After the POWs were found over the weekend various people started referring to them as heroes, even though the former POWs insist they are nothing of the sort. It seems there are two major problems with the use of the word hero. First, it is frequently not applied to people deserving the term such as the great industrialists and businessmen, who are usually villified. This point is covered adequately in an op-ed piece by Scott McConnell of the Ayn Rand Institute. Second, and the point that relates to the POWs, is that it is frequently applied to people, who while they may be termed brave and good, simply do not deserve to be put in the same category of people who actually are heroes.
In my opinion the term hero should be limited to exceptional people who, through their own effort either create or preserve a great value. Thus a firefighter who fights fires and preserves peoples' lives and property can be a hero. A soldier who exhibits exceptional bravery under fire and saves his fellow injured soldiers or achieves a difficult military objective is a hero. An inventor who builds a new beneficial machine is a hero. A businessman who builds a business empire that provides goods and services to people where there was nothing before is a hero. However, simply surviving under torturous conditions may be admirable in many ways but it simply does not rise to the level of heroism. In order to be hero one must have acted in some way to be deserving of the term and simply being held in dire circumstances does not qualify. Of course, if we really wish to dilute the term we could say that all soldiers are heroes because compared to us civilians they do exceptional things every day but the problem with such an approach is that we then lose the distinctive positive moral meaning of the term hero and I think that would be shame.