How Many Medals?

August 27, 2013, 7:21 pm

MOHThe USA Today points out recently that the number of Medals of Honor in Iraq and Afghanistan seem low by historical comparison:

Critics say 12 Medals of Honor are far too few, given the 2.5 million Americans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts that left nearly 7,000 of them dead and about 50,000 wounded. And it is too few in striking comparison with the 137 awarded for actions in the Korean War, 249 in Vietnam and 467 in World War II, they say. “We feel the number is still low, and we support a DoD (Department of Defense) review to find out why … (and) how we can get true heroes recognized for their service on the battlefield,” says Jay Agg, communication director for the 180,000-member veterans group AmVets.

I’ve weighed in on this before and Bob Gates, when he was Secretary of Defense, seems to have pushed the military to nominate more candidates for the MOH.

The USA Today article emphasizes the length of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and points out the the 12 MOHs given there pale in comparison to the 467 in World War II or the 249 in Vietnam. That’s a fair argument, but not the only one. The fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan have been much lower than the big wars of the 20th century and when looked at by MOHs per 1000 fatalities, Iraq and Afghanistan are not such outliers:

Source: Wikipedia
War Medals of Honor Fatalities MOHs per 1000 fatalities
World War I 119 116516 1.02
World War II 467 405399 1.15
Korea 137 36516 3.75
Vietnam 249 58209 4.28
Desert Storm 0 294 0
Iraq & Afghanistan 12 6717 1.79

Those numbers present a slightly differently look. The rate of MOHs/fatalities for Iraq and Afghanistan looks near that of the world wars, while Korea and Vietnam were substantially higher. So the outlier may be the limited wars of the Cold War, not those of the post 9/11 era.

There is, however, a big flaw in my analysis, which is that medical care for the wounded has improved dramatically since World War II. Many wounded, who would have died in 1914-1918 or 1939-45, survived their wounds in 2002-2013. The raw fatality numbers may thus not be comparable between eras and the ratio derived from them also not comparable.

So let’s try adding in Medals of Honor per 1000 casualties, which reduces the effect of improved medical care. It does not eliminate it, as many fewer soldiers fell ill of disease in later wars than did in the early 20th century, but it’s worth a look:

Source: Wikipedia
War Medals of Honor Fatalities MOHs per 1000 fatalities Casualties MOHs per 1000 casualties Fatalities as % of casualties
World War I 119 116516 1.02 320518 0.37 36%
World War II 467 405399 1.15 1076245 0.43 38%
Korea 137 36516 3.75 128650 1.06 28%
Vietnam 249 58209 4.28 211454 1.18 28%
Desert Storm 0 294 0 1143 0 26%
Iraq & Afghanistan 12 6717 1.79 57614 0.21 12%

That’s interesting. The rate of MOH awards has dropped substantially in the 21st century wars, down to 0.21 per 1000 casualties. That’s lower than any other war (except Desert Storm) and only slightly more than half of the next nearest, World War I. Note also that last column, which shows just how much fatalities have dropped, from 38% of casualties in World War II, all the way down to 12% in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the World War II rate had held into the 21st century, there would likely be somewhere around 22,000 dead in those wars (instead of ~7000). That’s a big difference.

So the rate is dropping, medals and medical both. Why it’s dropping is a much larger question, likely with lots of causes, but worthy of a much deeper investigation than is possible here. It would also require answering the question in the title of this post: how many medals are the right number to give? If the rate now is too low, what is the right rate? That’s not a discussion the United States has had, and it may be too difficult a one to manage.

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