Cultural Revolutions

Highest Honor—Until Now

The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH) is our nation's highest award for valor under fire. The criteria are stiff: a deed of such exceptional bravery that failure to do it would draw no criticism; two eye-witnesses; and, above all, the risk of life. In our nation's history, we have awarded only 3,427 such medals. Of those, 568 were awarded posthumously. In other words, if you have a CMH, you did something heroic and extraordinary to get it, and there is a one-in-seven chance that you died doing it. (If you were a Marine, the odds were one-in-four.)

Until now.

Congress has recently required the Army and the Navy to tap the World War II honor rolls of our nation's second highest award for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC; in the sea services, the Navy Cross), for candidates for an upgrade to the CMH. One catch, however: potential upgradees must be of "Asian-American or Native American Pacific Islander" descent.

What started as a provision inserted by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) into the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996, has become a full-blown research project—initiated last October—involving three full-time, professional historians working at the Presidio of Monterey.

It's not easy to discover the justification for this latest experiment in affirmative action. Scott Welch, the project's spokesman, was eager to discuss the team's findings...

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