This is a soldier’s resume, if you know how to read it.
Two days ago the Globe and Mail reported that an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. Col. Debbie Miller, has been charged following an investigation to determine if she wore medals on her uniform that she was not authorized to wear. It’s not clear from the article what the medals are. In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly inferred from the article that the medals might have been the Order of Military Merit, awarded for “exceptional” performance of one’s duty, and the Canadian Forces Decoration Medal, or CD, awarded to all ranks who have completed twelve years of service of good conduct. Thanks in part to blog reader Edwin King, I learned that Lt. Col. Miller was in fact awarded the OMM and has certainly earned the CD and clasp, since she was first commissioned in 1981. In 2012, a court martial found Lt. Col. Miller guilty of twice presenting a document saying she had passed a Physical Fitness test which she had in fact failed, but the investigation mentioned in the G&M article appears to be about medals.
Napoleon once said of medals that “A soldier will fight long and hard for a scrap of ribbon”, which may explain why, in military culture, wearing medals (also known as decorations) that one has not earned is significant offence. Google “Stolen Valor” and you will find websites dedicated to exposing or “outing" individuals, many of them civilians, wearing medals and/or military uniforms that they have no right to wear.
To those outside military culture, it may seem odd that a person would want to risk the humiliation of being caught in such a masquerade. However, as Dr. Johnson once observed, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea”. In a culture, particularly US culture, where the military may be the only public institution that still commands respect, one could see why some might want the counterfeit respect of being taken for a member of the military. But even within military culture, the wearing of medals is rather like walking about with one’s curriculum vitae pinned to one’s chest. In general there are three types of medals, given for good service (like the Order of Military Merit), given for particular tours or deployments (such as to Afghanistan), or medals indicating length of service (such as the CD). There are also uniform items that connote particular qualifications and elite status, such as the Ranger tab indicating special forces training with the US military, an especially coveted and respected item in the Canadian Army. Some militaries are more lavish with medals than others. Our American friends, for example, tend to wear more decorations than do their Canadian and British colleagues.
To go on parade with one’s decorations, earned through sweat, danger, and hard service, is an act of pride. In military slang, a large collection of medals is known as a “rack”, and a “big rack” is looked on with favour. I can attest that going on parade with few, or in my case, despite nine years of service, no medals, requires some humility, and I can therefore understand why a soldier, even a senior officer who should have known better, might give into the temptation of wanting to appear more seasoned than he or she really is. I suppose it could be seen as the military equivalent of burnishing or falsifying one’s resume. The temptation to exaggerate ons accomplishments has often proved irresistible for the high as well as the low, as is seen in this week’s New Yorker profile of US Vice President Joe Biden, who has been known to exaggerate his credentials during his career. As Evan Osnos says of Biden in that article, “Looking over the record of his exaggerations and plagiarism, I came to see them as the excesses of a man who wants every story to sing, even at the risk of embarrassment”.
The four principle virtues of the Canadian Armed Forces are Courage, Integrity, Loyalty and Duty. A soldier, particularly an officer, should understand that these virtues do not permit one to embellish one’s rack or resume, no matter how much they might want their story to ‘sing”. Perhaps the best antidote to this counterfeit glory is the humility often seen in those who wear their medals lightly, as in the soldier who says that his or her award for valour was really earned by their unit, or in the saying, often heard by Canadian soldiers with the CD, that it was given for 12 (or more) years of “undetected crime”.