HEROISM | How Would You Define a Hero?

Jon Dunmore

WRITINGS_LetterCapitals_The movie AMERICAN SNIPER opens up another definition of the word “hero” – a sneaky prick who shoots you in the back.

And it got me thinking: Just what is this American fascination with the term “hero?”

The word is bandied about like a stray volleyball, encapsulating foopball players, ath-o-letes, musicians, actors, to people who are merely doing their job (like firefighters or police), to people simply jumping from The World Trade Center…

AmericanSniper_poster250pxAt an interview, the star of AMERICAN SNIPER, Bradley Cooper, is asked, “How would you define a hero?” His answer is forgettable tripe. So let’s ask that question here. Let’s go to the dictionary first, where we discover a “hero” is:

1) A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.
2) the central figure in an event, period, or movement
3) a person admired for their achievements and noble qualities
4) an object of extreme admiration and devotion : idol
5) the principal character in a literary or dramatic work
[composited from many online dictionaries]

Most of the definitions are from the subjective point of view, or “after the fact”; that is, a view or opinion of another person. (And I haven’t included the sandwich or the Greek mythology.) Definition number 1 is our concern, as it tries to define the inherent criteria for someone regarded as a “hero”.

The point that I want so desperately to get across is that “bravery” is different to “heroism.” I think the problem is that the two have become confused, conflated and bloated out of proportion in American vernacular.

Note that if you perform a “feat of courage” that you were trained to perform, then it ain’t a feat of courage. It’s only looked upon as courageous from the point of view of the people who were not trained to perform it. To you, as a trained professional – it’s your job. In that same vein, if you “risk” or “sacrifice” your life, but you were trained or indoctrinated into this mindset, then it should not be considered a “risk” or “sacrifice.”

I don’t know about the mindset in other countries, but in America at least, the populace needs to get its definitions straight on BRAVERY and HEROISM.

Being brave is when you do something you are trained to do in an adverse situation. Being heroic is when an adverse situation forces you to do something you were NOT trained to do. Being brave is when you enter the fray because you have no options. Being heroic is when you have the option not to be.

All heroes are brave, but not all brave people are heroes.

EXHIBIT A (Fighting Fire With Bravery):
heroism_firefighterA firefighter who climbs into a burning building to rescue a child has been trained to do just that. It’s his JOB. He entered into the profession knowing full well that he would be required as per the conditions of his job that he would have to “run into burning buildings to rescue people.” Is it a risk? Yes. But a meticulously calculated one, with every contingency planned for in a protocol guide. Is he brave? Hell, yes. The physical and psychological hurdles he is overcoming to perform that feat are remarkable. Is it a sacrifice if he loses his life? No. Because that’s part of the job. He entered into his contract knowing that he may lose his life in the performance of his job. Is he a hero? Not in the least. Why not? Because he was trained to do this job. He’s doing it. Have a Coke and a smile and get on with it.

Now all the knee-jerkers need to understand this: My summation of whether they are “heroes” or not does not mean I do not respect firefighters. My respect is sky high. I just don’t want to go overboard and call you something technically and embarrassingly incorrect, like “hero.” If I get my car serviced, I expect the mechanics to do their job and I respect them for their expertise and professionalism. If I’m in a burning building, I want those firefighters to exhibit the same expertise and professionalism in doing their job and saving my pasty ass. And I’ll reciprocate with utmost respect.

The next kneejerk is that you cannot compare fixing a car to saving a life. You can if you regard them both as JOBS. One guy’s job is to save a victim’s life by keeping his car running so he can continue earning and buying food to live; one guy’s job is to ensure a means of egress from a structure that also threatens to rob the victim of their capacity to earn and eat and live. One job just seems more important than the other. They’re both THE SAME when you melt them down to essentials. (And a meltdown is exactly what half of America is having by reading this.)

EXHIBIT B (Medals for Muscle Memory) :
If I, as a starving musician, had to drag someone out of a firefight, my training as a musician never conditioned me to withstand the physical and psychological traumas of doing such a thing. In that sense, if I succeeded, I’d be a real hero. I’m not saying I would drag someone out of a firefight. Hell, if you’re stuck in a firefight, don’t hold your breath that I’m coming to save you. I’m not going to be a “hero.” I’d trip over and start crying. But see that military guy over there? His training is specifically designed to condition him on dragging guys out of a firefight. He knows the best techniques for taking cover, for shielding the victim, he’s wearing armor, he’s trained to see and hear where the shots are coming from, how many, how powerful, he has a protocol to follow in moving injured bodies, etc. I’d leave the job of coming to get you to the professional because he was trained to do it right. And I’d respect that professional for a job well done.

Thanks pal, you saved my friend from a firefight. What? They’re gonna give a you a medal for it? Well, good for you, but I don’t see the need. Where’s the “heroism” in it? You just did your job. It’s just muscle memory at this point. Like it’s muscle memory for me to play Highway Star. Can I have a medal?

Now, you wouldn’t hire that military guy to entertain at your convention because he’d trip over and start crying. On the other hand, hire ME for that, because I was trained to do it right. My point is: Don’t call either of us “heroes” for what we were trained to do. (But I’ll take that medal if you got it.)

EXHIBIT C (Die Hard With A Transcendence):
DieHard_250pxLet’s make this all understandable by looking at – Bruce Willis. In DIE HARD, he was undoubtedly “brave” when taking on the bad guys. He used his training as a cop to stay on the fringe and mess up their plans. He had no options. When the FBI and cops arrive, his options mount: he can now surrender to the bad guys and wait to be rescued by the authorities, or he can escape to the outside and attack with them, or he can work with them to make their ingress more effective, etc. but he chose another route. He chose to take the rescue of the hostages into his own hands because he could see the situation getting pear-shaped. That was when he transcended into “hero.” Because he had the option not to be one.

In ARMAGEDDON, Bruce Willis is hired by NASA to do what he was trained to do – drill holes. To save himself and his planet, he has no option but to accept the gig. Adverse situation, yet trained to do it. Brave. He transcends when he has the option to let his second-in-command stay on the asteroid and blow it up – and he chooses to do it himself. Hero.

One’s an enjoyable boy’s action movie and one’s an execrable space action adventure, but the writers of both tales understand the criteria of Hero.

All heroes are brave, but not all brave people are heroes.

EXHIBIT D (Military Marketing):
We come full circle to AMERICAN SNIPER and its subject matter, sniper Chris Kyle, who is roundly regarded as an American hero. (He died a tragic death at the hands of another American military guy – which irony tells us is also considered an American hero.) Is Kyle – a man who merely did a job he was trained to do – truly a hero? Kneejerk maroon-neck reaction is to tearfully salute and declare Yes. But reality is No. (This is not even taking into account all his lies and boasts about killing people in civilian life and donating his book proceeds to charity, etc. This is merely looking at his military service with the sniper rifle.)

A racecar driver driving a racecar is doing what he’s conditioned to do. A guitarist playing a guitar is doing what he’s conditioned to do. A carpenter building a shed is doing what he’s conditioned to do. A sniper with a sniper rifle is doing what he’s conditioned to do.


Military personnel somehow get automatically lumped into “hero” status when they are doing nothing more than what they were conditioned to do. They are not “heroic” if they’ve been conditioned/trained to use guns, to react to IEDs, to be in firefights, yes, even to drag their compatriots out of burning buildings. That’s what all that hosing down and all that lying around in the mud and being screamed at like juveniles is for. Right? But they are brave. And that’s all they should be called, like the slogan. (Although sometimes, what seems like bravery might just be psychosis. For example, if they’re incognizant of how terrifying or dangerous a situation really is, and retain that poker face, that could just mean they are sociopathic or ignorant.)

It’s not like being in a firefight should come as a surprise to you. You’re not walking down a lazy sun-dappled street in Iowa in cargo shorts and a tank top with an ice cream cone and suddenly blindsided by fanatic Muslims with guns – you’re patrolling a blasted Middle East city in Iron Man armor with enough killing power to take down a charging elephant herd. And this is what you trained for – specifically! What exactly is “heroic” about entering into a firefight prepared like Mother Badass? What exactly is heroic about doing what you were trained to do? You might as well give medals to all the guys on the construction line at Ford.

On patrol in Islamabad, you enter into that situation with your eyes wide open and there are no surprises. “What about the Iraqi sniper who is targeting our men? What about IEDs?” If those come as surprises to you, then you were asleep during your military training. All adverse contingencies of your job were covered in your training. You have a specific sniper protocol, a specific IED protocol, a specific patrol formation, specific driving methods, targeting, firing, reporting, every single aspect of your tour down to your bedsheets and buttons is minutely scrutinized and tabulated. You know this! Don’t act so fucking surprised and claim hero-ship because you dragged one of your friends out of a firefight. Any one of us would do the same thing, donkeyhole, training or no training. Did you ever save an enemy soldier from being killed? Now THAT – in your christian god’s eyes – would be truly heroic. Wouldn’t it? “Love thine enemy as thyself,” and all that hogwash.

It makes me laugh how American troops think themselves so badass, when they’re just following orders into meaningless conflicts created by their small-dick greed-mongering leaders. That’s not “bravery” – that’s “following orders on threat of court-martial.” You know what would be badass, you nutless jarheads? Being strong-minded enough not to join the military just to prove you’ve got a dick.

Why does the marketing push the concept that joining the military automatically elevates you to “hero”? Easy. Boosts recruitment. The glamour is sold to all those who cannot garner respect from their lowbrow walk of life; join the military and everyone will look up to you BECAUSE YOU’RE A HERO AUTOMATICALLY. Notice how the military ads constantly appeal to the “high end” jobs? Technical engineers and doctors and computer programmers. Yet all we ever see in declassified military footage are the drogues in the field shooting at nothing across an expanse of desert, and kicking down civilian doors. How come the ads never show those grunt jobs, even though those jobs sell the video games? Well, I guess they’re selling enough HALO 3 units to the lowbrows that they’re now focusing on the jobs that require a modicum of intelligence.

All soldiers are dumb, but not all dumb people are soldiers.




by Jon Dunmore © 31 Jan 2015.


Word Count: 2,160      Rant: 29
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