One of the problems with history is that dead people are no more predictable than live ones. In the early 1960s, when the American Heritage editors started putting together an illustrated history of World War I, they chose a supremely qualified author: Brig. Gen. S. L. A. Marshall. The book’s jacket copy quoted Carl Sandburg’s assessment that Marshall—Slam, as he liked to be called—“rates among many of us as the greatest of writers on modern war” and went on to detail a career that began in the trenches of the First World War and culminated in an international reputation as a military journalist and historian.
So matters stood at the time of Marshall’s death a decade ago, and so they stood, as far as I knew, last fall when I got a long, angry letter. It came from Harold “Bud” Leinbaugh, a retired FBI man who led a rifle company in World War II and, in the process of writing a fine book about the experience, had come across Slam Marshall’s classic World War II study, Men Against Fire. In it, according to Bud, Slam had perpetrated an amazing hoax, one that not only had left historians with a serious piece of misinformation but had defamed the American soldier as well.
Leinbaugh had done extensive research, but he was, as he admitted, just too sore at Slam to assemble it into an article. Here began, for the editors, a complex and troubling process. In the course of assigning and completing the story that begins on page 36, we saw Marshall take on a peculiar life, shifting from the confident bantam who had made his sturdy way through four wars to something at once more disturbing and more interesting. It’s a good story, but it will most likely leave a number of people unhappy, among them Bud Leinbaugh, who will feel we have not been nearly severe enough with Slam, and perhaps—for opposite reasons—the curators at the repository of Marshall’s papers in El Paso, Texas, who were so helpful and efficient in getting us pictures.
Though fascinated by the tale that unfolded, the editors were not entirely comfortable with their role in telling it. Marshall, after all, wrote many books of lasting value—among them ours on World War I—and there was the uneasy sense that there might be something unseemly in revealing the frailties of a vanished colleague. Nevertheless, the process has reminded us once again of what Faulkner’s Southerner means when he says the past isn’t dead, “it ain’t even past”—that little is ever truly finished, and that yesterday has as many surprises in store as tomorrow.