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Three and a half years of combat in Iraq, for example, have produced only two winners of the Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military award for bravery in combat.

There were, by contrast, 464 medals of Honor handed out during America’s involvement in World War II, which lasted the same amount of time.

So what’s different in this war? For one thing, the process for getting medals has become more cumbersome. Some commanders are reacting against what they see as medal inflation in recent wars, especially Gulf War I. And there may be fewer opportunities for style heroics when your enemy is planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or driving a car bomb.

But the nearly 3,000 war dead testify to the peril of those fighting in Iraq, and a growing chorus has been speaking out against the Pentagon’s parsimony.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the scarcity of top medals is the nature of combat in this war, which is so different from that of previous conflicts.

Yet there are soldiers in Iraq –and Afghanistan- whose valor at least equals that of past generations of Americans. On April 14, 2004, several Marines were manning a checkpoint in Western Iraq when an insurgent jumped out of a car and grabbed Jason Dunham, 22, by the throat . When the Iraqi dropped a live grenade during their struggle, the young Marine jumped on it so that his body would absorb the blast, saving the lives of his comrades. He died eight days later. Dunham was awarded the Iraq war’s second Medal of Honor last month.

Source: Summary of magazine TIME, December 11, 2006