Medal Inflation

23:51 Fri 05 Oct 2007. Updated: 01:12 06 Oct 2007
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It appears that the amount of medals worn by generals in the US military, and possibly in many other military organizations as well, may be negatively correlated with real military success. That is, the more medals worn, the less actual military success. Most of these examples are from this TomDispatch article.

The main contrast is between US generals who commanded in World War II—such as Patton, Eisenhower, and Marshall—and the generals involved in the attacks on Vietnam and Iraq: Westmoreland, Pace, and Petraeus.

Maybe these are just carefully-chosen images, but I think there’s something to it. It looks like a classic compensation strategy. For non-American comparisons, you could try Rommel versus Brezhnev.

Perhaps Brezhnev gets off the hook for cultural reasons, however, because Zhukov is shown here with a truly nutty number of medals and was undeniably an excellent and highly-successful commander.

In any case, it should be clear that many medals are a sign of little other than either political connections or simple participation (again, the explanation of Petraeus’ medals should demonstrate this clearly). One would always like to believe that the really coveted medals are given out only to those who are truly believed to deserve them, but I suspect that hasn’t been true for years.

Is it simple compensation for poor actual performance in a highly-politicized environment where everyone involved wants to call everything a success? Is it merely a fashion fad that will swing back towards minimalism? Or does it point out that the US military is beginning to resemble those of banana republics (in terms of culture at the top, of course—in terms of expenditure, nowhere else comes close)?

4 Responses to “Medal Inflation”

  1. Lev Says:

    A delightful mediation, Tadhg. A very astute observation about the inverse relationship between military success and medal-wearing. However, one example you point out belies your case— General Zhukov’s nutty metal count is surely deserved, as he was the most successful and dynamic Soviet commander during World War II, truly the Eisenhower of his nation. His Wikipedia entry acidly notes that only Leonid Brezhnev (laughable symbol of late Soviet decadence) had as many Hero of the Soviet Union medals. Moreover, leave General Petraeus alone!

  2. Lev Says:

    er…. medidation, not mediation. I need some medication.

  3. Lev Says:

    man oh boy…. meditation. meditation. meditation.

  4. Tadhg Says:

    Lev: You’re right about Zhukhov, I guess I didn’t make clear enough in my post the fact that he most likely deserved all of those medals, and that I thought that perhaps his medal display indicated that Russian military culture didn’t have the same inverse relationship between medals and achievement that seems to have developed in the US.

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