The Military Awards System
Owen West has an enlightening piece in Slate entitled, “Who Really Deserves a Silver Star? – The military’s unfair awards system. ” While I disagree with some of his premises, it’s a pretty accurate picture of how the process works.
The current medal gap actually has three dimensions. First, the different services have different criteria for the same medals. Second, support staff are rewarded more generously than are soldiers on the front lines. Third, officers receive medals that are superior to those given to the enlisted ranks.
Start with the variance among the military branches. The Air Force awarded 2,425 Bronze Stars and 21 Silver Stars from March 2002 to August 2004 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Twenty-seven airmen were killed in combat during that time, making the Air Force’s ratio of top-level ground-combat medals to fatalities 91-to-1. (This figure doesn’t include medals awarded for airborne bravery.) As of July 31, 2004, the Army had awarded 17,498 Bronze Stars and 133 Silver Stars in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while 636 soldiers have died, an awards ratio of 27-to-1. And the Marine Corps has awarded just 701 Bronze Stars, 12 Silver Stars, and six Navy Crosses (the Navy’s second-highest award) for combat in Iraq, while 264 Marines diedÃ¢€”a ratio of less than 3-to-1. Is the Marine Corps too stingy or are the other services too liberal? “I have no doubt that the Marine Corps is more stingyÃ¢€”or less likely to ‘give away’ awardsÃ¢€”than any of the other services,” says retired Marine Maj. Gen. Ray Smith, one of the Marine Corps’ most experienced combat veterans, citing a corporal who fought like a lion in Grenada but received only a commendation medal.
Compounding this problem are rules that let support staff win prestigious medals out of proportion to the risks they incur. While the Silver Star is awarded only for heroic achievement under fire, one category of Bronze StarÃ¢€”known as the BS, given for meritorious service in a combat zoneÃ¢€”is technically open to those serving miles from the front lines. (The other kind of Bronze Star is the BV, or Bronze Star with Valor, which is reserved for heroism under fire.) During the Iraq war, the military has granted hundreds of Bronze Stars to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who never set a boot inside the country. When the profiles of many BS recipients appeared recently onlineÃ¢€”including citations for logistics work onboard ship and personnel processing in KuwaitÃ¢€”the acronym took on its more familiar meaning in the eyes of some soldiers fighting in hot spots like Fallujah and Najaf.
While I’ve never heard people call the medals “BS” or “BV” (it might be a Jarhead thing), there’s no doubt that a Bronze Star with a “V” device is more prestigious than one without. It’s also the case that much less “valor” is required to get one in the Navy than in the Army or Marines. And the Air Force typically awards medals like handing out candy.
I agree with West that awards for heroism should make no distinction for rank. I have no problem with end of tour or other “commendation” awards being weighted for responsibility. Being a successful squad leader is more difficult than being a successful grunt, and leading a brigade is more challenging than leading a squad. It’s therefore perfectly reasonable to award the colonel a Legion of Merit and the corporal an Army Achievement Medal at the end of successful rotations.
Update (9/30 1408): Phil Carter has some interesting thoughts on this as well.