Thursday, September 30, 2004

Medal math that doesn't add up
Owen West, a former Marine officer who now trades on Wall Street, writes in Slate about a big problem in the military today: the tendency to award combat medals disproportionately to officers and senior sergeants. He makes a great argument about how the system is broken, and some ways it ought to be fixed:
The current medal gap actually has three dimensions. First, the different services have different criteria for the same medals. Second, support staff are rewarded more generously than are soldiers on the front lines. Third, officers receive medals that are superior to those given to the enlisted ranks.

Start with the variance among the military branches. The Air Force awarded 2,425 Bronze Stars and 21 Silver Stars from March 2002 to August 2004 for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Twenty-seven airmen were killed in combat during that time, making the Air Force's ratio of top-level ground-combat medals to fatalities 91-to-1. (This figure doesn't include medals awarded for airborne bravery.) As of July 31, 2004, the Army had awarded 17,498 Bronze Stars and 133 Silver Stars in Operation Iraqi Freedom, while 636 soldiers have died, an awards ratio of 27-to-1. And the Marine Corps has awarded just 701 Bronze Stars, 12 Silver Stars, and six Navy Crosses (the Navy's second-highest award) for combat in Iraq, while 264 Marines died—a ratio of less than 3-to-1.

* * *
... even in the Marine Corps, known to have few caste barriers, the officers are disproportionately represented among the top award winners. As of Aug. 18, Marine officers had received nine times as many Bronze Stars as the enlisted Marines (225 times as many on a per capita adjusted basis) and 1.2 times as many earned Bronze Stars with Valor (30 times as many on a per capita basis). "I believe that the awards process has always been biased towards officers," says Maj. Gen. Smith. "Part of that can honestly be explained by the 'burdens of command' consideration. ... That said, I must admit that most of the bias is unexplainable."

This skew occurs in part because officers are expected to lead from the front. In the infantry, command-and-control is most effective when it's located in the dangerous battle space where the lead elements are clashing. Indeed, in the Marine divisions, the commanding general often moves with lead companies. Casualty rates reflect these officers' dangerous positions. Removing air units from the equation, officers account for 4 percent of the total Operation Iraqi Freedom force but 8 percent of the fatalities.

Still, some soldiers criticize the preponderance of awards for officers because it encourages politicking and smacks of careerism.
Analysis: I have seen other statistics to corroborate this argument too. In "Thunder Run", the outstanding book by David Zucchino chronicling 3ID's assault on Baghdad, the author reproduces a list of combat awards from the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. Without diminishing anything that unit's officers did, I found it quite surprising that so few enlisted soldiers were represented among Silver Star recipients — but nearly every battalion and company commander was. The same trend continued through the rest of the awards, including Bronze Star with Valor device, and Bronze Star.

Also, there's a second rank issue within the officer and enlisted ranks themselves. For the Silver Star in this brigade, no awards were given to lieutenants, or anyone below the rank of Staff Sergeant. I find that quite surprising, given the exploits that I read about. However, there were lots of Bronze Stars given out to lieutenants, privates, etc. And I imagine there were a number of Army Commendation and Army Achievement medals given out to the most junior enlisted soldiers too.

This pattern replicates the peacetime structure for these awards that you see anytime a soldier "PCS's" between assignments. A junior soldier will usually receive an Army Achievement Medal or Army Commendation (less often), each respectively approved by a Lt. Colonel or full Colonel. A young lieutenant or sergeant will usually receive an Army Commendation. A mid-level officer or non-com will be awarded a Meritorious Service Medal, and senior officers and sergeants might be awarded something higher depending on the character of their service and whether it's a final award for retirement. This scheme usually applied regardless of the soldier's individual performance — something that led many to view these awards as cheap and barely worth the money they cost at AAFES. The command's justification was that these higher awards should reflect the increasing responsibility of higher rank. But when you looked at some of the tremendous contributions made by junior soldiers — like one young Specialist who single-handedly kept the 1st Brigade TOC computer systems running during a digitized NTC rotation — you've got to scratch your head at an argument like that.

I'd only add one last comment, and it comes from my grandfather, a WWII Navy flier. The difference between a Silver Star and the Medal of Honor, in his opinion, were the literacy and political connections of the officer writing the recommendation. There's still a grain of truth in that statement, unfortunately. But today, we also add rank to the mix, perhaps diluting the integrity of the awards system even more. I agree with Mr. West that we need to change it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A flawed system
Bradley Graham has this report in today's Washington Post on the about-to-be-completed rudimentary missile defense system and the ongoing debate over whether the U.S. should build it. As one of the most expensive procurement programs in history (particularly if you lump in the 1980s expenditures on SDI), a lot of people say that the current missile defense system is failing to... err... hit its targets, either in terms of effectiveness or efficiency. This report details some of the questions which have emerged over the efficacy of the system, and the liberal testing policy of this Pentagon adopted as a way of pushing this program towards completion.