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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day: Things we learned from Audie Murphy [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Early Monday post for the holiday.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific
In the US, Monday is Memorial Day, a day to remember veterans who fought for our freedom not only for Americans but for people all across the world.  Originally, the holiday was "Decoration Day," established as a day of remembrance for decorating the graves of Union soldiers who fought and perished in the Civil War.  In the 20th century, the holiday was expanded to honor all U.S. soldiers fighting in all wars, and in 1967, was named "Memorial Day."  I have many friends currently serving in Afghanistan, and around the world, as well as many who have recently returned to their homes after having fulfilled a duty to protect our freedoms.  I and my family salute you, remember you, and thank you for your service.

One of the features of American patriotic holidays is that the television stations tend to show a number of movies based on patriotic and/or military themes.  Today I watched To Hell And Back, a movie based on the autobiography of Audie L Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II.  As I watch the progression of Murphy from underage enlistee, to Sergeant and eventually Lieutenant, I noted the prevalence of many tropes that are common these days in science fiction, space opera, and military fiction.   If you're not familiar with it, the website TV Tropes lists a number of common themes that are used and even overused in fiction, TV and movies.  When I looked at the TV tropes entry for Audie Murphy, I noted that they list quite a few common tropes that apply to his autobiography, and the movie by the same name .

However, it is the intent of this blog to demonstrate TV Tropes actually has it wrong.  To Hell And Back did not use these tropes, it originated them.

To start with, let's take a look at a brief biography of Audie Murphy: He was born to a poor sharecropping family in Texas, his father abandoned the family, when he was 10, and he dropped out of school in fifth grade to help support his mother and siblings.  He falsified his birth certificate and enlisted in the Army at age 17.  Prior to enlistment.  He had been turned down by the Marines, Navy, and Army paratroopers. Even after a successful enlistment and training, he still had to fight to be posted overseas in a combat position.  He joined the third infantry division in North Africa as a private, and saw action primarily in Sicily and Italy.  Murphy distinguished himself in combat, and was promoted to Corporal then Sergeant, and decorated for valor at Anzio.  After landing in France, Murphy's best friend was killed by German soldier and machine-gun nest, in his anger, Murphy single-handedly wiped out that nest, then use grenades and the captured machine-gun to destroy several other German positions nearby.  For these actions, and others, Murphy received the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, and the battlefield commission to Second Lieutenant. One of the comments in his autobiography states that Murphy's commanding officers had wanted him to accept a battlefield commission earlier, but that he had refused on the basis that he didn't think he was responsible enough for the position.  The officers comment in passing that "taking responsibility" is what Murphy did naturally.  Murphy was promoted one more time to First Lieutenant, and again distinguished himself in battle, after his unit lost 9 out of 10 soldiers into battle at Holtzwihr, France. Murphy sent his remaining men to safety, shot at Germans with his M1 carbine until he ran out of ammunition, then climbed onto a burning tank to use the 50 caliber machine gun.  Murphy continued the battle single-handedly for more than an hour, calling in artillery even though he'd already been wounded.  For these actions, Murphy received the Medal of Honor. 

Murphy's honors: Medal of Honor; Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star (with oak leaf cluster indicating a award a second time), Legion of Merit, Bronze Star (with oak leaf cluster and Valor device), Purple Heart (with two oak leaf clusters - i.e. awarded 3 x), Dept. of Army Outstanding Civilian Service Award, U.S. Army Good Conduct Medal, Presidential Unit Citation (with oak leaf cluster), American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal (with one silver service star * four bronze stars - i.e. 9 total campaigns - plus bronze arrowhead for assault landings in Sicily and Southern France), WWII Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal (with Germany Clasp), Armed Forces Reserve Medal, French Legion of Honor (Grade of Chevalier), French Croix de guerre (with Silver Star - i.e. mentioned in dispatches at the division level), French Croix de guerre (with Palm - i.e. mentioned in dispatches at the army level), Medal of Liberated France. Belgian Croix de guerre (with 1940 Palm - i.e. awarded at the army level). 

So here we have several tropes, in fact we have many of the tropes which are a standard feature of space opera and military science fiction:
  • the under age enlistee.
  • The hero who comes from humble origins.
  • The soldier who just won't quit.
  • The soldier who fights primarily for his brothers-in-arms.
  • The soldier who goes into a berserker-like rage after the death of a friend
  • Battlefield promotion.
  • Battlefield commission.
  • Rapid promotion.
  • "Mustang" officers.
  • Natural leader who doesn't think he has the ability needed to be a leader.
  • The soldier who holds a defensive point so that his fellow soldiers can escape ("Horatius at the bridge").
  • A single soldier awarded multiple decorations and awards of valor including some from countries other than his own
What makes this so poignant is the prevalence of these tropes in current military-themed fiction. Some notable examples are: (1) David Weber's Honor Harrington shows the characteristics of humble origins, rapid promotion, and the dedication and persistence in battle to win at all costs; (2) John Ringo's "Iron Mike" O'Neill, who is a "natural leader" mustang officer who receives rapid battlefield promotion; (3) Jack Campbell's Black Jack Geary, a reluctant leader out of the past who fights to bring his people home; (4) and even Tom Kratman's Guanamarioch, the despised enemy who becomes a hero in his own right, simply because he will not (can not) quit.  While several of the tropes (such as Horatius) are indeed historical, Audie Murphy represents the whole package, a young hero who becomes so in spite of his own doubts, who rises to the challenge, and will not stop until the battle is won.

In many ways, the presence of an Audie Murphy-like character, makes a story space opera rather than military fiction.  It is important to note that military adventure fiction told from a military unit's point of view downplays the role of larger-than-life heroes.  In military fiction, it is a military unit as a whole, whether squad, platoon, company, or whole army, which wins the day.  Space opera on the other hand, relies on a hero.

For modern space opera, there can be no better role model than Audie L. Murphy.

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear Speaker! TVTropes Wiki, ironically, jumped the shark a while ago, mainly I think, for the cardinal sin of its main contributors thinking they're a lot cleverer than they actually are.


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