The Medal of Honor

The Evolution of America's Highest Military Decoration

Dwight S. Mears

The Medal of Honor may be America’s highest military decoration, but all Medals of Honor are not created equal. The medal has in fact consisted of several distinct decorations at various times and has involved a number of competing statutes and policies that rewarded different types of heroism. In this book, the first comprehensive look at the medal’s historical, legal, and policy underpinnings, Dwight S. Mears charts the complex evolution of these developments and differences over time.

The Medal of Honor has had different qualification thresholds at different times, and indeed three separate versions—one for the army and two for the navy—existed contemporaneously between World Wars I and II. Mears traces these versions back to the medal’s inception during the Civil War and continues through the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—along the way describing representative medal actions for all major conflicts and services as well as legislative and policy changes contemporary to each period. He gives particular attention to retroactive army awards for the Civil War; World War I legislation that modernized and expanded the army’s statutory award authorization; the navy’s grappling with both a combat and noncombat Medal of Honor through much of the twentieth century; the Vietnam-era act that ended noncombat awards and largely standardized the Medal of Honor among all services; and the perceived decline of Medals of Honor awarded in the ongoing Global War on Terror.

“Impressively documented with primary source material, this book is a significant addition to the historiography of the Medal of Honor and how and to whom it has been awarded. The author helps the reader understand how the award nomination and selection process has changed over time and why some acts are recognized as worthy and why some others are not. Highly recommended.”

—James H. Willbanks, author of Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War

“Dwight Mears’s strength is objectivity combined with solid scholarship. His treatment of the Medal of Honor involves not only stirring events but the often blatantly political process, affording military students a rare look at America’s most prestigious decoration.”

—Barrett Tillman, author of Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II

Mears also explores the tradition of awards via legislative bills of relief; extralegislative awards; administrative routes to awards through Boards of Correction of Military Records; restoration of awards previously revoked by the army in 1917; judicial review of military actions in federal court; and legislative actions intended to atone for historical discrimination against ethnic minorities. Unprecedented in scope and depth, his work is sure to be the definitive resource on America’s highest military honor.

About the Author

Dwight S. Mears holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, taught history at the US Military Academy from 2010—2014, and retired from the US Army as a major in 2014. He recently received his law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School.