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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
Why wouldn’t the men shoot? Marshall offered a number of speculations, some of them contradictory. “In the workshop or the office, or elsewhere in society, a minority of men and women carry the load … the majority in any group seek lives of minimum risk and expenditure of effort plagued by doubts of themselves and by fears for their personal security.” So it is on the battlefield: only a few “forceful individuals” are willing to “carry the fight”; the bulk lack “initiative” and “the desire to use a weapon”; they “simply go along for the ride.” Civilization also plays a part: “The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply … that it is part of the normal man’s emotional makeup. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly aware that it is a restraint upon him.” It is not always a question of fear (“it must be said in favor of some who did not use their weapons that they did not shirk the final risk of battle”) but fear often is involved: “When the infantryman’s mind is gripped by fear, his body is gripped by inertia, which is fear’s Siamese twin. …”
Marshall repeatedly insisted that he had been the first person to notice the nonfiring phenomenon; even the soldiers themselves had no idea. “ The fighting men do not know the nature of the mistakes which they make together . And not knowing, they are deprived of the surest safeguard against making the same mistakes next time they are in battle.” Only Marshall had pierced the veil of ignorance.
Alone among Marshall’s books, Men Against Fire has at times the flavor of social science prose, and this may reflect the book’s ambitions, for in mid-century America it tended to be that sort of prose that revealed secrets and proposed solutions to serious difficulties. But whatever its merits as social science, Men Against Fire had a tremendous, if subtle, effect as a work of current history. Because it sought in the collective experience of soldiery the causes of victory and defeat, it helped shift the focus of military history from an account of generalship to an account of the experience of common soldiers.
Men Against Fire proposed solutions to the difficulties it disclosed, solutions that Marshall said were eventually incorporated into U.S. Army training procedures. By the time of the Korean War, when Marshall also investigated the behavior of American infantry under fire, he reported that the ratio of fire had risen to 55 percent, tripling the World War II average.
In time Marshall became one of the most respected of American military historians. He lived until 1977. At the end, when he remembered the moment when he had first understood how he was to achieve his life’s work, an image he had initially used in Island Victory recurred for the last time: “Piece by piece we put it together. The story of the night’s experience came clear as crystal. It was like completing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. At last I knew that, quite by accident, I had found what I had sailed west seeking.”
When Leinbaugh, an ex-infantryman, found historians using Marshall’s data, he began to get angry.
It is not difficult to imagine the excitement that gripped the generation of scholars and historians who encountered Marshall’s discovery. The truth, at first blush counterintuitive, suddenly seems overwhelmingly right, and we are let into a part of the great mystery of combat. In the eyes of his many admirers, Slam was deservedly famous. He had stripped a mask from the face of war.
Unfortunately, the fruit of Marshall’s interviews, the astonishing insight, turns out to be a little too good to be true. In fact, it just may be that Samuel Lyman Marshall made the whole thing up.
Like Marshall, Harold P. “Bud” Leinbaugh came home from Europe in 1945. Leinbaugh had seen a lot of fighting. After ROTC training at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, he had attended Infantry Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and was commissioned in April 1944. Assigned to the 84th Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, he commanded K Company, 333d Infantry Regiment, during most of its time in combat between November 1944 and V-E Day.
After the war he joined the FBI, spending most of his career with the bureau as a supervisory official at headquarters in Washington, D.C. He retired in 1972, served at the White House as a deputy special assistant to the President, and is currently a business consultant. In 1985, with his college friend and wartime comrade John D. Campbell, he wrote The Men of Company K , a highly praised history of the rifle outfit he commanded during three campaigns. Leinbaugh was one of the very few men in his company to have made it through the war from start to finish; Campbell, more typically, came in as a replacement officer and went out with a Silver Star and a back full of shrapnel.