The culture of sacrifice in conscript and volunteer militaries: The U.S. Medal of Honor from the Civil War to Iraq, 1861–2014

Research paper by Richard Lachmann, Abby Stivers

Indexed on: 22 Jul '16Published on: 21 Jul '16Published in: American Journal of Cultural Sociology


This article traces the history of one genre of commemoration, the U.S. Medal of Honor, from its inception in 1861, early in the Civil War, to the present. We begin by locating the Medal of Honor historically in relation to other genres that memorialize wartime military service and in so doing construct narratives that address wartime trauma. The central sections of this article identify the main elements of the Medal of Honor as a genre that works to define ideals of military honor and bravery. We present our methodology for analyzing the citations. We code the criteria for awarding the Medal and find a decisive change during the Vietnam War when Medals of Honor increasingly were awarded for defensive heroism, actions that saved the lives of fellow soldiers or retrieved the bodies of fallen comrades, rather than for offensive heroism, efforts to kill enemy soldiers, and thereby further battlefield success. We explain how that change allowed the military to construct a progressive narrative from defeat in Vietnam that also spoke to broader cultural changes in the 1960s. We relate that shift to the transition to an all-volunteer military. We conclude by analyzing on how post-Vietnam narratives of honor affect the ways in which the United States has sought to elicit support from soldiers and civilians for subsequent wars.