Friday, March 6, 2015

How would we view Audie Murphy today?

A Texas congressman has filed legislation to make Chris Kyle a Medal of Honor winner. Kyle, the former Navy SEAL sniper who has been credited with the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history, was shot and killed at a Texas shooting range two years ago by fellow Iraq War veteran, former Marine Eddie Ray Routh.

Kyle’s four tours in Iraq became the basis of the book American Sniper, and then Clint Eastwood’s recent box office success by the same name.

For conservatives, Kyle is an American hero, a man of lethal intent and accomplishment successfully serving our nation in one of the most demanding and elite units that the United States military has to offer. For liberals, Kyle is an American psycho, showing with bare-boned candor the pathological bloodlust of the warhawks and their supporters, creating men and machines programmed to operate outside the boundaries of civilization.

For conservatives, it is 1944 and the Normandy beaches all over again.

For liberals, it is 1968 and the My Lai Massacre all over again.

It got me to thinking — how would Audie Murphy be viewed today?

A Texas sharecropper’s son who grew up in a hardscrabble life — abandoned by his father at age 5, orphaned on his mother’s death when he was a teenager — Audie Murphy joined the army in 1942 at the age of 17 only after his sister falsified his papers saying he was old enough.

From his time in combat, he became not only a Medal of Honor winner but one of the most highly decorated members of the U.S. military in history. His record of is extensive, incredible, and unquestionably blood-soaked. According to Wikipedia, it included these:

Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross for action taken on 15 August 1944, during the first wave of the Allied invasion of southern France. After landing on Yellow Beach near Ramatuelle, Murphy's platoon was attacked by German soldiers while making their way through a vineyard. He retrieved a machine gun that had been detached from the squad and returned fire at the German soldiers, killing two and wounding one. Two Germans exited a house about 100 yards (91 m) away and appeared to surrender; Murphy's best friend responded to them, and they shot and killed him. Murphy advanced alone on the house under direct fire. He wounded two, killed six, and took eleven prisoner. 
Murphy was with the 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment during the 27–28 August offensive at Montélimar that secured the area from the Germans. Along with the other soldiers who took part in the action, he received the Presidential Unit Citation. 
Murphy's first Purple Heart was for a heel wound received in a mortar shell blast on 15 September 1944 in northeastern France. His first Silver Star came after he killed four and wounded three at a German machine gun position on 2 October at L'Omet quarry in the Cleurie river valley. Three days later, Murphy crawled alone towards the Germans at L'Omet, carrying an SCR436 radio and directing his men for an hour while the Germans fired directly at him. When his men finally took the hill, 15 Germans had been killed and 35 wounded. Murphy's actions earned him a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Silver Star.[56] He was awarded a battlefield commission to second lieutenant on 14 October, which elevated him to platoon leader. While en route to Brouvelieures on 26 October, the 3rd Platoon of Company B was attacked by a German sniper group. Murphy captured two before being shot in the hip by a sniper; he returned fire and shot the sniper between the eyes. At the 3rd General Hospital at Aix-en-Provence,[58] the removal of gangrene from the wound caused partial loss of his hip muscle and kept him out of combat until January. Murphy received his first Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart for this injury. 
The Colmar Pocket, 850 square miles (2,200 km2) in the Vosges Mountains, had been held by German troops since November 1944. On 14 January 1945, Murphy rejoined his platoon, which had been moved to the Colmar area in December. He moved with the 3rd Division on 24 January to the town of Holtzwihr, where they met with a strong German counterattack. He was wounded in both legs, for which he received a second Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for his Purple Heart. As the company awaited reinforcements on 26 January, he was made commander of Company B.  
The Germans scored a direct hit on an M10 tank destroyer, setting it alight, forcing the crew to abandon it.[66] Murphy ordered his men to retreat to positions in the woods, remaining alone at his post shooting his M1 carbine and directing artillery fire via his field telephone while the Germans aimed fire directly at his position. Murphy mounted the abandoned, burning tank destroyer and began firing its .50 caliber machine gun at the advancing Germans, killing a squad crawling through a ditch towards him. For an hour, Murphy stood on the tank destroyer returning German fire from foot soldiers and advancing tanks, killing or wounding 50 Germans. He sustained a leg wound during his stand, and stopped only after he ran out of ammunition. Murphy rejoined his men, disregarding his own wound, and led them back to repel the Germans. He insisted on remaining with his men while his wounds were treated. For his actions that day he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The 3rd Infantry Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions at the Colmar Pocket, giving Murphy a Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for the emblem.

Upon returning to the States, Murphy was feted and celebrated as a war hero.  But he also suffered terribly. Again, Wikipedia:

Murphy had been plagued since his military service with insomnia and bouts of depression, and slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow. A post-service medical examination on 17 June 1947 revealed symptoms of headaches, vomiting, and nightmares about war. His medical records indicated that he took sleeping pills to help prevent nightmares. During the mid-1960s, he recognized his dependence on Placidyl, and locked himself alone in a hotel room for a week to successfully break the addiction. Post-traumatic stress levels exacerbated his innate moodiness, and surfaced in episodes that friends and professional colleagues found alarming. His first wife, Wanda Hendrix, stated that he once held her at gunpoint. She witnessed her husband guilt-ridden and tearful over newsreel footage of German war orphans. Murphy briefly found a creative stress outlet in writing poetry after his Army discharge. His poem "The Crosses Grow on Anzio" appeared in his book To Hell and Back, but was attributed to the fictitious character Kerrigan.  
In an effort to draw attention to the problems of returning Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, Murphy spoke out candidly about his own problems with posttraumatic stress disorder. It was known during Murphy's lifetime as "battle fatigue" and "shell shock", terminology that dated back to World War I. He called on the government to give increased consideration and study to the emotional impact of combat experiences, and to extend health care benefits to war veterans.

Why bring up Audie Murphy? I think the question is more accurately stated: How would we view such a war record as his, a war record we unquestionably lauded in 1945? How would we treat such a man in America today?

In 2015, we have been terribly reductive in our thinking. Every argument must be distillable into a Facebook post where one brilliant quip “destroys” the opposing argument and humiliates the other side. All human actions, no matter how nuanced, no matter how resonant of complex chords and melodies, some pleasant and some not so pleasant, become a Rorschach test with outcome predetermined. It looks like a fish because we believe in fish. It can’t be a fish, because there are no such things as fish.  Now replace the word “fish” with “hero” or "crime" and you’ll see what I mean.

In some ways, we are much more aware of our world.  We have experienced both the Second World War and Vietnam and they taught us different lessons. We now outsource our fighting, and we have multiplied our information sources. If the World War Two generation went off to fight and the Vietnam generation didn’t, still it bears remembering that a college senior burning his draft card in 1968 was born to 24-year-old army veteran in 1947, a guy who had just returned from Normandy or the Colmar Pocket or the Philippines and maybe said "you know, just because they have a lot of brass on their shoulder or a long title next to their name doesn’t necessarily make them right".  The revolution from the 1960s sprang from seeds planted in the 1940s and ‘50s by the generation who obeyed and did not question.

But what did the Vietnam generation teach us?

Today as Americans we are bombarded by the immediacy of it all but feel not its impact. We all care with such earnest intent yet struggle to understand why people don’t live as we do. And we are told that we are separating farther apart, each in our own worlds, each more distant from the other. We spend most of our time congratulating ourselves on being so right, and condemning them for being so wrong, without even a pause to stop talking and listen. Ever more strident, ever more self-righteous.  It can only be a recipe for something that hovers from the ridiculous to the disastrous. And our real enemies grow neither kinder nor gentler, at least as far as we can tell.