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The Price of Sacrifice

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How should one recognize an act on the battlefield that gets you wounded? If you are a soldier, marine, sailor or airman the answer is easy; you get a Purple Heart. That medal, originally created by General George Washington, is awarded to U.S. soldiers wounded by the enemy in combat. It was ordered by the Continental Congress to stop giving commissions or promotions, since the Congress could not afford the extra pay these entailed, so Washington drew up orders for a Badge of Military Merit made of purple cloth. In 1782 he directed that "whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding."

In short, Washington gave cloth because he could not give money. But if you are a private contractor and you get wounded you don't get a Purple Heart. You, hopefully, will get medical care and benefits which your employer is required, at least theoretically, to provide under the Defense Base Act.

To Mateo Taussig-Rubbo, a professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo Law School this raises the question as to whether they are forms of value which can be substituted one for the other.

In an essay he wrote, "Value of Valor: Money, Medals and Military Labor," published earlier this year he explores the divide between money and medals. This raises interesting questions about motivation. As Taussig-Rubbo writes:

Examining these questions permits me to confront my main concern: to develop a unique vantage point from which to assess the United States' increased reliance on private military contractors. After all, the divide between medals and money is deeply related to the line between soldier and contractor, all the more so when we call the latter a mercenary. The soldier receives both forms of compensation; the contractor is generally only paid in money. If a policy turn to contractors, then, entails paying in money and not medals, we can conceive of the rise of military contractors not only in terms of privatization and outsourcing, but also as a retrenchment from a medal system to a money system. That, perhaps, is an attraction of the contractor - that accounts can be settled, that the government need not engage in the volatile currency of medals and publicly honoring valor and sacrifice. This seems especially pressing as contractor fatalities now surpass those of soldiers. On the other hand, that attraction may turn out to be short-lived: there are signs that the exclusion of contractors from the world of soldier honor is coming under challenge.

There are signs that both the government and some contractors recognize that the public may be uneasy with a system where some of the players are only motivated by money. That would explain why the government has in fact given a newly created medal to contractors in their status as civilians, and some contractor companies have developed their own in-house medals.

Why is any of this important? Taussig-Rubbo argues that the military has shifted more and more of its operations out of the medal economy, and into the money-only economy, and, specifically, into a third-world labor market, which creates a new class of persons officially ineligible for most medals. According to him, "To the extent that the medal system engenders public recognition of the true costs of war -- costs that cannot be measured in money alone, a move away from that system would undermine public awareness of those losses."

Since advocates argue that of private contractors frequently act just as meritoriously and valorously as regular military personnel, excluding contractors from receiving medals means contractors are not seen as part of an honored class.

A contractor is not seen by the public as part of a group drawn together by shared values and experiences, sacrifice, and selfless service to the Nation as is, say, a soldier or Marine.

Despite the growth of market-oriented thinking, not to mention the All-Volunteer Force, the public does not view the soldier as simply another market actor. "Sacrifice" and valor remain central to American conceptions of military service. And the medal system is a key part of that perception.

Taussig-Rubbo writes that contractors are excluded from receiving most medals and decorations. As a rule, they are contained within the banal, invisible category of 'mere' labor -- they do not break through onto the heroic or sacramental plane.

It is even worse when you consider that the bulk of private contractors in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are third-country nationals. They are not eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, and they are generally excluded from the robust traditions through which soldier sacrifice is honored and recognized. These persons are typically not eligible for medals -- even though they are now being killed in greater numbers than soldiers.

The government decided that contractors are eligible for public honor as civilians, through awards such as the Defense of Freedom Medal. This is described as the "civilian equivalent" of a Purple Heart, as both require the recipient to have been injured or killed. But the contractor is honored as victim; not hero.