This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved reading accounts of American heroism from World War II. I remember being riveted by a book about the staunch Marine defenders of Wake Island and inspired by John F. Kennedy’s exploits saving the sailors he commanded on PT-109. Closer to home, I had an uncle—like so many vets of that war, relatively silent on his own experiences—who had been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941, and then fought them in a brutal campaign on Guadalcanal, where he earned a Bronze Star. Such men seemed like heroes to me, so it came as something of a shock when, in 1980, I first heard Yoda’s summary of war in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker, if you remember, tells the wizened Jedi master that he seeks "a great warrior." "Wars not make one great," Yoda replies.
Okay, it was George Lucas talking, I suppose, but I was struck by the truth of that statement. Of course, my little epiphany didn’t come just because of Yoda or Lucas. By my late teens, even as I was gearing up for a career in the military, I had already begun to wonder about the common ethos that linked heroism to military service and war. Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) provides an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but even then I instinctively knew that it didn’t constitute heroism.
Ever since the events of 9/11, there’s been an almost religious veneration of US service members as "Our American Heroes" (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office). That a snappy uniform or even intense combat in far-off countries don’t magically transform troops into heroes seems a simple point to make, but it’s one worth making again and again, and not only to impressionable, military-worshipping teenagers.
Here, then, is what I mean by "hero": someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane).
"Hero," sadly, is now used far too cavalierly. Sportscasters, for example, routinely refer to highly paid jocks who hit walk-off home runs or score game-winning touchdowns as heroes. Even though I come from a family of firefighters (and one police officer), the most heroic person I’ve ever known was neither a firefighter nor a cop nor a jock: She was my mother, a homemaker who raised five kids and endured without complaint the ravages of cancer in the 1970s, with its then crude chemotherapy regimen, its painful cobalt treatments, the collateral damage of loss of hair, vitality and lucidity. In refusing to rail against her fate or to take her pain out on others, she set an example of selfless courage and heroism I’ll never forget.