Grade Inflation in the U.S. Military

W.J. Astore

I was looking at some old military history notes today and came across this photo of Lieutenant General Hubert Reilly Harmon, known today as the father of the Air Force Academy and its first superintendent:


I love the simplicity of this photo.  General Harmon is wearing four ribbons on his uniform and his pilot’s wings.  He commanded an air force in the Pacific during World War II and helped to win that war.

Of course, the architect of victory for the entire U.S. military in World War II was George C. Marshall.  His portrait as a five-star general is here:


A simple uniform with three rows of ribbons.

But that was then, and this is now.  Generals today have far busier uniforms that are festooned with ribbons, badges, and other militaria.  General Joseph Votel, currently the commanding general of Central Command, is typical:


But I don’t think any general has outdone David Petraeus in the pursuit of ribbons and badges:

Petraeus with Broadwell
Petraeus: Lots of ribbon candy crowded on that uniform

What would men like Hubert Harmon and George Marshall say about today’s crop of American generals?  How did Marshall win World War II without a Ranger tab, without parachute wings, and without ten rows of ribbons?

America’s citizen-soldier military of the era of the “Greatest Generation” was concerned with one measure of success: victory over Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in a war vital not only to U.S. security but to the survival of the free world (even if that world isn’t as “free” as they or we would like it to be).  Today’s military is distracted by the pursuit of the right “tabs” and “wings” and other paraphernalia even as they wage wars without end (and without any apparent prospect of victory).

I suppose today’s generals will talk about how complex the world is today, how asymmetrical our wars are, how our enemies occupy a “grey zone” that is difficult to master, and so forth and so on.  Even so, why the grade inflation?  Why the over-the-top uniforms?

Perhaps America will start winning wars again (even better: avoiding them altogether) when its military leaders stop acting like crazed Boy Scouts in the pursuit of merit badges and ribbon candy.

Postscript:  I’ve written about this issue before (here and here) and also here way back in 2007.  But nothing seems to change; if anything, the ribbons and badges continue to proliferate, so much so that the U.S. military now has more bling than the Kardashians.

19 thoughts on “Grade Inflation in the U.S. Military

  1. Just wondering if there are any ribbons for Conscientious Objectors who refuse to kill which is a greater service to humanity!


    1. I will always remember with gratitude those of your veterans who during a NATO summit – in I think Chicago – a few years ago, publicly threw away their medals, badges and whatever other military rewards they had received for serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. They were not allowed anywhere near the summit’s venue, but they threw them in that direction.


  2. An anonymous comment from someone “in the know”:

    The contrast to the Israelis is always striking to me. Last year’s Israeli officer here almost didn’t go to the Joint Ball because the IDF does not have a mess dress uniform. His BDU/ACU equivalent has no medals on it at all. IIRC [If I recall correctly], we started this grade inflation during Vietnam to, as Napoleon once said, make men kill for pieces of ribbon.


  3. The one military decoration that no one will ever see on the uniform of a high-ranking U.S. military officer: the one for FINISHING something. Hence the “Fourth Slogan of the Party” added since WWII by the fuck-up-and-move-up, kiss-up/kick-down, Parkinson’s-Law-meets-the-Peter-Principle U.S.-military:



    1. All the medals, pins, badges, and stars adorning the uniforms of America’s “top brass” military officers — currently “on duty” or retired — amount to just this:

      The US armed forces are only good at three things: wasting immense sums of money, destroying countries and alienating the rest of the planet [emphasis added]. They are still the most expensive and bloated armed forces on the planet, but nobody fears them any more (not even relatively small states, never mind Russia or China). In technological terms, the Russians (and to a somewhat lesser degree the Chinese) have found asymmetrical answers to all the key force planning programs of the Pentagon and the former US superiority in the air, on land and on the seas is now a thing of the past. As for the US nuclear triad, it is still capable of accomplishing its mission, but it is useless as an instrument of foreign policy or to fight Russia or China (unless suicide is contemplated).

      For the entire analysis of America’s vast uniformed money-laundering scam masquerading as a “defense” of some sort against hypothetical hobgoblins, see: The Putin-Trump Helsinki summit: the action is in the reaction,The Vineyard of the Saker (July 26, 2018).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was a Military Police Customs Inspector and any Army personnel came through our Overseas Terminal– Air Force, it didn’t matter from Pvt. to Gen. we’d have to have them remove their Dress Uniform Jackets from all the Metal on them. This was the only Service Branch that we’d have to do this on because our Machines & Wands would all go off… Maybe the U.S. Army is secretly trying to emulate the North Korean Officers whose metal badges evoke human Xmas Trees!.


    1. I don’t know about the North Koreans, but I thought that U. S. General David “Perception Management” Petraeus set the world standard for human Christmas-tree decorations masquerading as some kind of “authority” on military matters. When I learned that he had gotten a ph.D for dusting off and recycling those old Counter-Insurgency manuals that we used at Coronado Island for seven weeks back in 1969, I realized that his so-called “surge” in Iraq would turn out like that old joke about the basketball player who dribbled before he shot, so to speak. A walking, talking premature ejaculation if the U.S. military ever produced one. As I wrote of Deputy Dubya Bush in my poem, “Hanoi Haiku,” so, too of General Dave:

      Where did we get him?
      How come we can’t do better?
      We look so stupid.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Petraeus is of (recent) Dutch decent; the same country when Nazis invaded, the Royal Family packed up their jewels & money, left for Indonesia – another story, leaving their “people” to fend for themselves.
        Petraeus, had sex with his ‘biographer’ under his desk. Yet he never ‘won’ a war. I’m not knocking regular Hollander’s: smoke your pot in cafes, etc. But don’t forget the cowards you produced in WW2. Having sex under a desk does not bother me – it’s the damage he’s done to innocent people!
        Doubt he’s met the new Aristocrat in Holland- they’re both so ashamed!


        1. With all due respect, looks like you’re mixing up some of your – otherwise appreciated – criticism. The Dutch royal family indeed packed and left, but not for Indonesia (luckily for them, as there they eventually would have ended up under Japanese occupation) but to Canada, where they spent the rest of the war. The Dutch are extremely PR-savvy, of which Anne Frank’s diary is a prime example: the PR highlights the sacrifice of the amazing lady (was it Mies?) who helped the Franks survive, but diligently pays much less attention to the fact that eventually some other Dutch person sold them to the nazis, they all ended up in a concentration camp and only her father survived the war. Nor do they particularly stress that during WWII they actually had a political party (NSB – National Socialist Movement?) which collaborated with the nazis. In other words, not individuals who out of greed, cowardice or forced by exceptional circumstances betrayed basic human values, but people who for whatever reason believed in Hitler’s national socialism and wanted to support it. We all know that France had its Vichy collaborators, Norway its Quislings, but few people know about the NSB.
          Thus the Dutch got this not altogether deserved global aura of clean-handed heroic confrontation with the occupiers.
          But that’s no reason to burden Patraeus with that heritage, he earned enough shame all by himself without having to supply him with more from his ancestors :-). Wasn’t extra-marital desk service rather Clinton’s speciality? I would think that Patraeus and his embedded bioghrapher had more convenient venues for their marital infidelities. They’re both high on my list of sincerely loathed individuals, but that’s because of their contempt for the life of ‘others’, not their private life.


  5. And don’t even get started on Commander’s coins. Now that’s inflation with a jingle.


  6. One thing to consider is that between 1900 and 1945, we had two major wars. We did have “expeditions” to make Latin America “right” for corporate interests, during this period. Since 1951 with the Korean War, we have had an inflation of wars and expeditions across the globe, which has necessitated the set-up of various permanent commands. The ribbons, medallions and shields are created to recognize these various conflicts and commands. This in itself should say something about America.


    1. I think your dates are correct ML: 1900-1945, and 1951. Plenty of European shenanigans going on, leading to 1914. That was supposed to last a few weeks, inconvenience some, and ‘realign’ Europe how the ‘allies’ wanted it. Only Wilson was dumb enough to swallow it, setting the stage for Hitler.
      Worn out & broke, US moved onto Asia ie Korea. Not much European enthusiasm! They learned a bitter lesson!
      You bring up “expeditions” in Latin America, etc. “right” for (US) corporate interests”. Correct again!
      What’s strange today is Trump is screaming about “unfair trade”, but the blame might be best put on bad, or nonexistent, US corporate market research making cars unable to navigate in ancient cities, appliances that gobble up energy unavailable from local power grids. This is what the “trade wars” are really about, and no matter how many ribbons, our military can do nothing about.
      Last week, more astute economists are questioning how Testa, UBER, facebook, etc. can be worth a fortune on the stock market, yet lose fortunes in operation. Never a profit!
      Any military person who can figure that one out, deserves a gold crown, not a metal. Won’t happen of course. Still believe “might is right”, never guessing it’s the ‘right’ products….


      1. @BMCKS – RE: “…more astute economists are questioning how Tesla, UBER, facebook, etc. can be worth a fortune on the stock market, yet lose fortunes in operation. Never a profit“. Yes, I read somewhere that Tesla was supposedly ‘worth/valued-at’ ~$60 B but has never made a yearly profit!
        IMHO, it’s pretty much the same basic thing that led to the 1929 crash, the ‘’ bubble/crash back in the late 90’s, the latest real estate bubble/crash in the late ‘aughts’, etc, good old American (US) greed fueling an ‘irrational market exuberance’ and investors ‘betting on the come’* ( ie; ‘someday this company has GOT to make money and I want to be in on the ground floor!’). Recall that this country wasn’t founded only on religious fundamentalism and colonialism, a higher-than-average amount of hucksters and fortune-seekers were subsequently in the mix of what has become our national DNA.



  7. I just want to thank you for another well-written article offering insight as to why I feel we are moving in the same direction the Roman Empire did at the end of its dominant era. Wars and conflicts not to protect or free a group of people but rather as a means to increased economic gain for a few along with greater displays of sensationalism. Along with your recent article on the ties between the military and major league sports and all the “bought” displays of patriotism, we are continuing on the path of sensationalism, whether it is football field sized flags or 8 rows of badges on a military officer. It’s all show and so little substance.


  8. Good article and comments!

    Also, for a few of us older viewers, recall how we in the US used to scoff at the over-decorated generals of the old Soviet Union back in the 50’s & 60’s, with the implication that they did that because they were a militaristic society (back when that had the negative connotations it deserves) and yet another reason to dismiss communism. Hi


  9. Off subject but an interesting nugget.
    Suspected Russian spy found working at US embassy in Moscow.
    Exclusive: Russian is understood to have had full access to secret data during decade at embassy.

    US counter-intelligence investigators discovered a suspected Russian spy had been working undetected in the heart of the American embassy in Moscow for more than a decade, the Guardian has learned.

    The Russian national had been hired by the US Secret Service and is understood to have had access to the agency’s intranet and email systems, which gave her a potential window into highly confidential material including the schedules of the president and vice-president.

    The woman had been working for the Secret Service for years before she came under suspicion in 2016 during a routine security sweep conducted by two investigators from the US Department of State’s Regional Security Office (RSO).

    “She had access to the most damaging database, which is the US Secret Service official mail system,” the source said. “Part of her access was schedules of the president – current and past, vice-president and their spouses, including Hillary Clinton.”

    She had plenty of time to gather intelligence without supervision, the source said. “Several employees interacted with her on a personal level by emailing her personally on a non-work account. This isn’t allowed.”

    The Department of Homeland Security was apparently notified about the case but it is unclear how much detail was passed on to officials outside the agency. It is also unclear why the woman, a Russian national, was hired by the Secret Service in the first place or what kind of vetting took place.

    The Guardian has been told that the potential breach was not reported to any of the congressional intelligence or oversight committees.

    I thought given all the press on CNN and MSDNC on Russian Hacking, this story of a spy in the US Embassy would be a lead story. I thought FOX might take a whack at it since the spy was in the embassy during Obama’s term. So far no such thing, The Guardian is the only source. Unnamed sources has never stopped these Infotainment Networks like CNN or MSDNC from constructing the Russian Hacking Story.

    This incident does make our “Intelligence Community” look like fools and perhaps this is why the story has no wings here in the USA.


    1. Thanks, ML. Maybe security breaches like this are a good thing. Sort of like spy satellites. They provide insight into “the enemy,” thereby reducing uncertainty. You could argue spy satellites prevented a nuclear armageddon. Security breaches, in the absence of a real shooting war, might reduce a hair-trigger mentality driven by ignorance and fear.

      Way too much info is classified by the U.S. government. Is this to keep enemies from exploiting it, or is it about keeping the American people in the dark?


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