No Name on the Bullet

On July 20, 1943, in connection with Operation Husky, the 3rd Division of the U.S. Army landed on the coast of Sicily. Among the several thousand men of that illustrious unit on that day was one relatively unknown PFC, Audie Leon Murphy--the seventh child of a poor, irresponsible Texas sharecropper and his long-suffering wife. Although Emmett and Josie Murphy achieved little in the way of fame during their brief passage across the Texas landscape, their son was destined to become legendary, if not generic.

Audie Murphy was the quintessential embodiment of two powerful American stereotypes: The poorly educated son of the agricultural frontier who becomes a prosperous and celebrated movie actor; the apple-cheeked innocent who proves to be one of the most deadly and efficient killing machines in the history of the nation. If the facade provided substantial support for those stereotypes, however, the underlying reality was far removed from the image which appeared in countless magazines for more than two decades. Despite appearances to the contrary, Audie Murphy never freed himself from the psychological adjustments which the human animal must make in order to survive in combat--if indeed anyone can fully do so. Thus, Murphy attempted, with an increasing lack of success, to substitute sexual conquests, practical jokes, reckless gambling, and conventional physical challenges such as skin diving for the exhilaration of combat. “War robs you mentally and physically,” he said in 1962. “It drains you. Things don’t thrill you anymore. It’s a struggle every day to find something interesting to do.”

Don Graham, the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Texas, Austin, presents an accurate, sympathetic, and valuable treatment of an individual who represented the ultimate in heroism for an entire generation. More important, he dramatically demonstrates that warfare extracts a fearful price from combatants long after the battles are over. Delayed stress syndrome is not a phenomenon unique to Vietnam veterans.