Do The Missing Medals Matter?

The White House recently announced medically-retired Marine Corporal Kyle Carpenter will be the 15th veteran of the War on Terror – and only the eighth living one – to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan in November 2010. Grievously injured by the blast of a Taliban grenade he smothered to protect the life of a fellow Marine, Corporal Carpenter is most worthy of the Nation’s highest award for valor.

While we honor one Marine’s act of supreme courage, it is appropriate to ask whether the

The Nation's top medal for valor has been awarded 15 times during the War on Terror - far less than in previous major conflicts.

The Nation’s top medal for valor has been awarded 15 times during the War on Terror – far less than in previous major conflicts.

courage of other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan has been overlooked or taken for granted. Nearly thirteen years after opening hostilities — and approximately 55,000 physical casualties — the incidence of approval for the top three valor awards (the Medal of Honor, Service Crosses, and the Silver Star Medal) for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan, is dramatically below the rate from previous conflicts [See Table 1].

Where are the missing medals?

Table 1: Top 3 Valor Awards Approved by Conflict

Inherent in that question is the assumption that something as apparently subjective as courage under fire can be measured and compared across different times and very different environments to arrive at a reasonable rate of exchange between combat and courage. Can it be so measured? I suggest one approach to quantify courage.

Quantifying Courage

Observe Purple Hearts awarded for combat killed and wounded as a proxy for the incidence of enemy contact; then use valor awards as a proxy for the incidence of courageous action against a determined enemy.

As records for valor awards below the Silver Star are not readily available, we will assume lesser awards for valor will follow similar patterns to any we might find in the top three awards. Equally, enemy action that did not result in casualties will probably follow recognizable patterns. Note: This methodology excludes Air Force data as the Air Force did not exist as a separate branch until 1947; Army Air Force data was retained for World War II. This is not intended to diminish the courage of many hundreds of Airmen after World War II, but it does help to unify the data across 70 years of conflict.

Patterns of Valor in the Iconic Wars of the Mid Twentieth Century

When the methodology described above is applied to the data in Table 1 for long-duration conflicts (>1 year in length) in the twentieth century, we see the following results.

Average Number of Casualties per Award in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

Average Number of Casualties per Award in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

The charts yield some interesting data points. For World War II and the Korean War, Service Crosses were awarded at about the same rate and Silver Stars were awarded at precisely the same rate. For those who might suggest that courage under fire is without pattern or predictability, this remarkable congruence from war to war would seem to indicate to the contrary.

The Medal of Honor was awarded at twice the rate (remember, this is based on number of casualties per award, so twice the rate equals half the casualties) in Korea as it was in World War II, which is probably best explained by the unusually desperate position of the undermanned, underequipped US forces during the opening months in Korea, followed by

A Marine shows the strain during bitterly cold weather during the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.

A Marine shows the strain during bitterly cold weather during the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in November and December 1950.

the surprise intervention of Chinese armies at the Yalu River and subsequent “human wave” attacks that literally overran and annihilated entire US units. The higher rate of award in Korea makes sense when the percentage of posthumous (awarded to deceased recipients) Medals of Honor in Korea (73%) is compared to the percentage of posthumous awards in World War II (54%). In fact, only Medal of Honor winners from the war in Iraq have had a higher mortality rate (100%) than did the recipients from the Korean War (more on this later).

With the exception noted above, why did courage look the same in Korea as it did in World War II? At the risk of oversimplifying, we see broad similarities between the combat in both wars: conventionally armed and equipped forces, engaged in wars of territorial conquest or defense against a uniformed enemy operating distinctly from the civilian population (this is not to say large numbers of civilians were not killed during these wars, but civilians generally did not play an active belligerent role on the battlefield.) Largely absent from both wars were substantial unconventional forces ranged against the US military.

In summary, when the American fighting man of the mid twentieth century fought a uniformed enemy in open battle, he was recognized for valor at a generally predictable rate.

Changes to the Pattern: Vietnam

The war in Vietnam introduced a change in the nature of conflict and a slight change in the pattern of valor awards. For the first time, US service members confronted not just conventional enemy forces, but a wide scale, long duration insurgency as well. In Vietnam, the Medal of Honor was awarded at a rate almost exactly between the World War II and Korean War rates, with a posthumous rate (63%) also almost exactly between the rates for

A soldier guides in a medevac helicopter in this iconic photo from the Vietnam War captured by Art Greenspon in 1968.

A soldier guides in a medevac helicopter in this iconic photo from the Vietnam War captured by Art Greenspon in 1968.

the preceding conflicts. Given the desperate nature of jungle fighting by isolated US units cut off from immediate support (and a small arms casualty rate that was nearly four times the rate of fatalities caused by artillery and mortar shells – a complete reversal of the proportion of fatalities caused by artillery and small arms in World War II and Korea) the rate of award for the Medal of Honor in line with historical precedent seems to make sense.

Service Crosses, paradoxically, were awarded at about half the rate in Vietnam as they were in previous conflicts. (Silver Stars, unfortunately, were not accurately recorded for the war and are therefore not included in this study.) I am unaware of an official reason for the change in rate of Service Cross awards. Although nearly 7,500 (16%) of US combat fatalities in Vietnam were caused by land mines and what we now call Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – which eliminate the ability to fight back and therefore might be expected to reduce the incidence of valor awards by about 16% – this rationale would apply equally to the Medal of Honor and it is not obvious from the data that such a blanket comparison holds true. For now, we will note without explanation the increase in casualties for each Service Cross awarded in Vietnam.

Combat Valor in the War on Terror

In our examination of the rate of valor medals awarded across the three major US conflicts after World War I, we see a recognizable pattern for the Medal of Honor, a complete congruence (where the data is available) for Silver Stars, and an indication that Service Crosses might have trended upward in the cost of blood for each award after Korea. Do these patterns and trends hold true for Afghanistan and Iraq? Let’s add the data from Table 1 for Afghanistan and Iraq to our previous charts for World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Casualties Per Valor Award in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Average Number of Casualties Per Award in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

When viewed against historical trends, the data from Iraq and Afghanistan presents an astounding disparity between enemy contact and American combat valor. Service Crosses have been awarded at a rate 5 times less in Afghanistan and nearly 10 times less in Iraq than in World War II. Even when viewed against the award rate for Vietnam, Afghanistan veterans were half as likely to win a Service Cross and Iraq veterans were nearly 5 times less likely to be so awarded. Similarly, Silver Stars have been awarded at a rate five to eight times less than in World War II or Korea.

Cultural and Structural Reasons Can’t Fully Explain the Missing Medals

What happened in the 25 years between Vietnam and the War on Terror to cause such an enormous change in the incidence of combat valor compared to casualties? Examining the data side by side from Iraq and Afghanistan helps mitigate the temptation to overweight cultural and structural factors that might have partially contributed to the dramatic change.

For example, it is tempting to consider the post-Vietnam, All-Volunteer Force so well trained, led, and motivated that it rarely finds itself in extremis situations in combat, as did previous generations of US military draftees. No doubt, the extraordinarily trained and equipped US military that fought in Iraq and continues to fight in Afghanistan, has reduced from previous wars the incidence of desperate combat situations and by extension, reduced the opportunities to earn a top valor award. But if this reason could stand alone, there should be no substantial difference in the rate of valor awards between Iraq and Afghanistan. The data indicates otherwise.

Or, perhaps a professional military expects valor from its troops and so rewards acts of valor less frequently today than it did during the draft era. Anecdotal evidence of the internal military awards process suggests that many combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have, in fact, been denied valor awards because senior staff noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers chalked up battlefield exploits to an infantryman “just doing his job.” But the disparity between the rate of award in Iraq and Afghanistan (where, it should be noted, the same service members and units often served during separate combat rotations) demands a more nuanced explanation.

Hard Fighting in Afghanistan, Hard Targeting in Iraq

Why was a combat veteran of Iraq half as likely to win a Service Cross as his comrade in Afghanistan and four times less likely to win a Medal of Honor – this, despite Iraq veterans suffering 67% more casualties than veterans of Afghanistan? Why the enormous disparity between casualties and courage across two theaters of operation in the same war?

There is no perfect answer, but a reasonable theory relates to what we already discussed in relation to Vietnam: the ability to fight back when attacked. No matter how well trained, motivated, or courageous, infantrymen cannot fight against what they cannot see. Enemy contact in Iraq after April 2003 was nearly always in the form of insurgent activity and usually masked by a civilian population within cities and towns along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, while certainly subject to many of the same challenges associated with the insurgency in Iraq, was different in two important ways: enemy tactics and geography. The Taliban is an enemy who will stand and fight, sometimes in well-

Soldiers return fire from a mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Note the Taliban had the high ground.

Soldiers return fire from a mountain outpost in Afghanistan. Note the Taliban had the high ground.

organized units of company strength, against isolated American outposts in the maze of mountain strongholds and compartmentalized river valleys that comprise much of the Taliban heartland. The challenging geography and high altitude of much of Afghanistan has meant delays of sometimes days to reinforce or provide air support to besieged American units. As such, infantrymen in Afghanistan have been able to fight against an enemy who fights back, much more often than their comrades in Iraq.

Conversely, no unit of platoon-size or greater in Iraq of which I am aware, was ever subject to siege, ambush, or gunfight, without the possibility of immediate ground reinforcement and Close Air Support. Iraqi insurgents knew this and so limited their attacks – with few

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

Marines with 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines patrol past the location where two Marines were killed by an IED just days before. Over the course of 2 weeks, six Marines and soldiers were killed within 200 yards of the mosque in the background. East Bidimnah, Iraq 2006

exceptions – to hit and run incidents, IED emplacement, sniper attacks, and suicide bombers*. Casualties in Iraq from these less martial but no less deadly techniques multiplied over the long years without a corresponding ability for infantrymen to fight back. The inevitable and discomfiting sense, for many Iraq veterans, was instead of being a predator they felt like a target.

Misuse of Conventional Forces to Fight an Insurgency

The missing medals matter because they show more clearly than anything else the misapplication of conventional US forces to fight an insurgency. The US military was badly used in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, in Afghanistan. It’s not necessarily that the wrong tool was used, but that the right tool was used in the wrong way.

Think of picking up a hammer and turning it on its side before pounding home a nail. The exercise is possible, but the hammer head will receive deep scratches and the wood around the nail will splinter and mar. The damage is largely avoidable by using the tool as intended.

How does this relate to the War on Terror? Some elements of the US military are better suited to fight a counterinsurgency than others. When those elements (Special Operations, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations units, among others)are overwhelmed or the scope of the insurgency is too large or when US government civil and political efforts with the host nation lack effectiveness, conventional forces are used to fill the gaps in capability. This may be appropriate, or, more accurately, unavoidable, for reasonable lengths of time until strategy can be adjusted or forces reallocated or capabilities developed. But that never happened in Iraq. For eight years, nails were pounded with the sides of hammers, which were eventually discarded as they lost their usefulness or became damaged beyond repair.

Now, our country is struggling to come to grips with sustained, post-9/11 veteran unemployment and possibly higher incidences of Post-Traumatic Stress and cognitive injuries like Traumatic Brain Injury than in previous conflicts. When looking at a combat veteran who felt like a target for months and years and saw his brothers and sisters sacrificed without a corresponding effect on the enemy, should we be surprised when he struggles to reintegrate into a society that so enthusiastically swung the hammer – or at least stood to the side acquiescently and watched the tool misused? The cultural chasm between the professional military and a non-serving society must surely have widened during the past 13 years. The situation is not hopeless, but it will take some determined effort to improve.

Further, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that an enemy who was able to inflict such heavy casualties on the American military in Iraq — without corresponding casualties to its own insurgents — was winning. In the absence of the Al-Anbar Awakening, it is doubtful that we could have left Iraq under any reasonable premise of success. In other words, the US military did not win in Iraq, it simply avoided losing until internal Iraqi structures of power and authority gained sufficiency, with no small help from the historical animus between rival sectarian religious groups. As Marine Major Owen West explains in his book on US military advisors in Al Anbar, The Snake Eaters, the focus of the Iraq war after April 2003 should have been to build Iraqi capability, but this was rarely the case. As US military units struggled to fight an invisible enemy, casualties mounted with very little progress to show.


The missing medals show a failure in policy across political administrations and varying military leaders, a failure that I am not convinced has been adequately addressed and certainly not satisfactorily resolved. In 25 years, do we wish to add data from another conflict to the preceding charts and remark on the continuing trend of massive bloodletting and dwindling opportunity for action against an identified enemy?

This trend, if not reversed through careful consideration of military force structuring and a new theory on the proper application of force to achieve foreign policy– especially in today’s asymmetric and increasingly complex world – is likely to impact recruitment and retention in a nation whose eligible and interested military prospects continue to diminish.

Do the missing medals matter? In a world full of nails, ask a broken hammer.


*While the cause of causalities is not publicly available for Iraq, anecdotal evidence from Third Battalion Second Marines (3/2) during its two deployments to Anbar Province spanning 2005, 2006 and 2007, supports the theory that only a minority of casualties were sustained during actual gunfights with the enemy. Out of 17 Marines killed in the battalion, only 2 were killed during firefights. The remaining 15 Marines were killed by mines, IEDs, suicide bombers, and snipers, with not a single enemy target identified to return fire or capture.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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2 Responses to Do The Missing Medals Matter?

  1. Jerry Welsh says:

    As usual a well written piece. I hear so many stories, albeit shortened and not bragging, about incidents especially with senior retiring NCO’s about injuries that will need to be taken care of upon retirement-that were directly related to the 3-4 deployments; you know there probably is at least a Bronze Star in many. As our local group is putting the finishing touches on the local Veteran Memorial Park, the two KIAs in our small community were 1) killed AFTER a very dangerous completed mission with Army special forces by a roadside bomb and 2) a Marine killed by enemy sniper fire. The Special Forces family just made a large donation(money given to the family by the community) for this memorial park. As a recent article by his dad stated, Nick died defending our freedom, but the manner in which he died was a cowardly act of terrorism versus what he trained for engaging an enemy.

  2. Tom Miller says:

    Thanks for a well written, well thought out, and well documented article. Thanks also for your service.

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