I Hear No Bugles
By Robert Winston Mercy, 5th Platoon, George Company, 19th
Regiment, Korea, 50-51. (Merriam Press, 2008, 436 pages,
Extracted from a review: By Dr. Wesley Britton, with annotations.
Even in the first days of the silent movie era, film
producers knew well the value of celluloid stories as propaganda.
Before World War I, those opposed to America’s involvement overseas
cranked out tragic tales designed to discourage any support for the
then feared “Merchants of Death.” Just as quickly, once war was
declared, Hollywood shifted gears and found itself a major
contributor to recruitment drives.
From that point forward, war movies resonated with the themes of valor, glory, and stoic self-sacrifice in which anyone anywhere could find themselves elevated morally and spiritually by doing their patriotic duty.
One story from these times is unique. The opening pages of a new memoir by Robert Winston Mercy, I Hear No Bugles, begins with scenes of a young American drawn into a soldier’s life due to what he had seen in movie houses.
Then, we learn about the life of a front-line infantryman in North Korea discovering just how war was never what was shown in dark auditoriums.
Then, bringing his story full circle, Robert Winston Mercy came home to become first a stunt-man and then a contract player at MGM playing the very roles he’d grown up watching, only this time as military commanders in TV series like Combat!, Maverick, and Playhouse 90.
The first paragraph of I Hear No Bugles makes Mercy’s thesis clear: “The effects of propaganda films cannot be underestimated, particularly in this era of contending political and religious dogmas that relentlessly threaten to make this century even more unimaginably bloodier than the last. Indisputably, film is second to literacy in the intellectual, philosophical and moral development of the human species. The defunct uniformed ‘press-gangs’ of history that ‘Shanghaied’ young men into military service have been supplanted by the more subtly hypnotic persuasion of TV and the movies. Every image, symbol and mode of each delivered word is meticulously crafted to extract the desired emotional and moral support from its national audience.”
For Mercy, the imagery of war was first implanted in his consciousness when, at the age of four, he saw the Laurel and Hardy 1934 Babes in Toyland.
As the years passed, young boys in his neighborhood witnessed a plethora of war movies onscreen and emulated what they saw at home with plastic Dick Tracy submachine guns. The lines between good and evil were not blurred, the superiority of Western values were unquestioned, the rewards for patriotism evident in every scene. For a young man in an unhappy home, military life seemed the dreamed of escape from poverty and the “Spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality of the times.
Mercy chronicles how, inevitably, he became a Marine and describes his years in the states and Japan in the military police where idealism, if not his military mindset, began to erode.
[Ed. Note: Reviewer Britton only saw the Marines! While Mercy became a Marine at 16, he left soon thereafter on a medical discharge. A year later at 17, he along with his twin brother Richard joined the Army. They stayed together throughout their service time and eventually both ended up with the 24th’s George Company, 19th Regiment, in Korea, where they became NCOMs of the 5th KATUSAS (Korean Augmentation To the United States Army) Platoon.]
Not until he was called up for service in North Korea in 1950 did reality and imagination come together. “I looked beyond the perimeter's barbed wire fence,” he writes, “the rice paddies reddened by the sinking sun knowing that the 'movie' I'd waited a lifetime for had just begun.”
What happens from this point forward is the heart of the memoir, and I Hear No Bugles is, in fact, the first published personal account [?] of a front-line soldier in combat during the “Forgotten War.”
Mercy’s descriptions are laced with what he sees and how the sites compare—or don’t—to what he saw in all those war movies of his youth. Not surprisingly, his first moments in battle bring the cinema center-stage in his mind—“I thought of every cinematic charge I'd ever seen. As the company flaked across the field, I stopped in mid-splash: Something's missing...what? It's...the musical soundtrack! I whispered, "I HEAR NO BUGLES," and then the tempo of fire grew.”
According to Mercy, there were few Gary Cooper’s facing down enemy fire in Korea—instead, Mercy witnessed cowardice, greed, stupidity, “bug outs,” death from friendly fire, savagery and, within himself, a blood-lust sometimes difficult to control. Where other autobiographies might include flashbacks to childhood events to connect the adult with their past, Mercy’s memories of home come from lines by heroes portrayed by the likes of Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, and Ronald Coleman and what they might have said in the circumstances Mercy describes.
But as Mercy’s battlefield experiences continue, references to actors and famous movie lines become fewer and fewer—certainly, a literary means to demonstrate that piles of corpses, the stench of war, icy blizzards, and devastated civilians caught in the cross-fire have more than replaced the sights and sounds of silver screen fiction in his mind. Still, fantasy intrudes.
When two POWs are brought to him for interrogation, “My mind reeled through half a dozen films and found the one it needed.” Drawing from an idea from some unknown script-writer, Mercy took one Chinese soldier behind a boulder and faked his execution. The other talked—and then was shown his still-alive comrade.
Ultimately, Mercy is wounded in combat and visions of Hollywood return. In a M*A*S*H hospital, a nurse attempts to steal his wallet and sews adhesive tape inside his wound when she is caught.
While Mercy—serving with his twin brother Richard—was often at odds with superiors and line soldiers alike, being at the front was the life he preferred to the point he felt adrift when no longer part of the dangers of combat. His is a story of life-and-death choices on a daily basis, a man often wondering why he didn’t pull an easy trigger knowing that if he were in any other army, the decision would have often been far more brutal.
The graphic evolution of this veteran should remind readers that history does repeat itself, and even viewers who believe they’re watching movies and TV dramas with objective, or even cynical eyes, should know they cannot be immune to the overt and subtle messages that become part of our cultural DNA.
With one eye looking to the past, we can read Bugles as a reminder of neglected history; with the other, we can use it as a mirror into ourselves, a window into an awareness of our own mental fusions of what we absorb, all those influences both with and without soundtracks. ###
You may view Britton’s full review at: www.CinemaRetro.com
Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of three books on espionage in the media, his fourth, The Encyclopedia of TV Spies will be issued from Bear Manor Media. Many of his articles—including an interview with Robert Winston Mercy about his work on television and film—are posted at www.Spywise.net
[Ed. Note 2. Dr. Britton was far more eloquent than I could have ever been in reviewing Mercy’s book, so, with his approval, I decided to use portions of his review. It is a bit long, but I think Mercy’s book is well worthy of the space we’re giving it.
My own assessment of Mercy’s book was that it is different from anything I have ever read before about our mutual times in the “Land of the Morning Calm.” The Mercy twin brothers – Robert, the author, and Richard - along with their compatriot Robertson, were cut from a different military mold than was I; actually I may have been one of the draftees Robert looks on and sort of laments in Chapter 34, The Last Reel.
As he is returning to George Company from the hospital in Japan, he says: “And the new draftee soldiers seemed far less promising than the under trained volunteer army that had arrived the year before.”
Bugles is one of the best books written by someone who experienced Korean War combat first hand, although much of the work deals with the inner struggles he copes with in growing up under fire and providing a basis for his gut-wrenching decisions! Another struggle he deals with is the perceived ineptitude of officers and NCOs alike. Finally he makes no secret of his disdain for “rear echelon” types.
Mercy’s work is thorough; Bugles’ 436 very well written pages include copious photographs that take the reader from his earliest military days to his successful film career to today. While I definitely recommend his book, I must add that it is clearly an “adult” book!
I should also add that Mercy received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Presidential Unit Citation! Ed.]
Mercy, Robert Winston, 2008, The Taro Leaf, Vol 62(3), pp. 34-36.