The Secret Of The Soldiers Who Didn’t Shoot

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On the field at Waterloo in Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, the hero is frustrated because while he knows that he is present at some kind of stupendous battle, he can’t make any sense of the course of events, even who is winning or losing. History rarely does cooperate in making its salient moments dramatically coherent to anyone present at the time. At Makin Island the chaos seemed impenetrable; after one climactic fight, Marshall said, “There was a general doubt that the tactical confusions of that strange night of combat would ever be clarified. Few of those who were closest to it, including the actual commanders in the battle, knew much more about it than that our men had behaved well in a difficult situation. None knew the relationship of any one combat episode to another. Even in these first hours after the fight we were already mixing up parts of the story, and as rumor got about over the island, fable was rapidly being substituted for fact.”

Nevertheless, Marshall was not as pessimistic about the possibility of sorting it out as others were: “All of the actors were present, except the killed or badly wounded, and there had not been many of those. The one way to try for the full, detailed truth of battle was to muster the witnesses and see for once whether the small tactical fogs of war were as impenetrable as we had always imagined they were.”

After the commanders had assembled everyone at Makin who had survived the night combat, Marshall questioned them together. It worked like a charm, he reported: “By the end of those four days, working several hours every day, we had discovered to our amazement that every fact of the fight was procurable—that the facts lay dormant in the minds of men and officers, waiting to be developed. It was like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle with no missing pieces but with so many curious and difficult twists and turns that only with care and patience could we make it into a single picture of combat.”

Marshall was not alone in the estimate of his achievement. When the Infantry Journal published Island Victory in 1945, its editors wrote a glowing foreword: “Past books about combat have been chiefly personal narratives, the battle stories of individuals. … For the first time in its history the Infantry Journal publishes in Island Victory a book that is a story of combat written by all the men who fought—and therefore a highly accurate account of exactly what happened. …”

 

From Makin on, Marshall devoted himself to the group interview after combat. The early experiences in the Pacific set the pattern for what was to come. Lieutenant Colonel Marshall arrived in Britain in late June 1944. He interviewed members of the airborne divisions that had returned to England after landing in Normandy (the makings of his book Night Drop), then went to the Continent and during the months that followed interviewed units that had defended Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge and taken part in the fighting at Arnhem. At war’s end he was named chief historian of the European theater of operations. When, in 1947, Men Against Fire made its striking assertions about soldiers’ behavior in battle, it had the weight it did—and would make its author as famous as it did—because of the range and quality of evidence Marshall drew upon.

It was in the sixth chapter of Men Against Fire that Marshall made his assertions about what he called the ratio of fire. He was quite explicit: “a commander of infantry will be well advised to believe that when he engages the enemy not more than one quarter of his men will ever strike a real blow. …”

“The 25 percent estimate stands even for well-trained and campaign-seasoned troops. I mean that 75 per cent will not fire or will not persist in firing against the enemy and his works. These men may face danger but they will not fight.”

With repetition, the assertion became stronger, and nonfiring edged up to 85 percent: “we found that on average not more than 15 per cent of the men had actually fired at enemy positions or at personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BARs, or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. … The best showing that could be made by the most spirited and aggressive companies was that one man in four had made at least some use of his fire power.”