Medals for morale?
Volume 45, Number 2, February 2007
The recent announcement of the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross as well as a George Cross and many other medals for bravery in the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts has again opened up the age-old debate about just why medals are awarded and, when they are, why certain ones are awarded when others are not. The recent award of the VC has caused less murmurings than the last, when the cynical made mention more of Private Beharry’s ethnic background than his undoubted bravery. But even this time there are those who have questioned whether Corporal Bryan Budd of 3 Para, who twice led attacks on Taliban forces, should not have acted differently. Those not there point to the “heat of battle” and the fact that Cpl Budd’s orders to attack actually led to the wounding of three men who might otherwise have not been injured had the platoon stayed undercover and that his decision to carry on the attack on his own, whilst apparently brave, was actually both reckless and unnecessary. These same criticisms, you may remember, were levelled at Colonel “H” Jones during the Falklands war when it was mooted that his actions had more to do with his own bravado than any necessary battle plans. Of course such cynicism is both pointless and disrespectful – the fact is that Corporal Budd died whilst on active service in the face of the enemy and his actions before his death, and in the previous engagement noted in the citation, undoubtedly helped save the lives of “many of his colleagues”. Doesn’t he deserve a medal? Of course he does and ultimately a man who makes such a sacrifice has got to be in line for this country’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. Sadly whether such a man gets that award or not will always be a decision affected by politics and it is because of that small but significant fact that the cynics have such a field day when such awards are announced. There can be little doubt that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are deeply unpopular “at home” and that morale amongst the troops is low. True the public haven’t yet taken to spitting on returning soldiers as they did in America during the Vietnam war. The servicemen and women themselves are in no way blamed and are still considered heroes by most of us. But the unpopularity of these conflicts, when compared to say, the Falklands, when most of the country was whipped up into a patriotic fervour, cannot have gone unnoticed by those “on the ground”. It won’t have escaped the Generals' or the politicians' notice either that recruitment is at an all time low and the numbers of those signing on for subsequent service once their initial period is up is also lower than ever. The answer? Well again the cynics will point to the fact that a good “Boy’s own” story of heroism and a liberal sprinkling of medals has always worked before, so why not put faith in the age old formula and award a few now? Well, that may well be what’s happening here. After all, “spin” is all around us, so why should war be any different? But to think like that fails to take into account one very important thing – the men, and women, on the ground, the ones actually doing the fighting are soldiers, they aren’t politicians. They aren’t going into battle wondering how they can make the war be seen favourably at home, aren’t hoping to spin things so they’ll look good on the ten o’clock news – they’re following orders, trying to do their jobs and looking out for their comrades, and if they win a medal whilst doing it then OK, but I doubt whether many of them have medals uppermost on their minds when being shot at by the Taliban! So to the cynics I say you may well be right, VCs like this one may well be awarded, now and in the past, because it is deemed politically astute to do so, but before you condemn the man who won it take a look at what he actually did to earn it. You may then realise that whilst its award may have all sorts of implications, the actions that led to it should never be doubted. By all means be cynical about the motives behind the politicians and the spin they put on everything these days – but don’t tar hardworking soldiers with that same brush. Whilst on the subject of medals for current conflicts I can’t help but notice again the apparent disparity between the awards of the Victoria Cross and George Cross. Many newspapers seemed to mention the VC story whereas few mentioned the GC award to Corporal Mark Wright also of 3 Para who entered a minefield to save the lives of critically wounded soldiers but sadly was killed in the attempt. His full citation tells a story of bravery equal to that of Corporal Budd’s and yet because he wasn’t “in the face of the enemy” he receives the George not Victoria Cross. Personally I feel that being in the middle of a minefield is just as much in the “face of the enemy” as during a firefight , after all bullets or mines – I wouldn’t fancy my chances with either of them! That of course is a moot point but whilst the criteria for the award of the VC are set as they are then the GC will always be awarded for such incidents – it just shouldn’t be overlooked when it is.
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