Opinion: The Third Iraq War Deserves Its Own Campaign Medal

September 29, 2014 9:52 AM
The Pentagon's Iraq Campaign medal.
The Pentagon’s Iraq Campaign medal.

The official entrance of the United States into a third Iraq War means it is time to authorize a new campaign ribbon for those currently carrying out operations in Iraq and Syria. Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) officially concluded with the departure of U.S. Forces from Iraq in December 2011.

The end of OIF also closed out the period of eligibility for the OIF campaign medal. The current fight is clearly different from the last one and the OIF medal would not be appropriate for this operation, for reasons explained here, nor would the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Expeditionary Medal.

After 24 years of near continuous operations over the skies of Iraq, most of the neighborhood, even from 25,000 feet, is all-too familiar to our forces (A bit of trivia: The period of December 2011 to August 2014, represents the longest period that the U.S. military went without bombing a target in Iraq in the past 24 years).

While the terrain may be familiar, the current operations are a distinctively new campaign in the post-9/11 conflicts. The targeted enemies and objectives are also unique when compared with Afghanistan and the second Iraq War (2003-2011). Most important, the addition of Syrian territory into the area of operations makes the current fight a new campaign, against a new set of enemies, in a whole new country. A new medal is clearly in order.

A discussion of a new campaign medal for our forces now in combat may begin here, but hopefully it gets some traction in the coming weeks.

Perhaps this time around the process will be easier than it was with the OIF Campaign Medal, approved in 2004. As many may recall from 2003 through most of 2004, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fought any attempt to create a separate medal for what he contended was just another front against terrorism. He held that the GWOT Expeditionary Medal was sufficient for all post Sept. 11, 2001 wars.

By mid-2004, when no weapons of mass destruction had been uncovered in Iraq, or valid links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda had been established, many political leaders and national security scholars began questioning the Bush administration’s persistent narrative that linked Iraq with the GWOT.

For example, national security strategist Amy Zalman described the cognitive shift away from the Bush administration’s “symbiotic link” between Iraq and the GWOT this way, “The al-Qaeda perpetrators of Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein were organized into seamless and coherent chapters in the same account. . . . [However,] [t]he turn toward counterinsurgency in Iraq helped produce a new way of thinking about the Global War on Terrorism as a whole.”

It was this cognitive shift in the national conscience that would finally lead to a vote in Congress that recognized military personnel for their service in two distinctly different military campaigns (Iraq and Afghanistan). It is this type of leadership and debate that will be needed to approve a new campaign medal for the current operations in Iraq and Syria.

Campaign medals continue a tradition that began in 1904. A point of departure from this tradition of issuing specific campaign medals occurred with the initiation of the GWOT in 2001. For this war, which was defined as “global,” the Department of Defense created one medal, the GWOT Expeditionary Medal. The concept for this medal was to recognize all operations occurring under the large umbrella of the GWOT.

The 2004 OIF medal got back to the original tradition of campaign medals, and in some respects it made the GWOT medal stand out as the oddity it is in the world of military decorations. A very good argument can be made the “sustained counterterrorist operation” in Iraq and Syria should also run counter to the concept of the GWOT Expeditionary Medal.

At this juncture, no one has yet publically made the argument that the still authorized GWOT medal should be the only decoration awarded to those engaged in the fight against ISIS.

One hopes that will not occur, but in the event that it does, let’s remind the decision-makers that the last war in this neighborhood did not make muster for the one-size-fits-all GWOT campaign medal, nor should this one.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

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