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Introduced in 1856 as the highest award for British military valor, the Victoria Cross is a product of the Crimean War. Instituted by Royal Warrant, the honor sought to unite public opinion in the face of wartime discontent. The award celebrated military masculinity, honoring those few who had had performed exemplary acts of bravery in battle. Battle technologies have changed across centuries, but the award remains Britain’s rarest military honor, with fewer than 1400 crosses granted to date. The Cross has bestowed fame and fortune on many recipients. Across the ages, it has thus been an object of desire for veterans, regiments, and families. Even today, museums and collectors seek out Crosses to buy and display. The award never carried the talismanic power that its champions hoped, however. The Cross could not quell radical critique during the Crimean War. It did not upend the disillusionment that came with World War I. Nor did it allay the discontent of the colonized in their pushes for independence across the twentieth century. While the honor has sated appetites for heroism, its fetishistic promises have remained unanswered, from Crimean times to our own.
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