When Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his crippled airplane in the Hudson River a few years back, saving every passenger onboard, he was understandably hailed as a hero. True, one could argue that the captain was simply doing his job, but he certainly performed admirably under a tremendous amount of pressure. No one can begrudge him his moment of national adoration, even if it did lead to an unfortunate increase in the number of children named "Chesley."
To get a sense of how heroism has been devalued, we need only look to Italy.
In the wake of the disaster aboard the Costa Concordia cruise ship, a drama has unfolded, casting two central figures in the roles of celebrated hero and reprehensible villain. The cruise ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, faces public condemnation and possible manslaughter charges for abandoning his post when his ship ran aground (he has claimed that he was actually knocked overboard while overseeing the ship's evacuation). On the other hand, Coast Guard Captain Gregorio de Falco is receiving Sullenbergerian levels of praise for his actions during the disaster, specifically for ordering Captain Schettino back onto his ship. His salty phrase, roughly translated as, "Get back on board, Schmuck!" has become a cultural phenomenon in Italy. T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase are selling like hotcakes--or whatever Italians buy in mass quantities instead of hotcakes. . . olives, maybe?.
Now, if Schettino did in fact abandon ship, he displayed pathetic cowardice. A captain's duty to go down with his ship--or at least make sure that the passengers and crew are safe before leaving--is a time-honored part of maritime law and tradition. But while Captain De Falco should be commended for maintaining his composure and doing his job, I fail to see how his actions merit the label "heroic." It's hardly "heroic" to order someone else to go back into a life-threatening situation. When a fireman runs into a burning building, he displays tremendous bravery and self-sacrifice; when his commander orders him into the building, he is merely doing his job.
In fairness to Captain De Falco, he himself is dismissing any talk of his own heroism. Indeed, that may be his most heroic action of all.