Awards, Decorations, and Honors

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Awards, Decorations, and Honors. One of the oldest traditions in the profession of arms is the recognition of heroic feats of arms against an armed enemy. The ancient Greeks awarded crowns, the Romans torques and decorative discs. This ancient tradition is carried on in the U.S. awards and decorations system, which includes six medals that recognize heroism on the field of battle. To these are added two other types of awards, one recognizing meritorious service that is a response to the importance of administrative and logistical efficiency in modern warfare; the other recognizing participation in campaigns and completion of overseas tours.

The American system of decorations began in 1782, when George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit to recognize “instances of unusual gallantry” as well as “extraordinary fidelity” and “essential service.” The actual decoration was a heart‐shaped piece of purple cloth that was sewn to the recipient's uniform coat. Largely forgotten after the Revolutionary War, this decoration was revived by the War Department as the Purple Heart in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's Birthday. In its new form, this decoration recognizes military personnel wounded or killed in combat and does not in itself constitute an award for heroic action.

America's highest award for gallantry, the Medal of Honor (often mistakenly called the Congressional Medal of Honor), was established during the Civil War. Originally, it was used to recognize both gallantry in combat and meritorious performance, but by the end of the nineteenth century the standard for awarding this medal had become “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”

During World War I, two more decorations for heroism were added. The Distinguished Service Cross (Army), the Navy Cross, and the Air Force Cross (added in 1960) all recognize bravery that falls short of that required for the Medal of Honor. The second medal, the Silver Star, is awarded by all service for gallantry that is less noteworthy than that required for a service cross.

Finally, there are three other decorations that recognize varying degrees of gallantry in combat: the Distinguished Flying Cross (authorized by Congress in 1926); the Bronze Star (authorized by executive order in 1944); and the Air Medal (established by executive order in 1942). All three of these medals may also be used to recognize outstanding service or special achievements that do not necessarily entail bravery in the face of an armed enemy. When the Bronze Star is awarded for heroic action, it is worn with a small bronze “V” device that stands for valor. Without the V, the Bronze Star recognizes meritorious service in support of combat operations. Multiple awards of all decorations are indicated through a system of small metallic oak clusters and stars that are affixed to medals.

In addition to medals recognizing heroism in combat, each service has a decoration for heroism and risk of life outside of combat: the Soldier's Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and the Airman's Medal.

Modern combat units became increasingly dependent upon support forces, whose personnel came to outnumber those in combat commands by nearly ten to one. Moreover, throughout the Cold War, crews manning strategic weapons systems endured long hours on alert or patrol with virtually no opportunity to perform a heroic feat of arms. The need to recognize the contributions of personnel serving in noncombat roles gave rise to a second set of military decorations.

The highest‐ranking award in this second set is the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, bestowed by the secretary of defense. Just below this decoration are the Army Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) and the Navy DSM, established by Congress in 1918 and 1919, respectively; an air force version was added in 1960. These medals call for “specially meritorious service to the Government in a duty of great responsibility.” Rounding out this set of awards are several other Department of Defense decorations and military service medals that recognize lower levels of achievement and meritorious service. Finally, the Air Force Combat Readiness Medal was established to recognize the sacrifice of service members who spent much, if not all, of their professional careers in roles related to deterring nuclear war.

The expansion of U.S. overseas service requirements was accompanied by a steady rise in the number of decorations recognizing such factors as participation in a campaign and completion of an overseas deployment, even in peacetime. This began in 1898, when the Dewey Medal was authorized for those who participated in the Battle of Manila Bay. Another form of participatory award is the unit citation, which recognizes those who serve in a unit that accomplished its mission in a superior manner. An example of this type of award is the Presidential Unit Citation.

Medals are usually worn only on ceremonial occasions. For routine, daily wear, each medal comes with a small oblong swatch that matches the pattern of the suspension ribbon.

Napoleon's comment to the effect that soldiers will risk their lives for a little piece of colored ribbon indicates the extreme importance the military attaches to its decorations for combat heroism. However, the criteria for awarding medals are highly subjective. Controversies relating to U.S. military decorations can be traced back as far as the Civil War, when the Medal of Honor was awarded under questionable circumstances on several occasions. During World War II, the number of decorations awarded raised serious questions about the significance of medals. In the course of this war, the army (which still included the Army Air Forces, AAF) gave out a total of 1,800,739 medals. Of these, 1,314,000, or 73 percent, went to personnel of the AAF although they accounted for only 28 percent of the total personnel strength of the army. Similar problems have occurred right down to the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

As the ratio of support forces to combat forces increased dramatically in the twentieth century, new awards to recognize and motivate support personnel proliferated, skewing the awards and decorations system toward meritorious service and mere participation in military activities. By the mid‐1990s, the situation had reached the point where medals recognizing heroic combat service were often lost among the multiple rows of ribbons worn by virtually every career member of the armed services, the vast majority of whom had never been subjected to enemy fire. The U.S. awards and decorations system had yielded much of its traditional function of recognizing those who demonstrated extraordinary courage in combat.
[See also Commemoration and Public Ritual; Ideals, Military; Insignia; Uniforms.]


Robert E. Wyllie , Orders, Decorations and Insignia, Military and Civil, 1921.
Robert Werlich , Orders and Decorations of All Nations: Ancient and Modern; Civilian and Military, 1964.
Evans E. Kerrigan , American War Medals and Decorations, 1990.

Donald Baucom