2011 Chase Prize Essay Contest: First Place
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France was, among many things, an observer of the human condition. From his humble beginnings as a lieutenant of artillery he rose to command France’s Grande Armee, and in his many campaigns and years upon years spent at war he became a true master in the art of leading his fellow men. He learned and embraced the concept of martial service as the pinnacle of human endeavor and, in doing so, formed the most feared and successful army of its time in Europe. No small part of his success was his belief that men, when properly motivated, would take extraordinary risks and indeed hazard their very lives. In recognition of such gallantry he began what has been widely regarded as the progenitor of modern military awards and decorations: the presentation of a medal for a soldier’s actions, not as a sinecure based on status, position, or regal heritage. In his own words he saw that “a man will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon,” and being the shrewd and effective leader that he was he used such bits of ribbon as an exceptionally effective tool in creating the army that became the terror of Europe at the turn of the 19th century.
The Marine Corps, hundreds of years later, still uses Napoleon’s basic premise of unbiased recognition in its system of awards and decorations. Although no Marine worth his salt would ever state that he does things for such a reward, he secretly longs to be recognized for those things that he does, whether valorous or not, in the form of a decoration. The military is a truly unique profession in that we wear our resume upon our breast; a glance at a Marine in a Service or dress uniform tells a story of his career that succinctly articulates where he has served and, to a large extent, what he did when he was there. To think that awards and decorations are not important to Marines is to not just ignore the obvious, but also to disregard the most basic elements of motivation and human nature.
Unfortunately the Marine Corps awards system has become so unfocused and bureaucratized that it fails to recognize the gallantry and valor of our Marines and sailors in a timely manner. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, the pinning of an award for heroism on the suit jacket of a former Marine because it took years to approve an award is likewise a disservice. If a Marine were to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, would the Marine Corps wait years to hold him accountable? Of course not, but unfortunately it is now the norm, not the exception, to read a press release about a Marine whose intrepidity resulted in an act of undeniable heroism being recognized years after the event, with the time between the flash of the award and the bang of the medal presentation being directly proportional to the level of the award. While due diligence is certainly an admirable and desirable part of ensuring that a decoration is presented to a deserving individual, it is unconscionable that the time to perform such diligence is measured in years instead of weeks.
It was not always this way. In the days of typewriters and telegraphs Marines were recognized for valor while there was still mud from the fight on their boots, but for some reason in the age of the Internet and instant communications such recognition has become utterly impossible. During World War II, on the island of Guadalcanal, the 1st MarDiv was decisively engaged in the first offensive campaign against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific theater. The first waves crossed the beach on 7 August 1942, and the grinding battle for the island lasted through February of the following year. During the arduous campaign Marines fought, bled, and died as they always have and always will—with tenacity, courage, and aggression. On 30 September 1942, a mere 54 days after crossing the line of departure and landing on the beach, ADM Chester Nimitz, the Commander in Chief, Pacific, flew into the island’s recently seized and newly renamed Henderson Airfield and personally decorated LtCol Evans Carlson (of 2d Raider Battalion fame) and several other Marines with the Navy Cross. Fifty-four days! Presented in the field! How was that possible? How is it that Marines whose courage and heroism were evident decades ago could be recognized in such alacrity when we cannot do the same today?
Sadly, current bureaucracy makes such recognition out of the question. According to the Marine Corps’ improved awards processing system, the current average time to process a Navy Cross is 451 days, and a Silver Star takes over a year. Why so long? Valor is valor and is best judged by those closest to the fight. Unfortunately, the administrative boarding procedure for awards has created such a level of inefficiency that the pace with which awards are reviewed and approved has slowed to glacial. The process for “high-level awards” (including the Silver Star, Navy Cross, and Medal of Honor) begins in the operational theater, ends in Washington, and contains layers of iterative decisionmaking in the form of review along the way, which needlessly delays the ultimate decision.
For example, one proposed Silver Star has been plodding through the system for more than a full year. A Marine performed numerous truly gallant actions during Operation MOSTAREK in Helmand Province during February 2010, and his leaders immediately initiated the process to recognize his gallantry in action. The process began just days after his heroic actions, and as of April 2011, over 13 months later, the recommendation is still languishing in an awards board in Virginia. The award, which was recommended for approval in theater by the commanding general in August 2010, spent the next 7 months being analyzed by board members in a different hemisphere who generated such mind-boggling requests for information as “why weren’t the witness statements notarized?” (there is a noticeable shortage of notary stamps in active combat zones) and “how far did the Marine drag the other wounded Marine while under fire?” (Is there a distance requirement that articulates whether doing something at the risk of one’s own life is considered truly gallant?) While such intriguing and supposedly important questions are answered, time passes and the import of the award diminishes. Distressingly, the amount of time already spent pursuing this particular award is about average. Per the awards website, the average time to approve the Silver Star medal is 379 days.
Sadly, the problem does not reside only with individuals, but with organizational awards as well. In 2006, for the shared service, valor, and sacrifice of the tens of thousands of Marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen who fought as part of II MEF (Forward) (II MEF (Fwd)) the unit was recommended for a Presidential Unit Citation. Unfortunately that recommendation remains just that, a recommendation. Despite the passage of half of a decade and the corresponding departure from active service of countless thousands of those who fought beneath its banner, it still sits in the administrative morass of indecision because of the alleged acts of a miniscule number of Marines in proportion to the tens of thousands who fought within the MEF in Al Anbar. During that same time period, however, Marines who braved no insurgent attacks and were well clear of the combat theater received a Navy Unit Commendation for their collective service on recruiting duty—even though many in their number were relieved for cause and were subject to administrative and legal action. Why is it okay to recognize with a unit award thousands of Marines who don’t fight when it is not okay to recognize tens of thousands who do fight when both groups had a few bad apples? It is capricious and flies in the face of the most basic tenets of leadership that our Marines expect and deserve from those in charge.
What can we do about it? For individual awards, there are actions that the Marine Corps can enact immediately that will result in the timely recognition of valorous acts. Currently the awards system suffers from a self-inflicted logjam for awards that include the combat distinguishing device. Currently each and every award recommendation that contains the “V” device must be boarded at the MEF (Fwd) level, regardless of the level of the award. A Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, which may be awarded by a lieutenant colonel commander, requires a major general’s approval should that award include the Combat “V.” Likewise, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, which may be awarded by a colonel commander must go to the commanding general should a “V” device be recommended. Add these award recommendations to the Bronze Stars, Meritorious Service Medals, and other high-level awards, and the result is an incredible bottleneck in the awards pipeline.
Per the Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual, the authority to award the “V” device may be delegated, and in fact the MEF (Fwd) commanding general is the recipient of such delegated authority. Why stop there? There is certainly an argument that the sanctity of the award must be maintained, but it is unwieldy and unrealistic to levy the responsibility for all such awards to the commanding general; after all, he is responsible for an International Security Assistance Force regional command and is pretty busy fighting the war. Why not delegate the authority to award the Combat “V” to the next higher awarding authority in the chain of command? For example, a battalion commander may award a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, but for it to be awarded with the Combat “V” the regimental commander must concur. Likewise, if a regimental commander wanted to award a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat “V,” he would have to receive the approval of the division (forward) commanding general, and so on up the chain. By allowing subordinate commanders, all of whom are selected by the Commandant and entrusted with the special trust and confidence of the President of the United States, the authority to award the combat distinguishing device it would free up the mountain of awards that are currently jamming the inbox at the MEF (Fwd) headquarters. With such a reduction in award recommendations, the MEF (Fwd) could dedicate more time and resources to the higher level awards, which in turn would greatly reduce the time required for timely approval, and lower level awards could be quickly awarded to Marines while their actions are still fresh and they are still in the fight.
Ultimately, the agencies in Virginia and Washington must likewise accelerate their review and approval process. For higher level awards to languish for months and years is a grave disservice to the Marines and sailors who are doing the fighting, and the urgency should include unit awards as well in order to ensure that the members of units who are deserving of recognition are recognized. The actions of the unit as a whole must be considered as paramount despite the inevitable bad decisions and regrettable actions of some members of the organization. Tens of thousands of American servicemen and women have given their all in combat, and many have given their limbs and lives. To hold their countless honorable actions hostage to the alleged actions of the few is unconscionable and should be corrected—not just for II MEF (Fwd) in Al Anbar 5 years back but for all such awards in the future. Napoleon recognized the importance of recognition over two centuries ago, and our own leaders were able to pin medals on heroes while there was still mud beneath their feet. Why is it that in the 21st century and the age of instant communications we cannot accomplish what our martial predecessors could in the 19th century with quill and ink and in the 20th century with typewriters and telegraphs?
1. All references in this article to the improved awards processing system refer to data downloaded from the website under the section “Average Time to Process Awards,” on 18 April 2011.
2. Secretary of the Navy Instruction 1650.1H, Navy and Marine Corps Awards Manual, Washington, DC, September 2006.
ADM Nimitz presents the Navy Cross on Guadalcanal, 30 September 1942. The award was given during the battle. (Department of Defense photo 50883, U.S. Marine Corps.)
A separated Marine receives the Navy Cross long after his act of gallantry. (U.S. Marine Corps photo 2006413153154.)