Criminalizing Courage…or the lack thereof

Don’t lie. If you are found out you may not be trusted by your friends. Worse still, lie about something you did, or indeed, in respect to the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, something you didn’t do, and you may find yourself in Federal Court. Such is the case of Xavier Alvarez who in 2007, lied about being awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor, one of the highest US Military accolades.  However, this self-attributed glory was short-lived and quickly, Alvarez was the subject of an extensive FBI investigation and a landmark Supreme Court hearing.

Lying about being the recipient of a military medal is nothing new. In fact, it is rather common (and rather easy) – so much so that the US Government criminalized the practice and deemed a six-month prison sentence as being acceptable punishment for those who claimed valor without action. There are even avenues to report those who you may be suspicious of and entire databases dedicated to recording legitimate recipients and indeed, to name and shame those who falsely claim that they have.

In the course of researching the psychological and organizational mechanisms behind military medals and their recipients, I have come to learn that attitudes within the military towards medals are mixed. On one hand, there are those who recognize that medals are important organizational and societal symbols of sacrifice, of service, and of morality. However, there also exists the belief among service men and women that medals are a necessary inconvenience which must be endured.

On several occasions, I have heard how medals are seen by personnel to be given, not for courage under fire, but for the greater public need. It is often argued that “we need heroes”. Medals may act as symbol of redemption for organizations who expose their personnel to danger and risk and also, be used to justify to a non-serving public that what they do is both valued and important despite being often characterized by aggression and violence.

Three weeks ago, I spoke with the recipient of military service medal, his nationality and branch of the military, I won’t say. In 2009, he was awarded a medal for bravery in the line of fire. As with many service men and women, they find the attribution of bravery uncomfortable and unwarranted saying things like”its part of the job” or more commonly “I just did what anyone else would do”. While humility contributes to much of this behavior, the culture of many military organizations shape recipients attitudes  towards being awarded a medal, specifically for courage or bravery. His belief , like many service personnel, was that this accolade was unnecessary and drew unwanted attention in a profession often characterized by humility.

The Stolen Valor Act, which I should point out has its supporters and detractors in equally passionate measures, is interesting not only because it criminalizes a false claim of heroism or military service but because it legislates on displays of professional or occupational courage. If nothing else it is another reminder of the social value we place on the extraordinary moral action of courage over all other virtues.


About Neil D. Walshe

Neil Walshe is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of San Francisco, California. His research looks at the role of courage and cowardice in the workplace in order to understand how moral behaviors relate to the world of work. While much of his work focuses on military and high-risk occupations, he tries to place the concept within the realm of more traditional white collar professions.
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