From Chesley Sullenberger to the rescue workers of 9/11, we revere people who commit outstanding acts of bravery. But what happens after the great moment of sacrifice?
In our imaginations, heroes live forever in the singular moment of glory: the fall on the grenade, the dive into the subway platform, the seemingly effortless glide of the airplane onto the Hudson River.
But in real life, heroes do die. Tim Hetherington, who devoted his life to capturing the most dangerous places on earth so that the rest of us might see, was killed covering the conflict in Libya. The first responders who plunged into the smoking, hellish wreckage of the World Trade Centers sacrificed their own lives for others. And to date, there have been more than 6,000 fatalities of service members involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
In What It Is Like to Go to War, Karl Marlantes nonfiction follow-up to his Vietnam novel, Matterhorn, he considers the idea of the hero in our society, writing, "Wanting to be a society-certified hero is a specialness issue. I see people killing themselves at work and at home to pay for mortgages that are too much for them, or taking vacations they can't afford in the right spots, all to be special. Wanting a medal in war is just killing yourself at a faster pace, for all the same wrong reasons."