Since the Civil War, there have been 3,522 Medal of Honor recipients, including 18 with ties to Long Island. A Medal of Honor is not "won," as if it's a Lotto ticket waiting to be cashed, but rather bestowed. Most have been awarded posthumously in the 20th century because most recipients have died in the field of battle.
There's a long, rich history with this medal that cuts straight to the heart of American self-identity, as well as a nation's shifting ideas — and ideals — about sacrifice. Over that history, it's also cut straight to the heart of the nation's racial divide: While Medals were awarded to African Americans during the Civil War, none were awarded during the First or Second World War, a miscarriage that would take decades to redress.
If all this sounds to you like perfect grist for a television series full of tragedy, triumph and, above all, a hard, unflinching gaze into the true cost of war, then you wouldn't be wrong. But that's the story of another miscarriage of sorts, too. Popular culture hasn't exactly ignored the Medal. There's the best-selling video game and its many iterations of the same name. Hollywood has embraced the medal for decades, too, beginning with "Sergeant York" and "To Hell and Back," more recently "Blackhawk Down" or "We Were Soldiers." What's been missing is that serious, sustained and intelligent gaze on the small screen. That finally ended Friday, when Netflix dropped an eight-part series entitled "Medal of Honor," which uses dramatizations, interviews and archival footage to tell the stories of eight recipients from 20th and 21st century wars.
It's good, often moving and appropriately searing — even with the dramatizations, which always run the risk of trivializing history. These manage not to, although like all dramatizations, must still rely on conjecture and imagination to a certain degree. Of course, so did those many Hollywood movies.
Then there's this: The series also almost never happened.
"Medal of Honor" was created by veteran producer James Moll, who has had a distinguished and demonstrably eclectic career. Moll founded the Shoah Foundation — which collected over 50,000 testimonies from Holocaust survivors — and later won an Oscar for the 1999 documentary "The Last Days," about five Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Moll also produced 2011's "Foo Fighters: Back and Forth." (He got a Grammy for that.)
In a phone interview from his office in Hollywood, Moll explained that he and a partner, Brandon Birtell, first laid the groundwork for "Medal of Honor" in 2011. "We thought it was surprising that nobody had made a series about the stories of the recipients, and so we pitched this to various networks thinking for sure that everybody would want to do this."
But "we were rejected. I was surprised that people didn't recognize how important these stories are, and how powerful they are." The Netflix series was the product of luck and happenstance: "I was developing a feature documentary [on another subject] with Netflix and that fell apart because of rights-related issues and they said, 'what else do you want to do?'"
The hurdles didn't end there. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society which administers the Medal — and which Moll would have to collaborate with — "was concerned initially that it would be too Hollywood." Then there was the question of whom to profile. "We thought we could do multiple seasons because there are over three thousand stories, but we had to start with eight."
Then, there was the long, complicated and occasionally fraught history to consider. On Dec. 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill designed to improve the Navy by bestowing medals for gallantry. Other branches of service were later added, and a total of 1,523 Medals were awarded to Civil War combatants, almost all after the war had ended. Of those, 25 went to African Americans — the last as recently as 2014, to Alonzo Cushing, who fought at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Black soldiers were overlooked during both world wars. In 1991, President George W. Bush presented the Medal to the family of Corp. Freddie Stowers who died in World War I. In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal to the families of six World War II soldiers, all deceased, and Vernon Baker, who died in 2010 at the age of 90. In 2000, Clinton presented 22 more awards to World War II Asian-American veterans.
Moll and "Medal of Honor' intended to grapple with this history — and do: An African American and Japanese American recipient are profiled. Moll says that the eight profiled here "had all the military training that prepared them for [their] moment but a lot of what prepares them is everything that preceded that training — the sort of values they had, who they were as people. It's always difficult to predict who might stand out or take that sort of action."
His "Medal of Honor" offers some insights. What's surprising — and most rewarding — is just how emotional those can be.