America’s cultural journey from actual hero Audie Murphy to DemProg “hero” Bowie Bergdahl *UPDATED*

Murphy-Bergdahl collageIt’s quite amazing, isn’t it, that we as a culture have traveled from celebrating the likes of Audi Murphy to having a presidential administration lauding as honorable Bowe Bergdahl, a man who deserted his post and deliberately sought out the enemy. George MacDonald Fraser’s delightful Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II, describing an infantry man’s experiences in Burma during WWII, may offer an answer.

Fraser’s autobiography isn’t concerned with the big picture, although he references it when he needs to give necessary context. Instead, looking back over 50 years, Fraser attempts to revisit his impressions of the very small world he inhabited, consisting of his unit and those other men, both friend of foe, with which his unit intersected. It is a very accessible memoir.

Fraser’s description of his first battle and its aftermath is especially interesting. He describes how, within a minute or two, half his unit was wounded, and two men were dead. Despite these events, Fraser writes that he was able to function because he’d shifted into a battle mode that allowed him to observe what was happening, to make decisions, and to act, all without emotion overwhelming him.

After the battle ended, Fraser writes that the men in the unit, both wounded and whole, were neither exultant nor despairing. They were just tired. They didn’t obsess about the dead but, instead, engaged in a respectful ritual that saw each of them exchange a piece of his military, non-personal kit for that of the dead man’s military, non-personal kit. There was no greed involved, nor was the experience maudlin. Instead, the ritual was an almost businesslike way to remember the dead by keeping something of his nearby.

Having described his first bloody battle and its aftermath, Fraser then launches into an interesting diatribe about the modern habit (i.e., the 1992 habit, which is when he wrote the book) of projecting saccharine emotions onto the troops:

An outsider might have thought, mistakenly, that the section was unmoved by the deaths of Gale and Little. There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phony philosophy. Forster asked “W’ee’s on foorst stag?”; Grandarse said “Not me, any roads; Ah’s aboot knackered”, and rolled up in his blanket; Nick cleaned Tich’s rifle; I washed and dried his pialla; the new section commander – that young corporal who earlier in the day had earned the Military Medal — told off the stag roster; we went to sleep. And that was that. It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said.

It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.

The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.

But that was half a century ago. Things are different now, when the media seem to feel they have a duty to dwell on emotion, the more harrowing the better, and to encourage its indulgence. The cameras close on stricken families at funerals, interviewers probe relentlessly to uncover grief, pain, fear, and shock, know no reticence or even decency in their eagerness to make the viewers’ flesh creep, and wallow in the sentimental cliché (victims are always “innocent”, relatives must be “loved ones”). And the obscene intrusion is justified as “caring” and “compassionate” when it is the exact opposite.

The pity is that the public shapes its behaviour to the media’s demands. The bereaved feel obliged to weep and lament for the cameras (and feel a flattering importance at their attention). Even young soldiers, on the eye of action in the Gulf, confessed, under a nauseating inquisition designed to uncover their fears, to being frightened — of course they were frightened, just as we were, but no interviewer in our time was so shameless, cruel, or unpatriotic as to badger us into admitting our human weakness for public consumption, and thereby undermining public morale, and our own. In such a climate, it is not to be wondered at that a general should agonise publicly about the fears and soul-searchings of command — Slim and Montgomery and MacArthur had them, too, but they would rather have been shot than admit it. They knew the value of the stiff upper lip.

The damage that fashionable attitudes, reflected (and created) by television, have done to the public spirit, is incalculable. It has been weakened to the point where it is taken for granted that anyone who has suffered loss and hardship must be in need of “counselling”; that soldiers will suffer from “post-battle traumatic stress” and need psychiatric help. One wonders how Londoners survived the Blitz without the interference of unqualified, jargonmumbling “counsellors”, or how an overwhelming number of 1940s servicemen returned successfully to civilian life without benefit of brain-washing. Certainly, a small minority needed help; war can leave terrible mental scars — but the numbers will increase, and the scars enlarge, in proportion to society’s insistence on raising spectres which would be better left alone. Tell people they should feel something, and they’ll not only feel it, they’ll regard themselves as entitled and obliged to feel it.

(Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II (Skyhorse Publishing. Kindle Edition), pp. 88-90.)  Good, isn’t it?  It also reads as interesting prelude to Britain’s mass hysteria when Princess Diana died.  But I digress.

Fraser’s right, of course, about the way in which our Oprah-ized society weakens people. Even before Oprah came along to make a profit by turning everyone into an emotional victim, Wendy Kaminer was describing it in her acerbic, interesting book, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help.  In it, Kaminer juxtaposed women’s encounter groups that encouraged each women to recognize herself as a victim of the American patriarchy, with the experiences of women who had escaped from Vietnam and Cambodia, and just wanted to get on with their lives.  A therapeutic culture is, by definition, a mentally sick one.

What Fraser’s analysis necessarily misses, because he was in England, not America, is that America went through an intermediate stage regarding the troops, between reverence and condescension, and that this intermediate stage goes a long way to explaining the current bathos that oozes from the media and Hollywood. We, after all, had Vietnam.

During the Vietnam era, Leftists reframed America’s view of soldiers. They were no longer ordinary men and women called upon to defend their country, who tapped into their innate physical, mental, and emotional strength to do so. Instead, America’s troops were murderous psychopaths who came home either as deranged psychopaths or as drugged-out psychopaths.

The problem with this view of the Vietnam vets is that it was a lie and you cannot sustain such a huge lie indefinitely. At a certain point, people are going to look around and think, “Wait a minute. Even though he served in Vietnam, Uncle Jim’s not a deranged, schizophrenic drug addict. Instead, he’s a stable, loving, useful member of society. Sure, he occasionally has a drink too many, but Hippie Bob, who stayed home, is perpetually stoned, and what’s his excuse? Knowing Uncle Jim and his friends as I do, I also don’t believe that any of them were ever deranged, psychopathic killers, even in the midst of war.”

The Vietnam vet slander also fell apart with people like me, whose father’s were to old for the Vietnam war, and whose peers were too young.  We looked at our WWII-era fathers and his friends, and thought “World War II was just as bad as, if not worse than, the Vietnam war. Why are my Dad and his generation normal, while the Vietnam vets are not?”  The obvious answer, after looking at actual, rather than Hollywood-ized, Vietnam vets, is that they were just as normal or abnormal as our father’s generation, or as any generation.

Put another way, Vietnam vets are and were normal. It was the media’s and Hollywood’s take on them that was abnormal.

This realization meant that Leftists could no longer use demonizing the troops as an anti-War tactic.  They had to come up with something else, and the therapeutic culture offers just what they needed: America’s troops were recast, not as citizen soldiers, but as soldier victims.  Each and every one is a sensitive soul who is traumatized merely by donning the uniform, never mind actually having to fight, survive, and kill.

Having created the template, the media must then repeatedly revisit each soldier’s trauma in order to heal the military’s collective angst. Under the new view, which Fraser so disdainfully articulates, our troops aren’t heroes, they’re victims. Indeed, we use the word “hero” to describe, not the winning fighters, but those men and women who have suffered overwhelming psychic injury merely because they were forced to wear that cruel uniform.

And that, my friends, is how we moved from being a culture that celebrated Audie Murphy’s actual heroism, to being a culture whose president celebrates as heroism the mere fact that Bowe Bergdahl donned a uniform — never mind that he never did anything remotely heroic while he wore it, and that he then stripped that uniform from his body and hied himself off to the enemy.

UPDATE:  Tom Cotton’s comments about the Bowe Bergdahl exchange seem apropos:

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  • 11B40

    Growing up, as I did, in the aftermath of WW II, I often feel a debt of gratitude to the movies that were subsequently produced for surviving my all-expense-paid tour of somewhat sunny Southeast Asia. One of them is Audie Murphy’s boipic “To Hell and Back” as well as (Korea’s) “Pork Chop Hill”, and my personal favorite “A Walk in the Sun”.  While the technologies of film have progressed over the years, the education in the films of those eras is still available for the learning.  Being prepared not only for the conflict with the enemy but also the conflict within his own army is something all soldiers need to be made aware of. It’s such a shame that the war movies of that era no longer have a place in our folk culture and the rare ones now being produced are too much political correctness by other means.
    As to WW II in Burma, I would also recommend Field Marshall Viscount (whatever that is ???) Slim’s “Defeat into Victory” as a very good read about the miserable war in that miserable corner of the world.

  • 11B40

    And as to Rep. Cotton’s videos, I would offer this.
    For a while now, the “Leave No Man Behind” (LNMB) concept has been a bit of a burr under my cerebral saddle. It seems to have a great deal of resonance, especially with military and former military webizens.
    Recently, I re-read Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” about the “Battle of the Black Sea” in Mogadishu, Somalia in the early part of President Clinton’s first term and that reading brought forward in what’s left of my mind a concern about what’s involved in that concept and its implications for today’s soldiers.
    Admittedly, it has been a long time since my military service. That was back when the draft didn’t have anything to do with ventilation. So, I have no direct experience of today’s volunteer military. But, be that as it may, I am concerned that LNMB seems to be progressing from a mantra to something approaching a fetish and I worry about its impact on our troops.
    When I went off to see what kind of an infantryman I could be, dying wasn’t my largest fear. My father had survived his infantry stint in WW II and I fancied myself as good a man as he. And, as a twenty year old, my sense of mortality was in its earliest stage of development. My greatest fear, by far, was being crippled. Secondarily, it was failing in my duties. Subsequently, when I became a squad leader, which was somewhat after I was made a squad leader, I bumped up against the LNMB concept big time. And it’s the resonance of that emotional experience that has me concerned.
    Even at the mantra end of the spectrum, LNMB seems so terse as to be almost mindless. I have to wonder if there is some super-secret calculus that I failed to apprehend. I mean, are our troops all committed to dying lest one get left behind? While “Black Hawk Down” may be the exception rather than the rule, my take on it is that its “Lost Convoy” is an adequate example as to how very wrong military thinking can go when it is overly influenced by such thinking.
    (For those unfamiliar with “Black Hawk Down”, the “Lost Convoy” was supposed to remove the American soldiers from Mogadishu after their raid. When the first Black Hawk was shot down, the convoy was diverted to the crash site and was exposed to heavy enemy fire while trying to follow radio directions. It ended up returning to base without ever reaching the crash site but with very heavy casualties.)
    At the other end of the spectrum and in spite of all the technology, efforts, and bravery, American soldiers were tragically left behind at the second helicopter crash site.
    Thus, the crux of my concern, has LNMB become some kind of unit fetish as opposed to say, and this will sound trite, an organizational goal? Has it become a too easy answer to too difficult problems? Are we setting our soldiers up for failure or worse by allowing LNMB too much of their and their superiors mindshare. Hopefully, nobody wants to leave anyone behind but isn’t more complex thinking better than relying on slogans?
    I think that I understand the usefulness of LNMB as a tool. But sometimes people take an idea way too far. Our military routinely classifies casualties as killed, wounded, or missing, the proverbial KIAs, WIAs, and MIAs. No one of any military intelligence or experience would stand up and pronounce “Let no man be killed.” or “Let no man be wounded.” because those events are not under anything approaching adequate control. And believe me, I know that fear of abandonment does not usually contribute to mission accomplishment. But soldiers do get lost, confused, or even vaporized and investing more military assets in their recovery is not a risk-free endeavor. Subscription to a terse mantra is not the best of reasons.

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  • Ymarsakar

    There are several notable changes between WWII and Vietnam.
    1. Operant training, successful reconditioning of human reflexes, increased the trigger pull ratio far beyond 10-50% in Vietnam. In WWII, it was below 50%. Below 10% of the entire unit sometimes. And these were front line units. What were the rest of the people doing? Throwing grenades, reloading weapons, digging trenches, calling in fire support, giving orders for tactical maneuvers. Machine gun crews had much better effectiveness, not entirely due to the weapon.
    2. WWII units entered war as one and left war as one unit. This often caused PTSD or a different version called combat shock or fatigue. The Vietnam eggheads thought a new idea for that theater, they would rotate individuals through a unit on their own personal call up and down timer. This meant that units saw people entering and leaving, just like Berg, based upon their own personal benefit and influence (Kerry).
    Ever notice how the recent mass murderers have been seeing Leftist psychotherapists, healers, and what not? Imagine what the Left could do to vulnerable Vietnam veterans that experienced war and could not communicate it or work it out, but had to obey the dictates of the Left’s psychotherapy wing. How maladjusted would you be after a few years of a psychotherapist increasing your guilt and feelings of rage at society? The fortunate ones self medicated with alcohol and saw no shrinks. The even more fortunate ones formed Vietnam veteran associations, got in touch with veterans from their own units, and formed social bonds. Social bonds destroy suicidal or mass murder tendencies, unless ordered by the social authority to kill.
    So there’s a big difference between Vietnam and WWII.

  • jj

    I suspect you may find out that ‘the culture’ has moved a bit less than you think it has.  The jackass in the white house and his epic halfwit sidekick Susan Rice may regard the mere donning of the uniform by Bergdahl as somehow heroic – most of the rest of America does not.  And will not.  Even the apparent dingbats who inhabit his home town felt compelled to cancel the parade for his homecoming.  And I notice Bergdahl’s parents have retreated back beneath their rock and have been maintaining a dignified silence, so it may not be entirely hopeless.
    I’ve always been of two minds about the problems of veterans.  (I mean the shrink-oriented problems, not the ‘I’d like a goddam job’ type ones.)  On the one hand we’re faced with the previous generation’s relentless normalcy, and considerable post-war achievement in launching the country, as you highlight.  On the other hand we’re faced with the alleged broken reeds of our own generation, and left to wonder what the hell happened to American youth between 1940 and 1960.
    The answer probably is: not very much.  We are for the most part victims of propaganda.  We were propagandized in one direction for WWII – and that propaganda was  not, as it turns out, particularly more true than any which came later.  We’ve been through this just recently in another post, and the ‘greatest generation,’ though pretty great, was, when scrutinized in detail, not nearly as great as was shoved into us when growing up.  The war was won by the arsenal of democracy, not the individual soldiers.  When you look at the cold statistics, nearly every nation involved in WWII got more mileage out of, and a better return on investment from, their individual soldiers than America did from its.  (Americans, draftees, anyway, don’t make great soldiers.  The volunteers do.  Maybe we actually believe that ‘I’m the captain of my soul’ stuff.)  But we were relentlessly propagandized from our youth right up through Tom Brokaw to believe we were a nation of heroes back in the forties.  We forgave the deserters – all except one – and just don’t talk about places like plot E at the Oise-Aisne American cemetery a few miles north of Chateau Thierry where lie in unmarked graves those guys we hung during the war, not for desertion but for stuff like rape, murder, etc., etc.
    The came the Vietnam generation.  Not much changed in the military, but a lot changed in the raw material.  It follows from the national attitude: WWII was a ‘good’ war so everybody touched by it was a hero.  Vietnam was not universally regarded as a good thing and the national attitude about it was ambivalent on its best day, unspeakable most days.  The result – obvious and inevitable – was that those touched by it and involved in it were not granted the status of heroes, but were instead often enough pariahs when they got home and were spat upon in airports.
    What was the difference between the WWII soldiers and the Vietnam era soldiers?  Not a damn thing: both generations were mostly draftees; neither of them particularly happy about it (nobody ever is in spite of the propaganda about enthusiastic enlistees post Pearl Harbor); and just as many in Europe in 1944-45 didn’t quite know why the hell they were there anymore than they did in Con Thien in 1968.  And a hell of a lot more of them just downed tools and walked away from the ‘greatest’ generation than did from the ‘lame’ generation that followed.  (Though granted: it’s a lot easier to desert from outside Paris or in the middle of the Hurtgen Forest than it is in Dak To.)
    I agree with you: what changed had more to do with the public attitude and response – the propaganda – than it did with the soldiers themselves.  The guys who acquitted themselves well in WWII – and there were plenty – were given respect and support from the first hour, and a parade when they got home.  The guys who went to Vietnam were not.  They were treated to Jane Fonda’s picture in an enemy anti-aircraft emplacement, all kinds of mealy-mouthed (and what in an earlier day would have been seen as traitorous) crap from politicians, and rancor from their neighbors and the press over the acts of a few that were allowed to tar them all.  Everybody knew all about My Lai in five minutes, because the press didn’t like the war.  Nobody yet knows about the people brutalized and killed by the denizens of Plot E in 1944 because the military arrested them, tried them, hung them, put them in unmarked graves, and told the press to f*** off when asked – if anyone ever asked.  (And most of our lions of the press, Cronkite, Rooney, Murrow, Smith; didn’t ask.  It was better for us all if everybody was a hero.)
    And now the propaganda pendulum has swung again.  Everybody in the military is a hero, just for being in the military.  That’s probably closer to the truth than it’s ever been, too: one of the major positives about an all-volunteer force.  But it still isn’t objective truth.
    We can probably never really arrive at objective truth.  I have in the past mentioned my recon-patroller friend, a good man, a lovely guy, a lot of fun.  Perfectly at home killing people with his bare hands in order not to alert the bad guys all around them that he and his boys were there in their midst, trolling for someone to take prisoner and then screw information out of back at the hootch.  Is there something wrong with him?  Doesn’t seem to be: known him for a long time, good guy.  He didn’t even spit back at the people who assailed him at the airport when he arrived back home.  Which was nice of him: he knew/knows about eight ways of killing you with one blow.
    More than anyone else he and his old platoon member friend (the two of them are 6’5″ tall, and were solid as oak trees in their youth) remind me of parents of friends who fought through Europe in 1944-’45.  Just guys.  These are big guys, but, like the parents I mention: if you didn’t know you’d never know.  Just people.  Go to work, raise kids, pay taxes, smile politely at tough-guy cops when pulled over – you know.  Guys.  Not victims.  Not heroes in their own eyes, either.  Just guys.
    I think we’re still a culture that thinks those guys – and Audie Murphy – were pretty good.  I don’t think anybody beyond the fence at the white house is going to have much use for Bergdahl.  They may well try to paint him as a victim – they’ve already begun – but it doesn’t seem to me to be taking worth a damn.  I don’t imagine it will.    

  • raymondjelli

    Very hard to say if there is a real cultural shift such as therapeutic culture when this administration is so blatantly class war leftist. I mean we are looking at an admin that called Occupiers brave, glorified  Bergdahl but killed off actual veterans in the VA and did everything they could to humiliate veterans visiting memorials that the veterans themselves earned during the budget fight.
    How do we know where the culture is on an individual level when the culture on the governmental level is urban political machine trash.

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  • Rationalist

    take that photo of piece of crap traitor Bergdahl away from the true American hero Audie Murphy – he doesn’t even belong on the same page !