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


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.

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  1. For a detailed account of the Medal of Honor recommendation process see

  2. The percentage of soldiers who received the Medal in domestic Indian wars or in small foreign conflicts was higher than in the Civil War, but the numbers of recipients for those wars is too small to draw broad conclusions.

  3. (accessed May 7, 2016).

  4. A few Medals were awarded up to four years after the soldier’s heroic action because of delays in identifying witnesses to the heroism. Those few cases are included in our data set.

  5. Table 1 includes both contemporaneous and retroactive awards. Tables 2 and 3 exclude the retroactive awards, while Table 4 covers only the retroactive awards.

  6. All quotes in this article from Medal of Honor citations can be found at and can be retrieved by entering the recipient’s name. The full citations also are contained in the on-line appendix to this article.

  7. There is a large literature written in the 1950s and 1960s that contributed to this cultural shift, and an even larger literature since then that seeks to analyze, celebrate and critique the challenges to authority and tradition of those years. Gitlin (1993) offers a comprehensive overview of social movements and cultural changes in the 1960s. Jacoby (1975, chap. 3) offers a concise and acid analysis of Maslow and self-actualizationist psychology. The contributors to Darnovsky et al (1995) embody and express, as they analyze, the swirl of identity and radical politics in the 1960s through 1990s. Kelly (2001) surveys U.S. new social movements from the 1960s on while identifying what she sees as the sources of their limited efficacy.

  8. One potential challenge to our culturalist analysis is that the military could encourage defensive heroism in Vietnam and more recent ‘wars of choice’ since a turn away from an emphasis on killing and defeating the enemy toward preserving the lives of American soldiers would not pose an existential challenge to the U.S. itself, unlike in the world wars when Germany and Japan threatened US. survival. The problem with such an argument is two-fold. First, many contemporaries as well as more recent analysts did not regard Germany as an existential threat to the U.S. in 1917 (see Mann, 2012, Chap. 5 for a sociologist’s argument that American intervention in World War I paved the way for the rise of Hitler and thereby made the U.S. less safe), and many Americans believed during the Vietnam and Iraq wars that the enemy, if not defeated, could advance to later pose a mortal threat to the U.S. Determining which wars are existential and which ones are wars of choice is a slippery and ultimately political decision. Second, the shift from offensive to defensive heroism occurred in the midst of the Vietnam War and was not the result of any reconsideration by the military or by civilian hawks of the significance of that war for U.S. national security.


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We gratefully acknowledge the insightful and sympathetic comments of the editors and anonymous reviewers of AJCS. We also acknowledge David Zacuto’s research assistance.

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Correspondence to Richard Lachmann.

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Supplementary information accompanies this article on the American Journal ofCultural Sociology website ( Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 166 kb)

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Lachmann, R., Stivers, A. The culture of sacrifice in conscript and volunteer militaries: The U.S. Medal of Honor from the Civil War to Iraq, 1861–2014. Am J Cult Sociol 4, 323–358 (2016).

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  • commemoration
  • trauma
  • military
  • Medal of Honor
  • war
  • conscription