The History of the Medal of Honor


The philosopher Aristotle said, “You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the human mind next to honor.”

The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded by the United States to honor those who set themselves apart by their courage in battle.

It is bestowed by the President in the name of Congress on members of the United States Armed Forces who distinguish themselves through conspicuous and fearless gallantry at the risk of their lives “above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.”

More than sixty percent of the Medals of Honor awarded since the beginning of World War II have been awarded posthumously.

The Medal of Honor is bestowed on an individual by the passing of a Joint Resolution in Congress. It is then personally presented to the recipient or, in the case of posthumous awards, to next of kin, by the President of the United States, on behalf of Congress, representing and recognizing the gratitude of the American people.

Because the award citation includes the phrase “in the name of Congress”, it is sometimes erroneously called the Congressional Medal of Honor. The official title, however, is simply the Medal of Honor.

A few famous Americans are recipients of the Medal, from a president (Theodore Roosevelt) to a president’s son (Theodore Roosevelt Jr.) to a five star general (Douglas MacArthur to the father of a five-star general (Arthur MacArthur).

But most recipients of the medal are ordinary Americans from ordinary backgrounds who, under extraordinary circumstances and at great risk to their own lives, performed an incredible act of conspicuous valor that clearly set them apart from their comrades.

Although they served in a democratic fighting force, the Medal of Honor winners emerged from what military historians call the fog of war to become an aristocracy of valor. What they did in battle was so extraordinary that it raises questions that have no answer. Why do some men rise to the occasion and go above and beyond the call of duty no matter what the cost? What is the DNA of courage? Is there something God-given in their willingness to risk their lives for comrades and country?

Some say a nation is defined by its heroes. If so, we Americans are fortunate indeed. What these men did to earn the Medal of Honor should give us confidence that our nation – which our enemies foolishly underestimate and which we ourselves constantly worry has lost its bearings – is in fact a crucible of character, endurance, determination and the courage necessary to meet the future.

Abraham Lincoln rightly said, Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure. We gather here today to honor our heroes and ensure that it will.

These remarks were taken from the Author’s Note in Peter Collier’s remarkable book Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty.

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