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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
Marshall’s announced standard for group interviewing involved two, three, or four days of interrogating an infantry company to debrief it on one day of combat. “By the most generous calculation,” writes Spiller, “Marshall would have finished ‘approximately’ four hundred interviews sometime in October or November 1946, or at about the time he was writing Men Against Fire. This calculation assumes, however, that of all the questions Marshall might ask the soldiers of a rifle company during his interviews, he would unfailingly want to know who had fired his weapon and who had not.”
Leinbaugh thinks this would make a great cartoon by the Daumier of the World War Il foot soldier, Bill Mauldin. “There’d be an entire company of battle-weary Willies and Joes looking on incredulously while a pudgy little officer from the rear echelon with his clipboard asks, ‘Pardon me, but which of you gentlemen fired your rifle today?’”
But suppose he had posed the question? The results, says Leinbaugh, would be problematic. “In a divisional assault—one by the book—one regiment is kept in reserve, two are committed in the attack. In each of the attacking regiments, one battalion is in reserve; in each battalion, one company is in reserve, and in each of the two assaulting companies one platoon is in reserve. Assuming rifle-company combat strength of 125 men, you come up with 1,500 men moving forward against the enemy out of a division of 13,000 men. That makes a possible 11,500 men in a day’s action who didn’t fire—because they would have had no occasion to.”
But in any event, the question of procedure seems moot. John Westover, Marshall’s assistant, who traveled across Europe with him and who was usually present at the interviews, does not remember Marshall’s ever asking about the refusal to fire. “Nor does Westover ever recall Marshall ever talking about ratios of weapons usage in their many private conversations,” writes Spiller. “Marshall’s own personal correspondence leaves no hint that he was ever collecting statistics. His surviving field notebooks show no signs of statistical calculations that would have been necessary to deduce a ratio as precise as Marshall reported later in Men Against Fire.” Moreover, none of the professional historians in the ETO has unearthed information that suggest a ratio of fire on the order of Marshall’s “discoveries.”
“I wanted to find something, anything,” says Spiller. “I just haven’t found any suggestion that he did company-level interviews anywhere. I am sure he talked with a lot of people, as a reporter might. Some of those talks might have been with squad-sized units, but I think how big the available group turned out to be was serendipitous.”
Spiller reluctantly concluded that there had been no interviews with four or five or six hundred ETO rifle companies, not the kind Marshall had conducted in the Pacific: “The systematic collection of data that made Marshall’s ratio of fire so authoritative appears to have been an invention.”
The only interview notes unveiled to date were found by Leinbaugh in an archive of a Maryland National Guard division. In them, GIs repeatedly testify to firing their weapons in action. The notes do not contain a single question about the ratio of fire.
Westover told Roger Spiller that Marshall was “contemptuous of people only interested in methodolagy” and that he considered statistics an “adornment” of belief. How plausible, then, are the beliefs Marshall seems to have adorned with his ratio-of-fire statistics?
Spiller’s assessment is “not very.” Marshall’s belief was that a good soldier could and should fire during any and every encounter with an enemy. In Men Against Fire soldiers never have a good reason for not firing; in reality, World War II infantry had a lot of them. But Marshall’s soldiers in Men Against Fire —although not in his other works—experience a particular kind of combat: a battle that is everywhere exactly the same. This utter uniformity of event makes statistical comparison and sweeping generalization possible when one assesses performance under its stresses. And this same uniformity makes it very different from the immense variety of encounters that constituted infantry combat in the Second World War.
In Spiller’s summary, modern infantry combat is asymmetrical, the rhythms and tempo of battle governed not only by soldiers but by the types of weapons they employ and by terrain, and above all by the composition, deployment, determination, and intentions of the enemy; in the world of infantry combat, consistency is the last thing to expect. In his other books Marshall understood this too. It is strange that a reputation he would come to deserve was founded on his most irresponsible work.
Spiller’s provisional verdict on Marshall distinguishes the “democratization of war”—the restoration of the history of battles to the men who did the fighting—from the misleading and indeed fraudulent ratio-of-fire arguments. Spiller thinks that Marshall’s virtues as well as his vices are intimately related to his background as a journalist.