Profiles in Courage

On June 21, 2006, several dozen insurgents ambushed an Army patrol in northeastern Afghanistan.  After radioing for air support, Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti repeatedly braved enemy fire to rescue an injured comrade.  He was mortally wounded during his third attempt.

Today, in a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama presents Sergeant Monti's parents with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.  Sergeant Monti is the second veteran of the war in Afghanistan to be so recognized.  Four Medals of Honor have been awarded to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Why have only six of the over one million men and women deployed in these campaigns received Medals of Honor?  In April, an Army Times article speculated that a politicized Defense Department has prolonged the awards process and introduced criteria unrelated to conspicuous gallantry.

Exhibit A for critics of this process is Sergeant Rafael Peralta.  Recommended for a Medal of Honor by the commandant of the Marines and the secretary of the Navy, Peralta was instead awarded the Navy Cross.  His brief status as an illegal alien, it was rumored, was the reason his nomination for the Medal of Honor was quashed.  Several members of Congress questioned this result, and Representative Duncan Hunter recently proposed an amendment to the 2010 Defense Authorization Act requiring the secretary of defense to investigate whether acts of bravery that merit the highest battlefield decoration are not being properly recognized.

This is unfortunate because in an era of rampant grade inflation -- and out-of-control federal spending -- the Medal of Honor stands out, conspicuously, as an instance in which standards and parsimony have been preserved.  The award was created during the Civil War, and a ragged selection process resulted in several dubious recipients throughout the 19th century.  Among the most controversial Medals of Honor were the twenty awarded after the one-day skirmish with the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890.     

In the early twentieth century, however, the Defense Department scrutinized earlier medals, rescinding hundreds, and implementing methodical protocols to ensure the integrity of the award.  Much like the Vatican's traditional canonization process, which included a devil's advocate (or advocatus diaboli) to gainsay every candidacy for sainthood, the presumption is against issuing the award, and overwhelming evidence is expected to overcome this presumption. 

The consistent application of this stringent test preserved the award's rarity throughout the twentieth century.  Medal of Honor winners made up .0025% of those who fought in World War I (119 of 4.7 million), .0029% of World War II veterans (464 of 16.1 million), .0023% of Korean War veterans (133 of 5.7 million) and .0028% of Vietnam War veterans (246 of 8.7 million).

The incidence of Medal of Honor awards as a percentage of total participants in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is lower than that of twentieth century wars, but these campaigns have been only fractionally as deadly.  Indeed, as a percentage of the 5,100 who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6 Medals of Honor is an almost identical rate of awards as that achieved in World War I and World War II.   

Sergeant Peralta's case illustrates both the difficulty in distinguishing acts of bravery and the care the Defense Department has given to this task.  Sergeant Peralta volunteered for patrols in Fallujah in 2004, and fought honorably in the firefight that took his life.   Yet a question remained as to whether his final act -- scooping a grenade under his body -- was a voluntary one.   Secretary of Defense Robert Gates impaneled five forensic experts, who concluded that Sergeant Peralta sustained an instantly fatal head wound that excluded the possibility of a final volitional act.  Responding to criticism, including from members of Congress, a Pentagon spokesman quoted the regulation governing the Medal of Honor, "There must be no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor."   

After the Vatican streamlined the canonization process in 1983, disbanding the devil's advocate position, more Catholic saints were named in two decades than in the preceding four centuries.  With this experience in mind, Congress should temper its criticism of the Medal of Honor selection process, and instead ask what lessons can be drawn. 

For starters, Congress could treat the taxpayer revenues it is charged with spending the way the Pentagon treats Medals of Honor: as a precious commodity.  Then Congress could install multiple levels of searching internal review for every expenditure, with a devil's advocate preaching miserliness heard and heeded at every step.  The so-called political courage that would be required is but a shadow of the true valor displayed by Sergeants Monti and Peralta.                       

Craig S. Lerner is a professor of law at George Mason University.
On June 21, 2006, several dozen insurgents ambushed an Army patrol in northeastern Afghanistan.  After radioing for air support, Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti repeatedly braved enemy fire to rescue an injured comrade.  He was mortally wounded during his third attempt.

Today, in a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama presents Sergeant Monti's parents with the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration.  Sergeant Monti is the second veteran of the war in Afghanistan to be so recognized.  Four Medals of Honor have been awarded to veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

Why have only six of the over one million men and women deployed in these campaigns received Medals of Honor?  In April, an Army Times article speculated that a politicized Defense Department has prolonged the awards process and introduced criteria unrelated to conspicuous gallantry.

Exhibit A for critics of this process is Sergeant Rafael Peralta.  Recommended for a Medal of Honor by the commandant of the Marines and the secretary of the Navy, Peralta was instead awarded the Navy Cross.  His brief status as an illegal alien, it was rumored, was the reason his nomination for the Medal of Honor was quashed.  Several members of Congress questioned this result, and Representative Duncan Hunter recently proposed an amendment to the 2010 Defense Authorization Act requiring the secretary of defense to investigate whether acts of bravery that merit the highest battlefield decoration are not being properly recognized.

This is unfortunate because in an era of rampant grade inflation -- and out-of-control federal spending -- the Medal of Honor stands out, conspicuously, as an instance in which standards and parsimony have been preserved.  The award was created during the Civil War, and a ragged selection process resulted in several dubious recipients throughout the 19th century.  Among the most controversial Medals of Honor were the twenty awarded after the one-day skirmish with the Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890.     

In the early twentieth century, however, the Defense Department scrutinized earlier medals, rescinding hundreds, and implementing methodical protocols to ensure the integrity of the award.  Much like the Vatican's traditional canonization process, which included a devil's advocate (or advocatus diaboli) to gainsay every candidacy for sainthood, the presumption is against issuing the award, and overwhelming evidence is expected to overcome this presumption. 

The consistent application of this stringent test preserved the award's rarity throughout the twentieth century.  Medal of Honor winners made up .0025% of those who fought in World War I (119 of 4.7 million), .0029% of World War II veterans (464 of 16.1 million), .0023% of Korean War veterans (133 of 5.7 million) and .0028% of Vietnam War veterans (246 of 8.7 million).

The incidence of Medal of Honor awards as a percentage of total participants in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is lower than that of twentieth century wars, but these campaigns have been only fractionally as deadly.  Indeed, as a percentage of the 5,100 who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 6 Medals of Honor is an almost identical rate of awards as that achieved in World War I and World War II.   

Sergeant Peralta's case illustrates both the difficulty in distinguishing acts of bravery and the care the Defense Department has given to this task.  Sergeant Peralta volunteered for patrols in Fallujah in 2004, and fought honorably in the firefight that took his life.   Yet a question remained as to whether his final act -- scooping a grenade under his body -- was a voluntary one.   Secretary of Defense Robert Gates impaneled five forensic experts, who concluded that Sergeant Peralta sustained an instantly fatal head wound that excluded the possibility of a final volitional act.  Responding to criticism, including from members of Congress, a Pentagon spokesman quoted the regulation governing the Medal of Honor, "There must be no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor."   

After the Vatican streamlined the canonization process in 1983, disbanding the devil's advocate position, more Catholic saints were named in two decades than in the preceding four centuries.  With this experience in mind, Congress should temper its criticism of the Medal of Honor selection process, and instead ask what lessons can be drawn. 

For starters, Congress could treat the taxpayer revenues it is charged with spending the way the Pentagon treats Medals of Honor: as a precious commodity.  Then Congress could install multiple levels of searching internal review for every expenditure, with a devil's advocate preaching miserliness heard and heeded at every step.  The so-called political courage that would be required is but a shadow of the true valor displayed by Sergeants Monti and Peralta.                       

Craig S. Lerner is a professor of law at George Mason University.