Reflections on heroes

There is a simple experiment you can try on the internet. Search on the word "hero" or "heroes" at any of the major search engines. The results will be intriguing. But I won't keep you in suspense. What you'll get are extensive listings of sites devoted to films, television shows, YouTube videos, songs, computer games and comic-strip "superheroes". Among these you may find a sprinkling of sites recognising real human courage. This is a sad state of affairs, and a bit of an indictment. Maybe even more than a "bit".

The heroes documented on this site are definitely not from comic strips. They are real-life heroes who have sustained their heroism over years or decades, often at a terrible personal cost. They are heroes who are willing to act against their own immediate self-interest if that action is in the interest of their community's long-term health. When considering what constitutes heroism and who are the true heroes it is these qualities that have been given priority on this site.

By and large, elite athletes are not heroes, although the mass media often describes them as such. Elite athletes are just doing their job (for which they are well remunerated) or chasing some personal goal.

Contemporary politicians rarely exhibit true heroism, although they too are often credited with heroic attributes. Colin Powell, the former United States secretary of state, was often described as a hero for his role in the war against Iraq in 1991 when he was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Mr Powell does appear to be a decent man but directing a dubious war from a great distance is not the stuff of heroism.

After the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 it appeared that US President George W. Bush would be characterised as a hero for his prosecution of the "war on terrorism". Had that had occurred it would have been a further devaluation of the concept of heroism. President Bush is no Nelson Mandela, or Winston Churchill, or Xanana Gusmao, all of who were or are true heroes.

Heroic leaders come to signify the heroism of those who they represent. They are icons of larger movements and trends and because of this gain even more stature and significance. Behind or alongside every Mandela or Churchill or Gusmao there are dozens or hundreds of other true heroes who lay it all on the line for a just cause.

The ending of apartheid in South Africa could not have been achieved by Mandela and the other leaders of the resistance movement alone. Thousands of black and white South Africans worked quietly and consistently in an atmosphere of great threat to overcome the regime. The penalty for detection was imprisonment, torture or death.

Similarly, thousands of East Timorese bravely withstood the power and capriciousness of the Indonesian regime to eventually see their dream of independence realised.

Without the sacrifice of all the nameless heroes who battled Hitler's bid for world domination, where would we be now?

This site provides a personal selection of heroes from the 20th Century. The information in the profiles has been gathered from credible sources available on the internet and elsewhere.