Sunday, July 12, 2009
On this day in 1862 the Medal of Honor, highest military decoration awarded by the United States government, was first authorized by the U.S. Congress.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States government. It is bestowed on a member of the United States armed forces who distinguishes him- or herself "conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his (or her) life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States." Because of the nature of its criteria, the medal is often awarded posthumously.
The Medal is often mistakenly referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, due to the requirement of an act of Congress; the official and correct title is Medal of Honor.
The first recipients were six Union soldiers who hijacked the General, a Confederate locomotive. Raid leader James J. Andrews, a civilian who was hanged as a Union spy, did not receive the medal. Many Medals of Honor awarded in the 19th century were associated with saving the flag, not just for patriotic reasons, but because the flag was a primary means of battlefield communication. During the time of the Civil War, no other military award was authorized, and to many this explains why some seemingly less notable actions were recognized by the Medal of Honor during that war. The criteria for the award tightened after World War I. In the post-World War II era, many eligible recipients might instead have been awarded a Silver Star, Navy Cross or similar award.
In 1916, a board of five Army generals convened by law to review every Army Medal of Honor awarded. The commission, led by Nelson Miles, recommended that the Army rescind 911 medals. This included the 864 medals awarded to members of the 27th Maine, 29 who served as Abraham Lincoln's funeral guard, six civilians (including Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman to have been awarded the medal), Buffalo Bill Cody, and 12 others whose awards were judged frivolous.
There has been some political controversy associated with Medal. Although her case was no different to the other five civilian recipients, Mary Edwards Walker's medal was restored posthumously by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Critics of the restoration called it a political move, designed to curry favor with feminists. Buffalo Bill Cody's award was restored in 1989. This also drew criticism, as although his valor in scouting and Indian-fighting were legendary, he was not an actual member of the military.
The 20 Medals of Honor awarded for the action at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 are also controversial. This is significant, as it is the highest number of medals ever awarded for one battle in the history of the U.S. Army. Some Native Americans called for "the immediate rescindment of the twenty Medals of Honor awarded for actions contributing to the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
During the Vietnam War, 18 Medals of Honor were awarded to US Army Special Forces soldiers, eight of them awarded posthumously. This was the largest number of Medals awarded to a single unit during that conflict. Of those, Captain Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace (July 2, 1937–September 26, 1965) was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroic actions while a prisoner of war; he was the first member of the U.S. Army to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions performed in Southeast Asia while in captivity.
The Medal of Honor has not been awarded to any living persons in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, only posthumously. In addition, the percentage of persons receiving the medal in these wars has been significantly lower than in previous wars (one out of a million vs. one out of one-hundred thousand).
The Army Times published an article in March 30, 2009 suggested that because of the intense partisan politics in Washington, D.C. over these wars, the Bush Administration subjected potential Medal of Honor recipients to intense background checks so as to avoid scrutiny from political opponents. It was also suggested that Democrats did not want to submit names for the Medal because they were afraid of being seen as aggrandizing war. An Army Times editorial suggested, "Our heroes deserve to be recognized."