Yesterday the Pentagon announced the first new combat decoration for the U.S. military in sixty-nine years, the Distinguished Warfare Medal. The creation of the DWM has caused some controversy, since it’s not exactly a “combat” decoration as it will be awarded to service personnel, in the words of Defense Secretary Panetta, “for extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails.”
Got that? In other words, the DWM will be given to drone crews and others, say cyberwarriors and related desk-bound commandos, located thousands of miles from actual fighting, who nevertheless impact the course of events in some significant way. I’m not opposed to giving awards to deserving rear echelon types, not least because most of my time in uniform was spent among the desk-bound commandos, but the unveiling of a new “combat” decoration for people who go to “war” in comfy chairs has been met with a bit of derision, and perhaps deservedly so, not least because the DWM will rank above the Bronze Star, the lowest of the nation’s battle decorations.
Some believe that the birth of the DWM “degrades military honors” and cheapens the whole military awards process, and seems to be part of the American cult of awarding every child a medal just for showing up, not necessarily for winning – since, as we all know, all children in today’s America are above average.
Yet in truth the cheapening of U.S. military decorations and medals began fifty years ago, in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and has never really stopped. One of the most morale-eroding aspects of the Vietnam War was the manner in which combat decorations were awarded like candy, on a routine basis, without any direct connection to valor or even success; worse, the bias towards giving such gongs to officers, many of whom were not in much danger, was pronounced.
To its credit, the U.S. military has not exactly repeated that stupidity since 2001. Indeed, our top combat decorations seem to have been bestowed a tad too sparingly. This week, President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor, our highest decoration, to SSG Clinton Romesha, who is only the 11th person to receive the MOH in the decade-plus of the GWOT era.
Yet at lower levels the explosion of ribbonry has continued unabated. Bronze Stars are now handed out in a near-routine fashion, including to all those unfortunate enough to be killed in action; the Bronze Star with V (for Valor) still has some meaning, but that too has been devalued. In a strange sort of democratization, rather than repeat the Vietnam-era error of giving out decorations across the board to officers only, which smacks of a class system, the Pentagon now distributes gongs freely and widely to all ranks. Whether this represents progress is an open question.
All the services, and especially the Army and Air Force, have a bewildering array of low-level awards and ribbons for doing things which have nothing to do with fighting, and many seem like getting a bit of shininess for just doing your job. It should be noted that this explosion of regalia is not shared by all our allies. The British, in particular, remain as stingy as ever about handing out medals-for-nothing, and it can be an odd scene at a NATO event when British generals and admirals – who will have spent their careers at least as engaged in warfighting around the globe as their American counterparts, and sometimes more – frequently have less “chest candy” than U.S. junior enlisted personnel.
In 1999, the U.S. Air Force doled out a couple hundred Bronze Stars, nearly all to officers, for the Kosovo War, in which no one (happily) was killed in action; most of those Bronze Stars went to personnel hundreds if not thousands of miles away from where NATO bombs were falling on Serbia, so there was a bit of public questioning about what the Air Force was up to. Yet since 9/11 there has been hardly any open unease about how the Pentagon has continued its profligate distribution of decorations and medals. Perhaps asking questions could be construed as “not supporting the troops” which is widely acknowledged to be the worst American sin these days.
Instead we have gotten accustomed to seeing our senior officers freighted down with so many ribbons and insignias that they seem to need extra cloth to hold it all. That there seems to be no correlation between the explosion of awards and success in actual military operations – or if there is a correlation it is a negative one – is not frequently commented upon. During World War I, the Austro-Hungarian military had to create valor decorations for officers, since none existed; the highest Habsburg decoration, the Order of Maria Theresia, was an officers’ award for success in battle – officers were assumed to be brave, that was part of the job, not something regarded as special or worthy of praise (enlisted personnel, however, did have valor decorations). Postmodern America seems to have turned this on its head, exactly why could be debated. While I think the creation of DWM reflects the changing nature of 21st century warfare, whether the Pentagon needs more medals than the vast array it already has seems questionable at best; moreover, DoD assurances that the DWM will only be bestowed sparingly ought to be viewed skeptically, as we’ve heard that one before, many times. “Democracy equals inflation,” per C. Northcote Parkinson.
Napoleon, who knew something about winning battles and wars, and who also understood the powerful appeal of medals to fighting men, famously said, “I could conquer the world if only I had enough ribbon.” The Pentagon seems to be engaged in its own uniquely American version of this experiment, though the U.S. military in recent years seems better at handing out awards than actually bringing wars to successful conclusions a la Bonaparte.