Military awards and decorations are distinctions given as a mark of honour for military heroism, meritorious or outstanding service or achievement. A decoration is often a medal consisting of a ribbon and a medallion.
While the United States Government does not consider all its military awards and medals as being “decorations”, other countries tend to refer to all of their military awards and medals as “decorations”. Civil decorations awarded to military personnel should not be considered military decorations, although some orders of chivalry have civil and military divisions. Decorations received by police and fire brigade personnel may sometimes be considered alongside military decorations, on which they may be modelled, although they are strictly not military awards.
Decorations have been known since ancient times. The Egyptian Old Kingdom had the Order of the Golden Collar while the New Kingdom awarded the Order of the Golden Fly. Celts and Romans wore a torc or received other military decorations such as the hasta pura, a spear without a tip. Dayaks wore and still wear tattoos, etc. Necklaces and bracelets were given during the early Middle Ages, evolving into richly jewelled big necklaces, often with a pendant (commonly a medal) attached.
The oldest military decorations still in use is Sweden’s För tapperhet i fält (“For Valour in the Field”) and För tapperhet till sjöss (“For Valour at Sea”) awarded to officers and soldiers of the Swedish Armed Forces who have – as the medal names suggest – shown valour in the field or at sea in wartime. The medal was instituted by Swedish king Gustav III on 28 May 1789, during his war against Russia. Whilst technically it is still active, it is for practical purposes inactive, not having been awarded since 1915. The next oldest was the Austro-Hungarian Tapferkeits Medaille Honour Medal for Bravery 1789-1792. This medal was instituted on 19 July 1789, by the Emperor Joseph II.
Another of the oldest military decorations still in use is Poland’s War Order of Virtuti Militari (Latin for “For Military Valour”). It was first awarded in 1792.
Medals have been forged by many people to make the medal appear more valuable or to make one look like a more decorated soldier. Medal forgeries can include: adding bars, engraving a famous soldier’s name on it or creating a whole new medal. Medal forgery is illegal in most countries and can be punishable by imprisonment.
Today military decorations include:
- Order of merit;
- Bravery awards, in the form of a cross, star or medal on a ribbon;
- Distinguished service awards, in the form of a cross, star or medal on a ribbon;
- Campaign medals worn on a ribbon;
- Service medals worn on a ribbon; and
- Awards for entire units, in the form of Battle honours, Campaign streamers, Fourragères, or unit citations.
In most NATO militaries, only the service ribbons are normally worn on everyday occasions (as opposed to the actual medals).
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