An Epidemic of Stars and Medals Inflation

by Thomas M. Moncure, Jr.

We live in a time when every kid gets a trophy just for participating. Grade inflation has made C’s obsolete … where we still have grades. Awards shows seemingly appear on TV every week. And – if the last session is any indication – every person and organization in Virginia is eligible for a commending resolution from the General Assembly. (See Commendations.)

An inflation of symbols and merit has particularly afflicted the military. Every corporal now sports enough ribbons and badges to be mistaken for a South American general. Flag grade officers have several rows of ribbons up to their shoulders. Soon, these officers will need to have sashes – a la the Girl Scouts – to display all the ribbons. And as a sash might cover other badges on their uniforms, they may need a sash-bearing aide in tow. Or, they could just pin badges on their pants, North Korean style.

George C. Marshall was a veteran of World War I, Army chief of staff, and architect of victory in World War II. He was promoted to five-star general to put him symbolically on par with British field marshals. In his formal portrait at the end of World War II – wearing five stars – he displayed a mere three rows of ribbons.

Chiefs of police and sheriffs, particularly in Virginia – have traditionally worn eagle insignia, the military rank of colonel. In European development, colonels were, typically, disinherited second and third sons of lords – lesser nobility – commanding regiments. Colonial legislatures commissioned individuals as colonels who were willing to raise and outfit regiments. The title of colonial colonel then denoted wealth, ability and high social status. 

The Virginia Colonel then took on the bearing of the only peerage appropriate in a republican commonwealth. We never had dukes or earls, or classes of knights. It was common to refer to social superiors as Colonel -rather than Sir – an acknowledgement that they were recognized as a true Gentleman. Over the years – particularly in the South – colonel is a long recognized title of honor and popular deference.

Sartorial puffery occupies a unique place in the military as the rank structure is fixed by statute. Most law enforcement agencies are unconstrained as to the symbols of rank they use. Even really small agencies may be headed by chiefs and sheriffs wearing stars. An increasing number of these chiefs and sheriffs are now wearing four stars rather than an eagle. These “generals” – unlike George Patton – don’t have to command an army in the field to pin on the rank. 

Rank inflation now has now gone to an extreme with some chiefs and sheriffs wearing five stars. There have only been nine men in the military services of the United States promoted to five-star rank, the last in 1950. Presumably these five-star chiefs and sheriffs have no shame in imitating a MacArthur or an Eisenhower. 

In 1976 George Washington was posthumously made “General of the Armies,” to rank ahead of all other American officers, living and dead. He has accordingly been described as our only six-star general. In the rush to preeningly display  unmerited rank, it is only a matter of time before some chief or sheriff pins on six stars … to be seen as the present day reincarnation of George Washington.   

Thomas M. Moncure, Jr. resides in Colonial Beach and is a retired Army Reserve Military Police Officer.

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13 responses to “An Epidemic of Stars and Medals Inflation”

  1. Chip Gibson Avatar
    Chip Gibson

    Nice work! An article even I can understand, appreciate, and enjoy.
    “Every corporal now sports enough ribbons and badges to be mistaken for a South American general. Flag grade officers have several rows of ribbons up to their shoulders. Soon, these officers will need to have sashes – a la the Girl Scouts – to display all the ribbons.” – A Keeper.

  2. There are sooooo many DEI accredited courses now which ‘merit’ a ribbon equal to a CIB…. pity.

    1. Matt Adams Avatar
      Matt Adams

      No ribbons are seen equally to a Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB), the CIB isn’t a ribbon it’s award. It is only award to Infantrymen and Special Forces soldiers meeting the following requirements.

      1. Be an infantryman satisfactorily performing infantry duties
      2. Assigned to an infantry unit during such time as the unit is engaged in active ground combat
      3. Actively participate in such ground combat

      Only the Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) is most like the CIB and award for skills as it is non-combat.

      Order of Precedence:

      Attempting to tie this to DEI is overzealous and off base.

  3. Marty Chapman Avatar
    Marty Chapman

    I could not agree more.

  4. Matt Adams Avatar
    Matt Adams

    Yes, it’s probably easier to get awards now than in yesteryear, you’d have to prove that. However, GOA Marshall had more than 3 rows of ribbons. You can wear what you’re authorized, you aren’t required to wear it.

    GOA Marshall was a 4 star by the time the United States entered WWII and he was an O3 in WWI, he never saw combat (much to his chagrin).

  5. Could not agree an more. I saw many veterans of WWII from both European and Pacific theaters of war return after 4 years service, much in vicious combat, wearing anywhere from 3 to 7 ribbons.

  6. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    It’s my recollection that Wilson, using recent legislation, appointed John Pershing as General of the Armies, as well. In 1924, the Controller General “determined” that 1866 legislation reinstating the rank of General for Grant made him equal to Washington. This would also apply to Sherman and Sheridan.

  7. Lefty665 Avatar

    Rank inflation has proliferated in the services too. There are an astonishing number of flag ranked officers these days. Reported numbers vary, but are in the 800-900 range. That’s a lot of brass.

    Seems a little top heavy too. There are more 4 stars than during WWII.

    1. More flag ranks than WWII when for every 6,000 troops there was one Flag Officer; today is 1,400 for each star…. you need a lot of those one stars to run all those DIE programs and run investigations looking at extremism among the ranks.

      1. Matt Adams Avatar
        Matt Adams

        Rank/Star Creep has nothing to do with DEI, it’s been occurring since Vietnam. More so it exploded when Bush 43 rescinded GO caps during the GWOT.

        DEI is responsible of a lot of impacts, this is not one of them.

  8. Not Today Avatar
    Not Today

    “Get off my lawn!” Old man yells at clouds.

  9. The Amazing Criswell Avatar
    The Amazing Criswell

    Tom Moncure, a good man. We used to know each other a while back. Worked together some. I wondered what happened to him.

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