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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
Spiller has a strong and sympathetic sense of Marshall and to a degree regrets the historian’s necessity of disproving his ratios. He feels that despite Slam’s peculiar hoax, the man’s influence has been positive. This was driven home to him not long ago when he took part in a seminar with members of the neuropsychiatry department at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. “My conferees said, quite rightly, that even if Marshall did not do group after-action interviews, he popularized the technique that has been used by all sorts of military folks since then—battle commanders, combat psychologists, and the like. Some version of it is now used at the Army’s National Training Center in the California desert. Marshall, for all his faults, made real and lasting contributions to an understanding of the military art.”
None of this, of course, explains why the ratio of fire has been so widely accepted. As far as the military’s buying what would seem to be an unflattering theory, Spiller says, “Like everyone else, professional soldiers like to be talked about, and when they are discussed sympathetically, they tend to return the favor. I would hazard to say that most soldiers, if they know of Marshall, have a favorable opinion of him because, simply, he paid so much attention to them and their troubles—and at least, because he wore a uniform too. I can’t think of another military historian of Marshall’s day who so identified with the military.”
Of course, a lot of soldiers didn’t believe Marshall at all. Leinbaugh contacted a number of senior commanders: Lt. Gen. Harry O. Kinnard, who participated in every one of the 101st Airborne’s World War Il operations (and who is singled out by Marshall in several books as one of the war’s most distinguished combat leaders), says, “In both World War II and in Vietnam it never came to my attention that failure to fire was a problem at any level.” Gen. Bruce Clarke, who led the defense of St. Vith and served as both commanding general-Europe and commanding general-Continental U.S., put it more strongly. Marshall’s theories, he said, are “ridiculous and dangerous assertions—absolute nonsense.” And Gen. James M. Gavin, who commanded the famous 82nd Airborne Division during World War II, says bluntly that Marshall’s claim “is absolutely false.” According to Gavin, “All of our infantry fired their weapons. I know because I was there and took part.”
Why did professional historians have so little difficulty accepting the idea? “Intellectual sloth” is part of it, says Spiller. “The ratio of fire was an easy answer, one that seemed to promise entrée into the hidden world of combat. Facile constructions could be built upon Slam’s answer, and were.”
Leinbaugh has a straightforward, angry serviceman’s explanation: “Most people who are writing the histories now have never been on a battlefield. As far as World War II is concerned, there’s damn little good stuff around below the level of regimental records, so historians had to rely on Marshall.” Leinbaugh remembers talking with General Clarke about the ratio of fire. “We’ve got to destroy this myth,” Clarke said; “the record has to be set straight. Soon no one will be left who knows.”
Leinbaugh is uneasy about a coming world in which no one will be left who knows. When no one knows, many things seem plausible. Spiller tells a story from Vietnam in 1971, when a green American lieutenant went out with an ARVN (South Vietnamese) patrol. An experienced NVA (North Vietnamese) detachment had laid a skillful ambush, and the seasoned ARVN troops had taken cover and were trying to get their bearings when the American lieutenant jumped up and began to fire off the magazine of an M-16. An American captain tackled the lieutenant and asked him what the hell he was doing. The lieutenant explained that in training he was told that in combat only a quarter of the troops fire and that the critical thing to do is to set an example, to return fire immediately.
But Leinbaugh’s concern extends beyond Americans’ going into future combat bewildered by lies. He has a powerful sense of loyalty to the men with whom he fought across Europe forty-five years ago, and he wants the record set straight. In his view, Marshall defamed their memory.
Slam’s “discovery” has fascinated students of military history and tactics for forty years now. But Leinbaugh and Spiller—and the evidence—suggest the truth is more prosaic: In battle’s hard school, ordinary people eventually discover, quite by themselves, the knack of skillful killing.