April 27, 2004


Okay, to avoid any further confusion on the Kerry medals flap.

In military usage, the words "medal" and "decoration" are often used interchangeably, but strictly speaking, military awards come in three general categories:

1) Decorations: awards for gallantry, exceptional service, etc. Like the Silver Star or Purple Heart in the American service, and the Victoria Cross in others.
2) Medals (also "Service Medals"): awards recognizing a particular kind of service, in a particular theatre for instance, or in the Commonwealth armies, to celebrate a national anniversary of some kind. UN or NATO peacekeeping participants will collect medals, as well. The distinguishing feature is that, unlike decorations, medals are generally bestowed on anyone who shows up, more or less. The American military generally bestows rather more of these than Commonwealth armies.
3) Orders: generally found only in Commonwealth armies, membership in certain royal or national orders (in the sense of a group of distinguished personages) is also noted by the bestowing of a service award. These generally take precedence over all but the highest decorations (they're worn on the right of the row, in other words). The Canadian equivalent is the Order of Canada.

The line between a "medal," "order" and a "decoration" can be fuzzy... the British Distinguished Service Order is, strictly speaking, a decoration. Even more confusingly, the DSO also has, for lesser achievement, a matching medal, the Distinguished Service Medal... which is also, strictly speaking, a decoration. The Canadian Forces Decoration (CD), the most common Canadian military service award, is, technically, a medal.

Confused yet?

Medals/decorations/orders are normally only worn on the soldier's full dress uniform. Soldiers in most Western armies, when they receive a medal of any kind, also receive a matching "service ribbon," with colours matching the ribbon of the medal itself. Some armies also allow the wearing of a matching "miniature." Service ribbons are generally worn when in less-than-full-dress uniform ("service dress"), while miniatures are only worn on "mess dress" (the military equivalent of a tuxedo) or civilian formal wear.

A Canadian Forces officer has thus at least four different types of uniform, with matching medals, to wear as appropriate. In addition to full, mess, and service dress, each with its own distinctive service awards, there is also combat dress (now generally a camouflage uniform of some kind), obviously, no medals are worn at all on that. For formal occasions such as parades, full dress (medals) may be worn; service dress (ribbons) is in between (something like office wear). Other armies are generally similar.

It is not unusual, since they are the same award in a different form, to use "medal" in a colloquial sense to refer to either medal, ribbon, or miniature. Thus, to a soldier, it made total sense for Kerry to say he threw his "medals" over a fence 30 years ago, when he meant his service ribbons, but hang onto and frame his (actual) medals. On the related problem, his inability to clearly explain himself on this matter (or any other, as far as I can tell) hangs another tale, but the problem on this particular issue seems to be that same incoherence, rather than any duplicity.

UPDATE: A Flitters correspondent points out the United States military do award some ribbons without matching medals. They're relatively unique in this, as far as I can tell; it's not a Commonwealth practice (which, as mentioned, generally bestow far fewer service awards.)

Posted by BruceR at 05:13 PM