Since the onset of COVID-19, the word “hero” has been used far too often to describe people who may or may not be heroic in any sense. Displays of heroism can make for redundant advertisements and slogans, not to mention aggrandizing social-media posts. As the idea of heroism is diluted and thinly spread, everyone could very well be a hero, and in the era of pandemic and protest, the American media cheer on all essential workers and protestors as such, no matter their occupation, their actions, or their virtues.
Are we forgetting what the label “hero” means? For whom it should be reserved? For the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the hero is foremost a “mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability,” or an “illustrious warrior” — truly people few and far between, at least in the reality outside books and movies. Most would settle on this definition: “a person admired for achievement and noble qualities; one who shows great courage.”
A graduating high-school senior may consider her favorite teacher a bona fide hero for driving by her house with a festooned minivan. But should that teacher be depicted as a hero in our culture? Is a thoughtful deed a noble one? What about the Grubhub driver? Cue triumphant music. Greasy paper bag in hand, our protagonist strides up the path to the front door, gallant; rings doorbell; delivers food. Family is happy. Family is safe. The courageous Grubhub driver spared the family a visit to the grocery store, and we are told he is a hero, making the world a safer place.
What about the nurses, doctors, and first responders? Many of these people are heroes, unquestionably. Some, however, are not. My sister works as a nurse in Richmond, Virginia, and by the tired rationale of local and national media, she is the most heroic of unsung humans to have emerged from the crisis — decked out in PPE, serving on the front lines of war, and fighting the invisible enemy. But my sister is the first to admit: She is no hero, and she hasn’t acted heroically, either. Even during her stint in the COVID unit, the risk was low. And although there is a stark difference between the VCU Medical Center and, say, New York-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital, the media’s blanket gesture for health-care workers in particular does not, and never will, distinguish the ordinary from the extraordinary.
But on June 6, we remember indisputable heroes. We remember, and honor, the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy seventy-six years ago. From S. L. A. Marshall’s account of Omaha Beach, published in the November 1960 issue of The Atlantic:
Already the sea runs red. Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide.
Their actions and sacrifice, their heroism—it is beyond our modern understanding.