A Caution Against the Label of ‘Hero’.

I take issue with being called a hero.  I have never committed any act that can be defined as heroic.  I am not someone of any sort of remarkable character or deeds that I should be looked up to as a hero.

I have had people tell me that my status as an armed forces member is reason enough to be called a hero, and I disagree wholeheartedly.  Joining and serving in the armed forces is not a heroic act in and of itself.  It is indeed an honorable thing, and takes courage, determination and strength of character, but service to one’s country is not by itself an act of heroism, nor does it require heroic qualities.  Courage, determination, and strength of character are qualities that should be a matter of course in a human being, and are quite present in the majority of the population, although many of us are unaware of these qualities until we are tested to our limits.

Nor does joining the armed services make you by default an honorable and courageous individual. Our culture has somehow been consumed with the notion that ‘the troops’ are innately imbued with saintlike qualities.  I have met many airmen who were possessed of no such attributes.  A number of them are now incarcerated.  Others are no longer serving.  The rest are not respected by their peers, and have lackluster careers.  Being a member of the uniformed services does not give you some sort of default pass as an upstanding citizen, possessed of the better qualities of humanity.  Even the most despicable of human beings can at times be courageous, be held to their word, and show the occasional glint of honorable behavior.  Calling someone heroic purely because they joined the armed services paints everyone else in the services with the same label, and the poor character of some individuals in uniform sullies that label and the character of their brethren.  The higher we raise that pedestal, the further our armed services have to fall, and the further we will be disappointed and disillusioned when the poor character of these so-called heroes is revealed.

True heroes have made sacrifices on the behalf of others at great personal risk or cost to themselves.  They have been placed in an extraordinary situation and performed extraordinarily, often bearing physical scars or worse mutilation as a testament to their sacrifice, assuming that they survived the experience.

They are not professional athletes.  They are not everyday law enforcement officers or first responders. They are not rank-and-file servicemen and women.  They are not doctors or politicians, or entertainment icons.  While these professions and people are often worthy role models and lead lives that others aspire to, there is nothing about them that is inherently heroic.  There are many among them that do qualify for the title of hero due to occasional extraordinary situations they encounter in their professions, but this does not make all other individuals sharing their professional title a hero by default.

You may select whatever individual you like to be a personal hero, and for whatever reasons you like, but your perception of them as heroic does not necessarily make them so.  Great baseball players from the pages of history might be referred to as heroes to many who watch or play the game, but an extremely small number of them ever committed an actual act of heroism.

Using the word ‘hero’ to describe someone who hasn’t committed any act of heroism diminishes the strength of the word and the impact of the deeds of those who truly deserve the title.

I once had a chance to talk at length with a fighter ace that had seen the horrors of war up close and had taken numerous lives in combat. He imparted to me that war is by no means glorious, and being a hero in time of war is nothing one should aspire to.  The cost of war to oneself and the cost to humanity are too great to be considered glorious or virtuous.  It was an eye-opener, a crystallizing moment. Prior to that conversation, I had been what can best be described as starry-eyed.  I was idealistic to a fault; I had considered him and his contemporaries as men larger than life, as some sort of generation of men beyond men.

They were not.  They were simply human beings doing what they knew they must do in a horrible era of history.  More like them will come, and the era that gives rise to the next great generation will likely be another regrettable era in humanity’s story. To say they were the ‘greatest’ generation pays disrespect to every generation before them, and discredits generations after them.  We should pay them respect equal to the respect we pay to others before them that had risen to the same call, and paid the same price. We should not disrespect ourselves with the notion that somehow we would not be just as great if placed in the same circumstances.  Should we never again aspire to greater standards?  We will pay our respects where respect is due, but we do our society a disservice if we whitewash the virtue of an entire generation for the sake of four remarkable years, and say that we as a society will never be able to equal or better their deeds.

I am simply a man doing what I know I must do, am capable of doing, and have given my word to do. That is by no means heroic. If simply holding myself to my word and doing what I should is heroic, it is a sad commentary on the depths to which we as a society have let our standards slide.  Let us aspire to greater things, and look upon our history with measured reason, neither exaggerating the honorable, nor shaming ourselves for the regrettable. Let us use the label of ‘hero’ for those who are truly heroic.

John Levitow

John Levitow

Paul R. Smith

Paul R. Smith

Connor Stotts

Connor Stotts

Ted Williams

Ted Williams

Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Edwards Walker

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