Volume 48, Number 6, June 2010
MEDALS, awards and decorations have been given out for various different reasons over the years. Most people associate them with heroism or participation in a particular war, action or campaign, but we medal collectors know there are many other reasons why a medal might be earned: for long service perhaps, maybe to mark a Royal Visit or to show that the recipient is a good shot or particularly good at his job. Rarely though is a medal awarded for NOT doing something and yet it seems, in these topsy turvey days that such a medal may soon exist. Apparently, according to various sources, there is a proposal doing the rounds in the Kabul Headquarters of ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) suggesting that a new medal should be instituted for those on active service who show “Courageous Restraint” in minimising civilian casualties in a war zone. Whilst it appears that such a medal, if it were to be instituted, would probably be for American service personnel (it is apparently being currently considered by the Obama administration), the idea actually seems to have come from Major General Nick Carter - the BRITISH commander in Afghanistan, so it is fairly safe to assume that if such an idea is adopted by the US forces then a similar medal will find its way into the British honours and awards system. The argument for the medal is that today’s battlefields are not as clear cut as once they were, the enemy isn’t as obvious and the men and women who engage that enemy have a far harder job than their predecessors ever did in gauging who they should actually be fighting. As a consequence of this the potential for civilian, non-combatant, casualties is high and therefore those who show courageous restraint in the face of a potential enemy who then turns out not to be, so minimising such casualties, should be rewarded for acting thus. In other words don’t shoot anybody and get a medal . . . On paper the idea appears to be worthy, it is a reward for those who use their judgement in otherwise hot-headed situations and, thanks to their clear thinking, avoid civilian casualties that would of course be both terrible in human terms but also terrible in the propaganda battle. But in practise such a medal cannot work—or can it? If such a medal were to be instituted, isn’t that sending out exactly the wrong message? The message I see by even proposing such an award is that the high command believe that the majority of soldiers DON’T act with courageous restraint and in fact are happy to just blast away at anything that moves regardless of consequences. To have to introduce a medal to those who don’t shoot people they shouldn’t is to suggest that most automatically do! Although it might not seem like it at times, war, at least when fought by a legitimate army backed by a State, has rules—those rules include minimising civilian casualties and not just wiping out anyone who gets in the way. Yet the very suggestion of this medal would seem to indicate that such rules are not applied all the time and that when they are they should be officially recognised. Madness of course, except it might not be—and there may be a case to answer for such a medal. If you look at the Medal Yearbook you will find a host of medals that are not awarded for heroism or specifically issued to mark a particular battle or war at all. In fact there are dozens of medals that have been awarded over the years that are featured simply because the recipient did what they were meant to do, or was in the place they were meant to be at the time they were meant to be there and did it without making a hash of things and blotting their copy book. In other words they are medals awarded to people just for doing their job. So if the “Medal for Courageous Restraint” does ever come into being (although the negative reaction from the public, and particularly by those actually doing the fighting in Afghanistan, would indicate that it very well may not) might I suggest that it should be automatically awarded to everyone fighting as a matter of course as I have no doubt that every single one of them exhibits a commendable amount of restraint every day they are on the front line, that is their job, it is what they were trained to do and the vast majority do it very well indeed. It won’t make it a particularly valuable medal to us collectors—indeed those groups that don’t contain it will be of more interest than those that do, as there will be a story to tell. But it certainly makes more sense to do it that way round than to single out a few individuals who were just doing what they are supposed to do. After all do that and the implication is that all those who weren’t singled out are somehow guilty of not showing restraint and thus, in effect, are guilty of war crimes. Alternatively the whole idea could be quietly scrapped and the men and women fighting in Afghanistan ad elsewhere could be allowed just to get on with things—I think that might be the better option, don’t you?
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