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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
Twenties journalists practiced a more harum-scarum trade than their successors do today, and Marshall had needed a knack for self-promotion to make his way in it. He had a keen sense of himself as a bold and unequivocal writer, a man not afraid to speak his own mind, and he knew how to tell a good story. Spiller believes that the hyperbole and the recklessness of Men Against Fire may have their roots in an older journalistic culture. Marshall resorted to the professional habit of narrating complicated and violent stories as simply and dramatically as he could.
On the other hand, the technique of the group interview came naturally to Marshall for some of the same reasons, and his previous career was far better preparation for the task at hand than the academic training in history most of his co-workers had. “The man who had come to Makin to record the history of combat,” writes Spiller, “was by professional upbringing and temperament a journalist above all. His career in a trade well-suited to the recording of chaos, mayhem, and human tragedy was the vital additive required to accomplish what his more traditionally trained colleagues in the historical division had thus far failed to do. …"
“On Makin and Kwajalein, and later in Europe, Marshall drew upon the pre-war trade he knew so well. The approach to knowledge was the same: get to the scene quickly, survey the location, talk to the principal figures and as many survivors, singly or in groups, as can be found. Reconcile their accounts, withdraw, and compose the story at deadline speed.”
Spiller says, “For all his faults Marshall made real contributions to an understanding of the military art.”
Spiller guessed, reasonably enough, that Marshall would have taken whatever he found about the Makin Island fighting and applied it to every other battle in the war. So if ever there was combat where American infantry displayed Marshall’s ratio of fire, it should have been on Makin.
But at the time of submitting his article to the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Spiller had not had a chance to examine the Historical Division’s The Capture of Makin Island. This publication consisted of Marshall’s manuscript edited and partially rewritten by two other men in the Historical Division, Maj. John M. Baker and Dr. George F. Howe. The text concludes by noting a problem that required correction: “Much aimless shooting by ‘trigger-happy’ men occurred. … In the early morning its volume increased. Just after daylight a man from the 152nd Engineers ran along the lagoon shore from the direction of On Chong’s wharf toward the 2nd BLT CP, shouting ‘there’s a hundred and fifty Japs in the trees.’ A wave of shooting hysteria swept the area and men started firing at bushes and trees until the place was ‘simply ablaze with fire.’ When the engineer admitted that he had seen no enemy but merely ‘had heard firing,’ shouted orders to the men to cease firing proved ineffectual … flat terrain and limited area made control of fire abnormally difficult.”
In short, the men shot too much.
Makin Island also provided ample evidence that skillful tactics did not demand the largest possible volume of fire, a point that mysteriously eludes Marshall in Men Against Fire. The document, for instance, outlines a routine developed for knocking out fortified strongpoints with grenades and bayonets. Makin demonstrated that a squad can courageously and skillfully engage the enemy without relying solely on rifle fire, and that green troops going into combat are at least as likely to fire indiscriminately as they are to refuse to fire.
So Marshall’s findings about combat in the one battle he really did subject to his famous scrutiny run exactly contrary to what he published in Men Against Fire. What came over him?
“He liked making heroes,” says Leinbaugh. “A colonel friend of mine called him the army’s Louella Parsons.” Flukes did happen, and Marshall remembered them. In an incident on Kwajalein one man did a lot of the killing, and a similar thing occurred in a celebrated moment during the Normandy invasion, when American paratroopers fought for their lives. Incidents of individual heroism are the stuff of epic—and of journalism—always memorable, and Marshall may have come to war wanting it to be a place where single heroes contended.
Spiller believes that Marshall enjoyed displaying physical courage. Marshall, said one writer who worked with him toward the end of his life, “loved to play soldier. He loved being more damn military than anybody else alive.” If anything, he overestimated the rarity of the knowledge of combat. He was too eager to be in sole possession of the secret. And had his ratio-of-fire theory been true, it certainly would have demonstrated that he knew more about battle than anybody else.