Opinion

Relitigating Medal Of Honor Recipients Is A Terrible Idea

Charles Krohn Author, 'The Lost Battalion of Tet'

When Congress directed the Pentagon to review military records of veterans of Jewish and Hispanic descent to see if prejudice kept them from receiving the Medal of Honor — a supposed injustice that was “corrected” by the president last year — it seriously damaged the integrity of the awards system.

The system is judgmental in the first place, and asking one board to review the judgment of earlier boards adds to the distrust. It smacks of political correctness carried one step too far and in the wrong direction, pitting groups against each other.

Why weren’t relook boards asked to see which awards should be downgraded as well as upgraded, the only fair and balanced approach? Truth be told, fairness and balance had nothing to do with it.

Later records of black vets were included in the search for unfairness, although there’s no evidence that any complained that their Distinguished Service Cross was insufficient recognition.

I hold in highest regard those few who have deserved and received the nation’s highest military decoration for valor in combat, “above and beyond the call of duty.” I’m not so sure about those who received the Medal because of political intervention, soiling the process.

Deserve is the operative word, because most who deserve it will never receive it, their valorous acts gone unnoticed in the cauldron of close combat. I can’t imagine anyone who has shared such calamitous experiences challenging this.

Truth be told, all of the recipients I’ve known at various times during my military career bore the honor with humility, adding more to their stature, knowing as we all do, that combat is a team sport.

Falling on a hand grenade to save comrades may not be teamwork but it is team play. I know of no case of anyone falling on a grenade with the sole purpose of self-sacrifice.

The traditional process for presenting the Medal of Honor has recently has been superseded by the establishment of relook boards to determine if otherwise deserving recipients were denied recognition because of their race or religion. It’s called correcting the record.

This leads us into the philosophical. What, precisely, is the allure of the Medal of Honor that makes experts out of fools? For those who receive it in due course, I think there is little allure. It just happens. But those who seek it for themselves—or perhaps on behalf of relatives or friends — what are their motives, besides vanity and glamor?

Perhaps the strangest but most telling explanation comes from an article by Andrew Kornbluth who explains how the Russians manipulate a Western cultural weakness — self-doubt.

“Ironically,” writes Kornbluth, “Russian messaging has worked by exploiting vulnerabilities in precisely those mechanisms of self-criticism and skepticism which are considered so essential to the functioning of a democratic society.” We have fallen into our own trap.

Another motive for seeking the Medal is a belief that argues only the top dog really wins. Only the best counts, whether it be an Academy Award, Olympic Gold,  four stars on the shoulder, green blazer, or the Medal of Honor. The rest may as well be trash.

Once touted as the nation’s most highly decorated living veteran, the late Colonel David Hackworth claimed to have the Medal of Honor “on points.” That’s the only way he could get it. He assigned points to his other awards, and calculated that he had more than any other living person. He even went so far to ask the Army upgrade one of his other awards to the Medal. Fortunately and especially in the eyes of U.S. Army Rangers (Hackworth faked his Ranger Tab award, too), his dubious illegal activities after the heroic event made him ineligible.

Even as a young man in the post-World War II period when the wealthy started returning to Europe on luxurious tours, I recall a popular saying of my parents’ generation, “If I can’t go first class, I’m not going.” The current expression may well be, “If I can’t get the Medal of Honor, I don’t want anything else.”

The president makes no effort to hide his belief that some were denied the Medal for various, unrelated reasons that could be overcome with a careful review of the record, even 50 years after the fact. But I think there’s a high price to be paid second-guessing those who first made the critical decision to award or downgrade. The who receive the Medal as a result of this relook process aren’t to blame, but the importance of their feats is soiled by political interference, regardless.

If boards’ decisions aren’t final, why engage them in the first place? Are awards first approved of less value now when recipients see some groups having their Distinguished Service Cross award upgraded for reasons they deem specious? I suppose most don’t care, but some do. Gaming the system to upgrade medals for political purposes is not only insulting to those accepted their fate for what it is, it is vile. It carries the message, everything is negotiable, even valor.

The greatest award for true heroes is having friends who were there when it happened and know the truth, medals be damned.