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 Ã¢€” by comparison, two were awarded for fighting in Somalia Ã¢€” 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.
Ã¢€œThe situations today are less likely to warrant the Medal of Honor than in past conflicts,Ã¢€ says Nicholas Kehoe, president of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Ã¢€œThat doesn’t mean our troops aren’t acting courageously or even heroically.Ã¢€
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. Ã¢€œWe don’t charge up hills with machine gun nests anymore,Ã¢€ he says.
The insurgents’ tactics in Iraq Ã¢€” remotely detonated explosives and suicide bombers Ã¢€” also mean U.S. troops often don’t have the opportunity to respond heroically. Ã¢€œWe don’t have full frontal battles, like the Battle of the Bulge,Ã¢€ 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. Ã¢€œIt reflects the nature of this war,Ã¢€ Moskos says. Ã¢€œNot the lack of heroes.Ã¢€
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: