The Carnagie Hero Award: Reclaiming the Word “Hero”

The Carnagie Hero AwardWilliam sent me some information about The Carnagie Hero Award. He sent it because he knows how much I hate the way we tend to turn everyone into heroes. I’m sick to death of hearing that everyone in the military and every police officer on the beat is a hero. The award literature puts it beautifully, “We need to stop throwing hollow praise on people doing the job they are paid to do: cops, firefighters, and military.”

That’s the thing. Most people don’t know just how well police officers and firefighters are paid. These are, after all, people who need no education or much in the way of special training. A friend of my family failed as a police officer because he couldn’t do the paper work. Basically, he was functionally illiterate. And the biggest part of an officer’s job is doing paper work. So the hardest part of an officer’s job is doing what pretty much everyone with a corporate job does. Except police offers retire early with a nice pension. Corporate workers usually get fired in their 50s because hiring someone fresh out of college is cheaper. And there is no pension. Go into a McDonald’s sometime and spot the ex-corporate workers. They’re the old people sprinkling salt on your fries.

I would never be a firefighter, because fire is my greatest fear. But the vast majority of firefighters’ time is spent doing nothing. They do a lot of stuff like showing up when someone has a heart attack. There’s already an ambulance and a couple of police cars, but they also need a firetruck — apparently because the firefighters don’t have anything else to do. Looking at stories from firefighters, it seems they have to deal with about one real fire per week. But it depends. Firefighters in cities see more action than firefighters in rural areas. Regardless, the job can be dangerous, but mostly it isn’t.

And then we have the military. They aren’t paid particularly well. But they serve for 20 years and then retire quite comfortably. I think a lot more people would go into the military if they knew what work was like in the private sector. We may have a culture that worships youth, but in business, it is even worse. You aren’t seen as more valuable as you get older — as you should. You are seen as too expensive.

Some Professions Are Dangerous

Regardless, all the people who go into these professions — police, firefighting, military — know what they are doing. And they are compensated well given that none of these jobs take anything as demanding as a college degree to qualify. Yet our society insists upon calling these people “heroes.” I am so sick of hearing police officers saying, “When I leave for work in the morning, I don’t know if I’m coming home that night.” Yeah, paper cuts can be really dangerous! Really: this is something that anyone could say. And truck drivers (who are more likely to die on the job than police officers) never say this. No one makes a note of what heroes Walmart truck drivers are.

During the recent Tubbs Fire where I live, everywhere I went, I saw signs saying things like, “Thank you firefighters!” You know, there were a lot of people who fought that fire that didn’t get any recognition: California prison inmates. “The first inmate crews to the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County and Atlas Fire in Napa and Solano counties worked for 72 straight hours.” They get paid $1 per hour when they are actively fighting a fire. They got little recognition. As far as I know, none of them were called heroes. And rightly so. They did sign up for the job.

Reclaiming the Word “Hero”

But The Carnagie Hero Award would like to take back the word “hero” and use it correctly. If I know there is an old woman in the house across the street and I rescue her from her burning house, I’m a hero. But if I do the same for my infant son in my house, I’m not; I’m just a normal father. But most of all, if I’m a firefighter and I save one from a burning house, I’m not a hero; I’m just doing my job.

As it is, the word “hero” has no meaning in our society. It’s just something we throw around for any police officer, even if they have a desk job. Or for an Army Sargent wo works in the motor pool. There are heroes in the real world. But it doesn’t matter as long as we apply the word “hero” to anyone with certain job titles.


I just realized that I published this on Veterans Day. This was not intentional. But given that I think most US wars are simply to protect our empire, I’m not that keen on the holiday. But I meant no offense.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “The Carnagie Hero Award: Reclaiming the Word “Hero”

  1. The biggest heroes who made a difference in my life were teachers. They saw a messed-up kid from a messed-up home and they gave me encouragement I needed, without personalizing it, without making me desperate for their approval. That’s a tricky balancing act. It takes more skill than wielding a gun. That’s quite likely why I married a teacher. The good ones are absolute heroes, to me.

  2. The switch from “Armistice Day,” which celebrated the end of the War to End all Wars, to “Veterans’ Day,” which celebrated warriors (at least those on our side), took place in 1954–the same year that “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Obedience…er, Allegiance. Onward, Christian soldiers!

    ”O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire…We ask it, in thy name, Amen.” – Mark Twain

    • What drives me bananas is how every holiday is “support the troops day” now. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Veterans’ Day, Labor Day. Every time, we’re implored to thank the heroes who protect our freedom from, um, Canada. Oh, and on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s & Father’s Day, we get footage of soldiers stationed overseas wishing their best to loved ones back home.

      I guess that leaves us Halloween. Which is about kids liking candy. That’s at least not jingoistic.

  3. I retired w 22 years in the Army and I’m fine with this. Not a single GI has done any actual work for anything remotely approaching the defense of the U.S. Since 1945 outside the people in the strategic warfare community that “fought” the Cold War. To turn every mook in a tree suit into a “hero defending our freedoms” takes a level of ignorant credulity that a street corner hustler would envy.

    One of the biggest offenses the GOP has perpetrated against the nation has been to tie worship of the armed forces with support for imperial geopolitics. If the American public wants our country try to be an empire, fine. That’s their choice. But we need to be clear-eyed about that choice. Calling colonial wog-bashing “fighting terrorism” or “defending freedom” and equating it with stopping the Panzer Lehr outside Bastogne just makes us stupider…

    • Voices like yours will be so important in stopping the next stupid war. Of course we’ll all have to do our part. But vets who know the ugly reality of war have extra credibility. Some of the most passionate protesters against the Vietnam War were people who fought in it, as I’m sure you’re aware.

      Your comments remind me of a friend who fought forest fires. He considered the “hero” label a joke. It was his job, plain and simple. However, he didn’t mind it when the small-town bars near the fire would offer him a free beer. And hey — who’s gonna turn down a free beer?

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