A Brief History
On May 19, 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte founded the Legion of Honor, the highest award France can bestow upon their heroes. Many countries have a famous and prestigious award and even international organizations have created such symbols to recognize particularly noteworthy behavior. Here are a list of ten of the most prestigious of these awards.
10. Pour le Merite (Blue Max) Imperial Germany/Prussia.
How does a country issue its highest award with a name in a foreign language? Germans receiving the award did not seem to mind, as The Blue Max was literally something to die for, as recipients often did. When the Kaiser and the empire went away, so did the Pour le Merite.
9. Hero of the Soviet Union, Soviet Union.
Similar to the other top military awards listed here, the fact that it was also given to non-combat schlubs for political reasons keeps it from being ranked higher.
8. Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, Nazi Germany.
Although technically the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross, an award only given once, to Herman Goring who earned it not in combat, but for building the Luftwaffe, is the highest Nazi Germany award, the Knights Cross was for actual combat bravery the highest award for Germans in World War II. German soldiers, sailors and airmen fought from the beginning to the end of the war, and had plenty of opportunities to exercise courage under fire. After the war, the de-Nazification process forbade the display of Nazi issued awards. Still, it took incredible bravery and daring to win this award.
7. Purple Heart, United States.
Here we let the Purple Heart represent all the medals issued by all countries that have a similar award for military people killed or wounded in action. Obviously, there is a reason getting killed for your country is called “the supreme sacrifice.” The horrible wounds that often include crippling, blinding, or disfiguring results are the price paid for serving one’s country, and the wounded or killed veteran certainly deserves to be recognized. Someday perhaps those with mental and emotional wounds will be recognized as well.
6. Medal of Freedom, United States.
The highest award given to a citizen of the US for non-military service, the fact that it is sometimes given as a political goodbye present cheapens it just enough to keep it out of the top 5.
5. Olympic Gold Medal, International.
Just look at the beaming faces on the Olympic podium as they are awarded a gold medal and you can appreciate just how precious such medals are.
4. Legion of Honor, France.
Founded by one of if not the most capable military leaders of all time, this medal marks its wearer as one of the bravest of the brave, someone who belongs in the pantheon of heroes.
3. Victoria Cross, United Kingdom.
Founded by Queen Victoria (no surprise) earning a VC makes any person an international celebrity. The award, noted by a “VC” after one’s name becomes part of the winner’s title (like PhD or MD, etc.)
2. Nobel Prize, International.
Given for a wide array of fields, the Nobel Prize means the entire world is recognized your contribution to mankind. The fact that you do not have to risk your life (necessarily, although in some cases the winner has risked his/her life) to earn it keeps it out of the top spot.
1. The Medal of Honor, United States.
Created during the Civil War as the only medal for valor (bravery, courage, whatever you want to call it) it became the top medal for Americans in combat. Authorized by an act of Congress and usually awarded by the President, most recipients die in the process of earning the medal. Only the most incredibly brave and intrepid soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines earn this award for actions above and beyond the call of duty. Unfortunately, as with the other awards listed here, there have been a few awarded for basically political reasons, such as to Douglas MacArthur who should have been court martialed instead (for failing so miserably in the Philippines) and William “Bull” Halsey. Even Billy Mitchell was awarded one after his death for advocating air power and not for combat. Still, the prestige of this award is such that we rank it number 1.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you agree or disagree? Let us know which ones you would include in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Murphy, Edward F. Heroes of WW II: True Stories of Medal of Honor Winners. Ballantine Books, 1991.
Murphy, Edward F. Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes: Expanded and Revised Edition. Presidio Press, 2005.
The featured image in this article, First Légion d’Honneur investiture, 15 July 1804, at Saint-Louis des Invalides by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1812), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.