National honours systems have been much dishonoured in countries across the world over the years, not least in Britain and France.
Critics say they are a chance for politicians to award those who have toadied up to them, or simply to buy favours.
Friends and supporters of the great and the good are showered with fancy titles in cynical acts of patronage – ones that are inextricably intertwined with lost empires.
Awards not always well received
Recent rage has been directed at the elevation of former UK prime minister Tony Blair to a knighthood, for example.
The now ‘Sir Tony’ remains accused of dragging Britain into an illegal war in Iraq in which thousands of innocent people have been killed, and which triggered grotesque terrorist acts across the world.
That is why a petition aimed at stripping the knighthood has already been signed more than a million times.
It was not so long ago that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – a Blair crony, as it happens – was invited to the Élysée Palace in Paris on a state visit. The Libyan dictator got a Légion d’honneur shortly before being murdered by revolutionaries in his own country, assisted by the French Air Force.
If this sounds crazy, do remember that the Italian despot Benito Mussolini was also given a Légion d’honneur before being lynched by partisans towards the end of World War Two.
Both Gaddafi and Mussolini were useful to the French for a while, and “it is with baubles that men are led,” as Napoleon Bonaparte put it.
Bonaparte actually created the Légion d’honneur system, setting it up under the Imperial motto, “Honour and Fatherland”. It was based on the Roman Legion model, and mainly honoured those who helped to expand French civilisation across the world, especially by canon fire.
Against the background of such exploitative violence, and indeed modern-day sleaze, it is heartening to hear the story of former American serviceman Earl Mills.
A recognition 78 years later
At the age of 100, he has finally received France’s highest distinction for both military and civilian accomplishments for taking part in the Liberation of France in 1944.
Earl was presented with a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur at his home in Live Oak, Florida, in January this year.
Unlike the Iraq War that Blair dragged the UK into, there is no doubting the morality of what Earl was involved in.
He was just 23 when he parachuted into a wood in Normandy, becoming a spearhead soldier in one of the greatest invasions in history. Its ultimate aim was the destruction of the Third Reich, and the genocidal Nazi creed that underpinned it.
Speak to heroes like Earl, and what you learn about them very quickly is that they do not want to go into their most perilous exploits. They lost too many friends and saw too much horror.
More than that, they bear no animosity towards the mainly young men, just like them, whom they had to kill and maim.
François Kloc, France’s honorary consul in Jacksonville, presented the award 78 years on. He summed up what Earl meant to him without references to politics or any kind of point scoring or grandstanding.
“If we are in France, there are villages, people, entire generations, able to be who they are,” said Mr Kloc.
“I was born in France and had the ability to be free and do what I wanted thanks to Earl.”
The words are not only deeply moving, but a prime example of those who dish out the baubles very occasionally getting it right, albeit belatedly.