Excerpted From: Christine Annerfalk and Kevin Bales, Variations in Valor? American Conflict, the “Indian Wars,” and the Congressional Medal of Honor, 18 Intercultural Human Rights Law Review 175 (2023) (71 Footnotes) (Full Document Requested)


Annerfalk BalesThe Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration given to soldiers in the U.S. Military. It carries an assumption of extreme risk and sacrifice, of going above and beyond the call of duty in action against an enemy of the United States. Due to the nature of this medal it is often awarded posthumously.

This paper examines two key themes. The first is that there is a significant variation in the chance of the Medal of Honor being awarded across conflicts; the reasons why this might be the case will be examined. The second theme concerns the awarding of the Medal of Honor during the “Indian Wars” (as they are termed in U.S. military histories). This paper notes, again, significant fluctuations in the award of the Medal of Honor, and explores the cultural and political context of extreme variations in award. Further, this paper demonstrates how a process of dehumanization of Indigenous Peoples may have led to a proliferation of awards, and, possibly, a dilution of the regard in which the U.S. Medal of Honor was held.

In spite of the question mark in this article's title, there is no intent suggesting that human valor varies across the history of the American soldier. In a recent study from West Point's Modern War Institute, a sample of combat veterans were asked about the experience of combat. They reported an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and tunnel vision in combat - the physical ‘fight or flight’ response. A majority stated that they “didn't think,” but simply acted during combat, and one-third of respondents made clear the fear they felt at the time. People experience war in different ways, but there are clear patterns of response, and we assume those patterns held for soldiers in the past as well as the present. Bravery and valorous conduct can, and often does, occur when a soldier's life is at risk. It is important not to judge any individual's conduct in battle, but to examine closely the way that conduct has been marked by the United States government and military in awarding the Medal of Honor across different conflicts. The variation in the decisions and processes that led to the Medal of Honor being awarded at very different rates across different times and places are intriguing. The chances of being awarded a Medal of Honor were much higher in some conflicts than others, and there are patterns in the nature of these conflicts that seem to be reflected in the award of Medals. This article examines these conflicts in detail and seeks to understand why such significant variation exists.

The next question in this article asks how different conflicts were perceived by both combatants and the political and military leaders in the United States between 1860 and the present, with special reference to the period of the “Indian Wars.” As stated, this is not an assessment of bravery, but of perception and interpretation, and of changing cultural hierarchies. This article makes four assertions: first, that the “size” of the United States military deployment, as measured by the number of active personnel within the theater of operations, is inversely related to the likelihood that a soldier will be awarded a Medal of Honor. Second, that any given soldier was less likely to receive a medal when a war had been officially declared. It should be noted that declared wars also had larger numbers of active personnel deployed (as in the first assertion). Third, this article asserts that, particularly during the time period of the “Indian Wars”, there is a positive relationship between specific racial and/or ethnic characteristics of enemy forces and the likelihood of the awarding of the Medal of Honor. Lastly, this paper presents an exploratory inquiry into how the Medal of Honor might illustrate the larger processes of the “Indian Wars” in the light of what has been termed “genocidal massacres.”

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The “Battle” of Wounded Knee brings this article full circle in discussion of the long war between the European and American governments on one side and the Indigenous Peoples of North America on the other. By examining the total number of documented conflicts, the “Indian Wars” involving the United States of America extends some 124 years, not the thirty eight years given as the “official” period in some U.S. government histories. We note that these conflicts have in common key attributes which bind them together. Firstly, all of these conflicts are campaigns, of various size or intent, prosecuted against the Indigenous Peoples of North America, directly or supported by, the government of the United States, or a subset of the government such as the local militias raised in California, or civilian vigilantes. A second distinguishing feature of the “Indian Wars” is that, unlike all other significant conflicts in U.S. military history, these conflicts primarily arose from aggressive, invasive campaigns, sometimes including reactive, often haphazard, tactical assaults against a perceived threat. “Indian Wars” were carried out against Indigenous populations to reduce their military capability, but with two additional attributes not usually found in U.S. military history. The first is that non-combatants were regularly, and intentionally, treated as legitimate targets. The second attribute is that these were wars of conquest, fought with the strategic aim of claiming land and resources for the American Republic, and for exercising control over, removing, or exterminating the Indigenous inhabitants. This paper puts forth the argument that the conceptualization of the “Indian Wars” has been deliberately obscured by presenting this war of conquest as simply a long series of individual and unrelated skirmishes and battles, spread across time and space, against this or that sub-group of Indigenous Peoples.

This paper further argues that this reductionist assessment of Indigenous Peoples arose in part due to their specific devaluation from human to sub-human in the 18 century in the “Rules” or “Laws” of war as promoted and sometimes practiced by Europeans. Within this conceptual framework, emphasized in the Republic's founding document, the label of “savage” was applied to the original inhabitants of the continent placing them into a category that warranted and justified their extermination. That categorization ensured that in both negotiation and conflict Indigenous Peoples were never accorded the full status of human beings or non-combatants in the sense set out by Grotius, de Vattel, and others in the “laws of wars.”

The concept of “genocidal massacre,” though not part of the official definition of genocide, might be applied to a significant number of assaults on Indigenous Peoples as demonstrated by the listings of massacres that reflect the criteria within the definition of genocide. At the same time, internal decision-making processes of military staff as they determined to whom and under what circumstances they might award the Medal of Honor cannot be accessed, except in scant surviving records. It may have been that the increase in the award of the Medal of Honor was driven by careerist imperatives amongst officers. It is clear that the Medal of Honor was awarded with greater frequency in the Civil War and the “Indian Wars” than within the wars of the 20 century. As Green's article concludes, “We may never know the reasons for the issuance of all the Wounded Knee medals, although this examination has provided evidence of the almost random and capricious nature of the process. More elaborate speculations on the motivations of the military leaders will have to wait.” Those motivations are also beyond the scope of this article; however, it can be asserted with confidence that there are clear patterns of awards occurring across time and space, and within larger historical movements, patterns that deserve further inquiry. With that said, the Medal of Honor in the “Indian Wars” shifted its original rationale of rewarding extreme bravery and sacrifice to something less. Put simply, it is difficult to reconcile genocide and martial honor.

B.A. War Studies, King's College, London, U.K.

Professor of Contemporary Slavery, Rights Lab, University of Nottingham, U.K.