Take a good look at the official portraits of Generals Petraeus and Eisenhower:
General Eisenhower was a five-star general. He commanded the largest multinational force ever put together. Other than maybe Marshal Zhukov, Eisenhower commanded the largest land army in modern times, possibly in human history. He commanded the largest seaborne invasion in recorded history.
Ike reportedly had maybe ten ribbons/awards that he could wear. It was a common custom at the time to wear only the top row. It was a custom that held at least into the 1980s, for I knew a commander who was in the riverine force in the Vietnam War. The only ribbon he wore on his uniform was the Silver Star.
Next to Ike, Petraeus looks like something out of a comic opera.
This is no shit: During the Vietnam war, a Marine unit got into some heavy-duty combat. The company commander and XO were killed. The senior ranking officer was a navy JG, assigned as a naval gunfire spotter. The JG took command of the company and, by all accounts, acquitted himself well in the job until things quieted down enough for the Marines to send in replacements. The JG was given an awards ceremony for his valor and awarded, not a Silver or Bronze Star, but the Navy Commendation Medal.
I suspect it really began going downhill in the `80s. There was a report at the time that the Army had awarded more Bronze Stars for the Grenada campaign then they had boots on the ground. Somewhere along the line, awards such as the Achievement Medal and Commendation Medal began to be awarded, not for extraordinary performance, but for simply doing a good job, something that was previously handled by a command "attaboy letter".
Around the same time, it was explained to me by another officer during a department head meeting with the XO and the Captain that a department head should be awarded a NAM after the first tour and a NCM after the second tour, with a Meritorious Service Medal after the XO tour. I was aghast and I asked, in a rather sarcastic manner, what happened to the notion of doing one's job and getting top marks for that.
The answer was simple, I reckon: Grade inflation. If almost everyone is getting "top 1%" marks, then the way to discern the hard-chargers from the rest of the pack is by who got gonged with a medal or three. Which cheapens the medals themselves.
Ribbons began to be awarded for things such as completing basic training, which is equivalent to giving out diplomas for, oh, graduating from first grade, or possibly a special ed "participating trophy". There is the National Defense Service Medal, which everyone who serves in wartime is awarded (basically everyone since 1990 on), even if all one did was work in a supply depot in Biloxi.
To be fair, this is not only the military's problem. Congress keeps authorizing, or trying to authorize, decorations. The "Cold War Victory Medal" is one such bit of tripe.
It should be reined in. There is precedent for doing so; nearly a century ago, the awarding of almost a thousand Medals of Honor during the Civil War were revoked.