“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
To frame this discussion, take a look at this picture of a bona fide American military hero: Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Pay particular attention to the right side (your right, his left) of his uniform coat and give me a quick count of his awards. I’ll save you the 0.02 seconds it will take you: it’s six. Those six are the Navy Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) (times three, based on the two gold stars thereon), the Lifesaving Medal, the Army DSM, the WWI Victory Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, and the American Campaign Medal. According to Wikipedia, which is always 100-percent accurate, he would also be entitled to the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the WWII Victory Medal (one would assume that’s accurate), and the National Defense Service Medal. (I think that’s probably inaccurate, based on his retirement date, but who am I to argue with Wikipedia?)
So, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who led the Navy to victory in the central Pacific, who served his country for 40 years, who signed the instrument of surrender in Tokyo Bay, thereby ending the Second-Freaking-World-War, had either ten or eleven medals to summarize his career achievements. In fairness, he also has an aircraft carrier, roads, and the Naval Academy’s library named after him. By the way, Audie Murphy, the war’s most decorated soldier, had about 10 personal awards (separate from service and good conduct awards, and unit awards).
Now, take a look at a modern example.
Before we proceed, let me make one thing clear: I have nothing against the officer whose ribbons are pictured; I cast no aspersions on his/her career, make no accusations about his/her record of service, or about this person’s individual merits. This is a discussion merely about the nature of the awards system in today’s Navy and I’ve used a modern ribbon rack as an example only.
All that said; let’s focus on what we see. Two DSMs, a Defense Superior Service Medal, four Legions of Merit (Legion of Merits?), two Meritorious Service Medals, four Navy Commendation Medals, and three Navy Achievement Medals (NAMs). That’s a grand total of sixteen decorations. We’ll call it quits there, but that’s just the first six ribbons, there are ten more on there, many of them with multiple awards.
And yet, there has been no world war, no massive cross-ocean societal mobilization and campaign to organize, and no struggle to save the nation since Nimitz earned his measly ten awards for his forty year career.
Not explicitly, but by implication, we have consistently eroded the accomplishments of our professional ancestors by cramming a North Korean-esque number of medals on our collective chest over the course of recent decades. After every tour (with some minor exceptions), an officer is awarded a medal, no matter how mundane his service during his tour, no matter what jobs he held.
Sea Story: When I was a midshipman, one of my classmates performed CPR on one of the school’s administrators and saved his life. For his efforts, the young man was awarded a NAM to the thunderous applause of the Brigade of Midshipmen. The sight of one of our own, decorated for service, recognized for his actions, was amazing and inspiring. The NAM seemed to be for us an unattainable goal.
Fast forward ten years, and I have seen more than my fair share of lieutenants awarded the same NAM for exemplary service as the coffee mess officer. This is the same NAM as the one awarded to a sailor who takes on additional duties and assumes leadership of a team to ensure that a crucial project is completed on time. It’s also the same NAM awarded to a sailor who just punches a clock and doesn’t get a DUI for three years.
In researching this story, I searched for the documentation that would allow me to put together a precise timeline for what I believe are the causal factors. Unfortunately, older documents and rules can be tough to find, and pinning down the timeline is going to mostly be a matter of conjecture, unless helpful sleuths can point me in the right direction. But here’s what I know.
The number of available awards has grown considerably over time. During the Big One (the second one), the US had approximately 16 total awards, ranging from the Medal of Honor (MoH) at the top, to the three theater-specific campaign medals. Currently, the Navy has approximately one million available awards, ranging from the MoH down to the pistol qualification ribbon.
Quick aside, for those not familiar, a “medal” is more prestigious than a “ribbon,” and personal awards like the MoH or NAM rank above unit awards, given to whole units (ships, battalions, squadrons, etc.), and service awards, which are earned by being in the military during a time of conflict (e.g., there’s a service award for service in Iraq, one for Vietnam, one for just general times of national defense, whatever that means). (Ir)regardless, the number of all three types (personal, unit, and service) has grown.
During that time , restrictions on the number of awards a commanding officer can award have been lifted, leaving COs the ability to hand out unlimited free NAMs. Couple this with the fact that awards contribute points towards enlisted personnel’s advancement score, and you can see where we’re heading (if you can’t, I’ll spell it out).
Any good CO who cares about his enlisted sailors’ ability to promote will do everything possible to ensure that they will indeed promote. This includes providing opportunities for schools, leadership positions, and good performance evaluations. It also includes conferring awards, since a NAM (for example) is worth two points towards advancement.
Two points doesn’t seem like much, but it can make the difference between one sailor and another. Long ago, some skipper decided that his best sailors would now get their free NAMs, maybe because they deserved it, maybe because the skipper just wanted to give his troops every advantage, probably both. Well, the CO next door saw that his neighbor’s sailors were getting an additional two points, and he wanted his folks to be competitive, so his guys started getting NAMs too. This rippled down the seawall/flight line, and soon every unit’s CO was handing out awards to his sailors to level the playing field.
It sounds crazy, but I’ve literally (literally!) watched it happen in awards boards, where sailors are given awards not based on their service, but based on their time in rank, time in the squadron, and place in the promotion cycle. It was nothing nefarious, nothing underhanded, and nothing conspiratorial, it was just officers trying to ensure that their career-minded sailors had every chance to promote. In other words, it seemed like officers exercising good leadership within the confines of the system.
I suspect (but can’t confirm) that officer awards proceeded along similar lines, and although there are no “points” for officers, a LT with four NAMs looks better on paper than one with two.
But does that make it ok? When we give a NAM to YN2 Schumkatelli for “expertly managing a database of personal information for 350 sailors,” aren’t we just saying “for doing what we asked of him?” (Not to mention that we’re paying him to do it.) The Navy Awards Manual (monster-sized PDF) says that a NAM should be given for actions that “clearly exceed that which is normally required or expected.” Saving the life of a heart attack victim? Sounds good. Coffee mess officer? Not so sure…
At the risk of making it sound like a personal thing, here are two more sea stories.
My father served for 21 years. In that time, he was awarded one (1) NAM, when he was a LCDR, and it was a huge deal. The whole family went, including his mother, who came up from Florida to see her son be decorated for his service. My mother, also a naval officer, was nominated for a NAM and got a poem in a card from her CO instead. The poem read:
If ye win through an African jungle
Unmentioned at home in the Press,
Heed it not: no man seeth the piston,
But it driveth the ship none the less.
It should sound familiar to ring-knockers.
So that attitude has transformed into the world in which we live. One in which I can comfortably fill a job for a couple of years and leave with another “gold star in lieu of,” provided I don’t do anything to get myself, or my CO, fired. Sometime between about the first Gulf War and the present (possibly stretching back into the 80s), the number of awards increased, while the criteria for awarding them was degraded, perhaps in practice, if not in regulation.
“Okay, so what? It’s not a big deal, as long as we’re all getting participation awards, then who cares?”
There are two problems with our awards spending spree, one internal, one external.
The internal problem is backwards looking. The aforementioned Audie Murphy earned a Bronze Star for leading an attack on a German tank at Anzio, and then later single-handedly destroying the tank hulk while under fire to help the Allied advance. Pretty impressive stuff.
Meanwhile, for example, personnel in recent conflicts (in order to avoid singling anyone out, no link provided) have been given the same award for “single-handedly [developing] all the intelligence products for the battalion.” This citation is for an Army intelligence specialist, whose job description probably includes the phrase: “develop all the intelligence products for the battalion.”
What this evolution does is cheapen an award meant for “acts or services… performed in a manner significantly above that normally expected, and sufficient to distinguish the individual above those performing similar acts or services.” Does that standard apply to an intelligence specialist whose award citation includes a basic description of exactly what the military expects of him? Are these accomplishments really on par with the single-handed destruction of a German tank under fire on a hostile shore?
Search your heart; you know the answer.
Less dramatic examples abound. Does the NAM given to an officer after a three-year tour really equal that given to a sailor after an eight-month cruise? Does the NAM given to a sailor who takes charge of an important project and runs it to completion equal that given to the officer who just does his job for three years? On a bus ride through Kandahar air field, I once heard two admin-specialty soldiers discussing what awards they would get upon their return home in front of a couple of infantry soldiers who were in Kandahar on R&R. Let the tragedy of that statement sink in.
The 2015 lieutenant with four NAMs cheapens the 1989 LT with zero, implying that service in 2015 was more valuable by virtue of the decorations awarded. Likewise, the 2015 Bronze Star for avoiding paper cuts on a NATO airfield complete with its own Dutch milkshake stand (run by pretty, blonde, Dutch twenty-somethings) cheapens the one awarded to the twenty-something infantry sergeant who braves hostile fire to complete a life-or-death mission.
This leads in to the second problem with the awards culture. Awarding ourselves all of these ribbons and medals inflates the public perception of the military. I mean, look at our leadership, they have so many decorations, they must have singlehandedly wrestled Saddam into submission! They must have exploits that rival whichever SEAL is currently claiming to have killed bin Laden! That Air Medal must have been earned on a low-level ingress over Damascus under hostile fire and definitely not by flying over Afghanistan twenty uneventful times.
Civilians are generally ignorant about awards, but they know that the MoH is an almost-holy relic in our culture, bestowed upon fewer and fewer people. The leap of logic from “Medal of Honor” to just “medal,” is not far, lending even the most mundane award an absurd gravitas in civilian consciousness.
I’m not going to say that this creates an entitlement mindset and sense of Spartan superiority, a super-decorated, everyone-gets-a-trophy, entitled-to-an-award military, but if you want to draw that conclusion on your own, I won’t stop you.
The American public trusts us to an incredible degree, and they take us at face value. If you wear a rack full of ribbons in front of a civilian, they are going to assume that you are a genuine war hero. Which, I’m willing to bet, you aren’t (which is okay, most of us aren’t). Our awards-happy culture dupes civilians into thinking that we’re all Audie Murphy, that our accomplishments set us above and beyond those of the mere mortals who work in retail or investment banking or whatever “consulting” is.
So what’s the fix (because, as I’ve said before, I’m a solutions guy)?
- Unlink awards from advancement points. The award itself is the reward. You don’t get an award to get a leg up on the competition. You get an award as a free-standing recognition of your meritorious service. Extra credit for awards effectively nullifies the benefit, as every skipper worth his salt will ensure that his best sailors get an award no matter what.
- Impose quotas on the number and type of awards a CO can award. If a skipper has to think critically while awarding a finite number of medals, those decorations will be judiciously meted out to those that deserve it most. Those who have “clearly [exceeded] that which is normally required or expected” get the award. Those that fill a space in the unit do not.
- Recalibrate your idea of what earns an award. This is the Navy. We expect maximum effort from ourselves and our sailors all the time. No one “deserves” an award just by virtue of showing up. An award is a symbol of recognition for your work, bestowed by the citizens of our country. If you think John Q. Public would be impressed that you “expertly maintained a positive balance of the squadron’s coffee mess account,” you may have an over-inflated idea of your own importance.
- Wear the awards you’ve earned. Yes, maybe you got a NAM for maintaining a heartbeat for three years. Maybe you got a Bronze Star for setting up your unit’s computer network in your headquarters in Bagram. Maybe you got an Air Medal for twenty uneventful flights to and from various tankers in Afghanistan. And maybe that seems insane (and it is), but they are still awards bestowed by your country in recognition of your service under the rules established by the Navy. Ridiculous or not, you earned them under the rules that govern our awards, they are part of your uniform, wear them with pride. If your service authorizes you to wear some ribbons and skip others, maybe that’s not a bad idea; it’ll keep you from looking like a Commissar General and will save you money! Just remember…
- Be humble. You are not Audie Murphy. Or Michael Murphy. Or Dakota Meyer. You are probably not even Dakota Fanning. You went were you were told to go, did what you were told to do, and maybe worked harder than you thought you would have to work. Maybe you got a medal. Maybe not. You driveth the ship none the less. Your efforts probably were vital to the unit’s success. But you are not a special snowflake. The next guy with your job will also be vital to the continued success of that unit. Your satisfaction should derive from a job well done, not by whether or not you see your name in lights. And if you do stand at attention in front of the wardroom, remember, you are not a hero. The public will see your chest of ribbons and assume that you’re Superman. You are not. Very few are. Having a medal that says you are doesn’t make it true.
- Revamp the awards process. There is currently a DoD-wide review of the awards process. My input to those involved: commonly-given awards must become more selective and the criteria must be more strictly adhered to. Or, here’s a novel idea in the history of the military: get rid of some. There is a ribbon given to Navy personnel for deploying on a ship. Think about that. That is literally the definition of what a Navy does. Why in the world do we give out an award for that? There are awards for distinguished service, meritorious service, superior service, and joint service. There are ribbons for recruiting duty, reserve duty, sea service, recruit training, ceremonial guard service, and completing basic training (it is an actual participation award for just being in the military, the Air Force and Army specifically). The Navy, while trying to maintain a patina of respectability, has just created a ribbon for the Boot Camp honor grad. I think anyone who’s been in the military for longer than six months can see how much being Boot Camp honor grad gets you (spoiler alert, moms and dads of young sailors: it’s nothing, you earn your reputation on the job).
Nothing you are doing is unique or special. It has been done before, it will be done again. You don’t need a trophy, just do your job. Those in charge of this review need to think extra hard about scrapping many of these awards. I’d be happy to see the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, the shooter qualification ribbons, and even the NAM and the Navy Commendation Medal just fade into the night and the whole concept of the “end of tour” award go away. Your end of tour award is whether or not you get the orders you want. If you don’t get those orders, guess what? You could have done better. (Millennials, that doesn’t mean you’re worthless, please don’t be offended.)
Unfortunately, the prospect of idea number 6 happening is slim. When we have a flag billet for the “Office of the 21st Century sailor” (a title that encompasses literally every person currently in the Navy), it’s clear that our goal is not slimming down, but adding to the list of plaudits we give ourselves. I said it as a joke earlier, but the risk of making ourselves resemble a reviewing stand of Communist officers becomes ever more likely.
Napoleon knew that the proper allocation of “a bit of colored ribbon” would inspire his Grande Armée to conquer the world for him. But when that colored ribbon becomes as common as the uniform it adorns, it cheapens the heroics of the past, inflates the egos of the present, and ensures that future service members will resemble cartoonish caricatures, becoming ever more decorated for accomplishments that are ever more mundane.
Graham Scarbro is a reasonably-likeable, French-speaking, baseball fan. His views are his own and do not represent official U.S. Navy, DoD, or government policy… Yet.