Fighting forces throughout the world have officially recognized bravery within their ranks for centuries. In July 1862, the United States officially began awarding the Medal of Honor to Army personnel (the Navy had their own equivalent beginning in December 1861). While today the Medal of Honor is enshrined in a nearly hallowed status in the military, interestingly, data suggests that this was a change brought about over time. The frequency with which the Medal has been awarded has dropped precipitously over the years and the extremity of the bravery that has been required for its issuance has conversely grown throughout the military history of the United States since the Civil War.
One explanation is that the Medal of Honor was the only medal for valor commissioned during the Civil War. While in modern times a service member might be issued a Silver Star or Distinguished Service Cross, the Medal of Honor was awarded for all of the commendable actions of that terrible conflict. Without adjusting for the number of service members in-theater, the award was given 1,522 times in the Civil War, as compared to 464 times in World War II, 246 times in Vietnam, and only 6 times in the War on Terrorism. Starting after World War II and particularly after the Vietnam War, the Medal of Honor has only awarded moments of bravery that have been near-suicidal—indeed, not one of the eight Medals of Honor awarded since Vietnam have been awarded to a person who survived their meritorious actions.
This has led some people to ask the simple question, why not award the Medal to individuals who survive? Though wars change, it would be a gross misstatement to say that valor no longer exists on today’s battlefields in the same quality and quantity as it did before. This is the subject of a recent New York Times article telling the story of Sergeant Rafael Peralta and his family. Sgt. Peralta, of the U.S. Marine Corps, already shot in the head, shielded his fellow Marines from the blast of a grenade in the last moments of his life. Nominated for the Medal of Honor, after a years-long investigation, Sgt. Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross because it could not be sufficiently shown that his final act was deliberate or incidental.
Though the Medal of Honor is certainly an award that the military wants to be sure it gets right when it is awarded, it is hard for the military’s current practice to be viewed as something other than a dismissal of the current sacrifices the members of our armed forces are making every day across the globe. It is hoped that these men and women will be recognized for the “conspicuous gallantry” that the criteria of the Medal of Honor stipulate and that they demonstrate on a regular basis.