumously. They protected critically wounded comrades whose helicopter had crashed in hostile territory in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993. Their heroism was depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down.

There were no Medals of Honor awarded during the Gulf War. After weeks of bombing, allied ground forces whipped the Iraqi army in a 100-hour campaign.

The most recent act to merit the Medal of Honor came on April 4, 2003. On that day, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith, his position near the Baghdad airport nearly overrun, hastily organized a defense. Under fire, Smith climbed onto a damaged armored vehicle and attacked the enemy with a .50-caliber machine gun. He killed as many as 50 enemy soldiers and helped save the lives of 100 Americans. On April 4, 2005, President Bush presented the Medal of Honor to Smith’s widow, Birgit.

The Congressional Medal of Honor Society breaks down recipients this way: WWII, 464; Korea, 131; Vietnam, 245; Somalia, 2.

It should be noted that the “Black Hawk Down” incident was something of a fluke–a single battle producing two MOH awardees. Otherwise, the medal has been awarded almost exclusively in long wars involving massive numbers of troops in sustained combat. In Iraq, despite its length, we have far fewer troops engaged than in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam and the “major combat operations” phase lasted a mere three weeks. While our soldiers in Iraq are most certainly in harm’s way, few of them are engaged in sustained fighting.


Previously at OTB:

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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. The is part of the on-going campaign by USA Today to claim that the War on Terror is producing fewer heroes. There are 70 posts in my blog category WOT Heroes. Jason Dunham is featured. As is David Bellavia. Ismael Sagredo, Shane Pugh, Leigh Ann Hester, Brian Chontosh. They’re all there. Dunham has been nominated for the Medal. I’d bet some of the others I’ve posted about have, too.

    There are a lot of American heroes in this war. Some will earn the Medal. You don’t measure the valor of a soldier by the award he receives, but by his performance in the crucible of battle.

    Last, but certainly not least, Rick Rescorla honored his adopted country and the military he once served in so well on September 11. He may not have been in the military, but that day he was a hero in the War on Terror.