Brave vs. Heroic
A young man wrote a letter to me saying all those I served with in combat were heroes. Some people say it aloud and that happens more and more frequently as the years go by. All you can do under such circumstances is mumble a thank you or send a note expressing thanks for the kind words even though you know they are not true.
The word hero is bandied about too freely today. People seem to confuse bravery with heroism. A certain amount of bravery is required when men are ordered to get up and charge across a field in the face of rifle and machine gun fire. It's their job, it's what they are paid to do so it is not heroic. Deciding to place your own life in grave danger to help others without being ordered to do so, that's heroic.
A fireman hosing down a burning building that might collapse is brave. If he runs into the heart of the flames to save another person with slight chance of survival, that's heroic.
I served with hundreds of men in combat. Most were brave, two or three were heroes. Ernie Pyle's book about those times was titled Brave Men, not Heroic Men.
You hear people say all those serving in Iraq are heroes. That's nonsense, of course, although a miniscule percentage of them do something heroic, something beyond what they are paid to do or ordered to do. It has always been that way and always will be that way.
Some Americans feel all prisoner of war are heroes. That is absurd, yet the United States awards medals to men who have been captured. Many had no choice other than to surrender, others did it merely to save their own skins because conditions were adverse. The majority, although not all, were brave, but their actions were not heroic.
John McCain's plane was shot down over enemy territory in Viet Nam. He was injured, captured and treated badly. All this required bravery but in no way qualifies as heroic.
I have written about a small man wearing glasses and losing his hearing who was a hero during the fighting in the South Pacific. When his unit was ordered to withdraw while under attack by the Japanese, Rodger Young chose to remain where he was. Single handedly he broke up the enemy attack, but in doing so he was shot half a dozen times and died. His companions, most or all of them brave men, lived.
It seems time that we learn the difference between bravery and heroism. The difference is huge.