Throughout A Rumor of War, campaign medals and ribbons symbolize Caputo’s evolving concept of heroism and eventual opposition to the war. At the beginning of his military career, Caputo coveted war decorations, considering them the pinnacle of heroism. His subsequent rejection of his war decorations following his enlistment reflects his disenchantment with the war and belief that the war is pointless. In a dramatic gesture of protest, Caputo mails his campaign ribbons to President Richard Nixon in 1970, along with a letter detailing his opposition to the Vietnam War, once again conflating war decorations with his strong antiwar convictions. Instead of feeling proud of his campaign ribbons, Caputo feels a deep sense of dishonor at being associated with a morally objectionable conflict. He also associates war decorations with high-ranking military officers whom he perceives as having less interest in soldier’s lives than they do in promotions and other forms of self-glorification.
Elsewhere in the memoir, medals and ribbons point to death and mutilation rather than honor. The river trail beside the Song Tuy Loan is nicknamed “Purple Heart Trail” due to its reputation for seriously wounding two marines from another platoon. The honor, which the military bestows to soldiers who are injured in the line of duty, is inextricable from the sense of dread that it evokes in active-duty soldiers who know that they can be mortally wounded at any moment.