“To Hell and Back” by Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy was the most decorated US soldier of WWII.  After reading his own account of his war service, I’m inclined to attribute his record to quick thinking, excellent marksmanship, and a whole lot of luck.  Plenty of his slain buddies, and undoubtedly many others in the war, possessed some of these qualities but not enough of the latter.  On numerous occasions mentioned in the book, Murphy should have bitten the bullet by all accounts.  Even Murphy admits that “old” men like him “feel like fugitives from the law of averages.”

With the despair of eventual almost certain death surrounding them, the only way front-line infantrymen avoided going crazy with worry was through a hefty dose of false bravado and a sense of humor.  Soon even this disappears, at least in Murphy’s memoirs.  It is pretty striking – at beginning of the book, there is a lot about Murphy’s platoon buddies — their backgrounds and personalities, lots of bantering.  Then, these buddies are all killed or wounded, one by one.  “The grave seems merely an open door that divides us from our comrades.”  Towards the end, Murphy sometimes doesn’t even know his fellow soldier’s names.  He’s all business; the business of killing Germans, that is.  It seems like the part of his soul capable of sentimental attachment has long since been snuffed out.

Indeed, in the final page or so, as Murphy reflects on the celebrations during V-E Day, he personally is not able to bring himself to feel much of anything.  But then:

When I was a child, I was told that men were branded by war. Has the brand been put on me? Have the years of blood and ruin stripped me of all decency? Of all belief?

Not of all belief. I believe in the force of a hand grenade, the power of artillery, the accuracy of a Garand. I believe in hitting before you get hit, and that dead men do not look noble.

But I also believe in men like Brandon and Novak and Swope and Kerrigan; and all the men who stood up against the enemy, taking their beatings without whimper and their triumphs without boasting. The men who went and would go again to hell and back to preserve what our country thinks right and decent.

My country. America! That is it. We have been so intent on death that we have forgotten life. And now suddenly life faces us. I swear to myself that I will measure up to it. I may be branded by war, but I will not be defeated by it.

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