In a move that is increasingly unpopular with some of the nation’s military personnel and retired veterans, the Pentagon has decided to award the same campaign medal to those serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. This decision, ultimately taken by politically appointed civilians from the Bush administration, is meant to subtly convey a central—if increasingly controversial—tenet of their worldview: that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the same seamless global military fight against terror.
This unfortunate and politically inspired decision breaks sharply with military tradition and does a disservice to veterans of these two impressive military operations.
The problem is that the nature of the enemy and the rationale for war in Afghanistan on the one hand and Iraq on the other are substantially different, and some suspect that the decision on campaign ribbons is just part of a larger effort to blur these distinctions.
What is more, the decision to give the same recognition for service in two dramatically different regions breaks with a long military tradition of recognizing service in specific campaigns based on geography, not the political rationale or overarching ideology of the struggle. Even during the long twilight conflicts of the Cold War, when the United States was confronting local manifestations of communism, the men and women of our armed forces were recognized for service in specific locales and theaters of operation—not for service as part of a larger global struggle.
The collection of ribbons and medals worn on the left breast of a military uniform tells a unique story of individual service to the country, career achievement and sometimes valor in combat. These awards are easily identified by the initiated and serve as a kind of résumé of past service. They are proudly worn, and there is enormous attention to detail. The burnt orange of the Vietnam service ribbon is readily identified on the generation that served in Southeast Asia, as are the awards for military service of later generations of soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The Bush Pentagon is not denying campaign ribbons to worthy veterans, but it is denying them recognition for their distinctive service and individual accomplishments by merging Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom in the commemorative process. As their names suggest, these were two separate operations in military terms, fought in two theaters against two different enemies with two different sets of military objectives.
Let’s remedy this situation quickly by returning to the age-honored tradition of recognizing and honoring our servicemen and women for their specific service in Afghanistan and Iraq and keep politics out the business of acknowledging service to the nation in times of war.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Kurt Campbell is senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.