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The Secret Of The Soldiers Who Didn’t Shoot
Slam Marshall, who is regarded as one of our great military historians, looked into the heart of combat and discovered a mystery there that raised doubts about the fighting quality of U.S. troops. But one GI thought he was a liar…
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
When Col. Samuel Lyman Marshall came home in 1945, he was one of millions of Americans who had served in the Second World War. Perhaps a third of them had seen combat, and Marshall, as the European theater’s deputy historian, had talked to an unprecedentedly large number of them. In a few months he began the little book that was to make him S. L. A. Marshall, a respected and highly influential military historian. In the 211 pages of Men Against Fire, Marshall made an astonishing assertion: In any given body of American infantry in combat, no more than one-fifth, and generally as few as 15 percent, had ever fired their weapons at an enemy, indeed ever fired their weapons at all.
From that day to this, S. L. A. Marshall is famous as a man who penetrated a great and terrible mystery. His writing on the refusal to fire—what Marshall called the ratio of fire—was the keystone of his achievement. While a fair number of people had always had an impressionistic sense of the phenomenon, Marshall had replaced anecdotal evidence with hard numbers.
Marshall, in the eyes of his many admirers, had shifted the history of war on its axis, turning it away from the annals of generalship toward the discovery of what men actully did and thought and felt on a battlefield. The admiration Marshall’s discovery inspired is caught in the words of John Keegan, the dean of the school of military history that is deeply indebted to the tradition that Marshall dominates: Marshall “was touched by genius,” Keegan wrote, a man who had brilliantly democratized the study of war.
Samuel Lyman Marshall was born with the century in the village of Catskill, New York. His father was a bricklayer and lay preacher, and the family moved repeatedly, ending up in El Paso, Texas, in 1914. El Paso was in those days a tough border town, with a sprawling red-light district and gunfights in the streets. It was also a window on the early days of the Mexican Revolution; across the river Pancho Villa was in control of the state of Chihuahua and spent a fair amount of time in Ciudad Juárez. In his memoirs Marshall said he once went across from El Paso into Juárez and ordered a hamburger and a beer in the Black Cat, a casino owned by Villa. The general walked in and bet a friend that he could shoot a comb off a waitress’s head; the bullet struck her in the forehead, and she fell dead, her skull split open. Marshall claimed to remember both men laughing uproariously. It was, he said, his first sight of a shooting death; he was fifteen years old.
Marshall left high school in 1917 to enlist in the army. In his autobiography, Bringing Up the Rear, he speaks of participating in the Soissons, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and Ypres-Lys campaigns, and writes: “I finished the war 11:11 A.M. on 11 November as a lieutenant of infantry in a foxhole not far from Stenay. It was the day that I had never expected to see. A brigade commander from the 89th Division, Col. J. H. Reeves, happened along.
Marshall claimed that no more than one-fifth of U.S. infantry ever fired their weapons at the enemy in combat.
“He said: ‘Young man, have you anything to drink?’
“I said: ‘Water.’
“He said: ‘Let us drink to it in water.’”
A footnote to this incident says that Marshall “was commissioned from the ranks and at age seventeen was the youngest commissioned officer in the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces].”
He spent the years between wars as a newspaperman, first in El Paso and later on the Detroit News, working as a reporter and reading about war. Sometime during these years he invented his sturdy nickname, Slam, an acronym made up of his own initials with another family name folded in to supply the vowel. In 1940 he published Blitzkrieg, the first of what would be thirty books on war. The following year he produced Armies on Wheels, and events were kind to both books; he thought that the French would collapse and that the Russians wouldn’t, and both peoples obliged. When the United States entered the war, Marshall received a direct commission as a major and eventually wound up in the fledgling Army Historical Section.
He first investigated combat in the Pacific theater, covering the landings on Makin Island and Kwajalein, where he accumulated the experiences he would write up in Island Victory, and he emerged with the Combat Infantry Badge. When he boarded the cargo plane that would take him back from the front to Oahu in the summer of 1943, Samuel Lyman Marshall was a short, stocky man with a career as a newspaperman behind him and a few books on the early days of World War II to his name. When he sat down to write Men Against Fire three years later, he was clearly convinced that he knew more about combat than anyone in the world. He had pioneered a new investigative technique: the after-action interview.