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U.s. Infantrymen Under Fire

May 2024
2min read

I saw S. L. A. Marshall from a unique perspective. I was his personal assistant in Europe for more than a year. I shared a jeep, pup tent, and foxhole under fire with him. I followed his later career and, in the end, I stood beside his casket as he was buried. I doubt that any other person has used his after-action interview technique as often as I have, or been called on as often to explain Marshall and his methods. Bud Leinbaugh and Roger Spiller, who are quoted in your article, were among the many who have come to me for information about Marshall.

It is easy to criticize Marshall. All who really knew him were aware of his tendency to overdramatize himself. It was for this reason I declined to edit his autobiography. I must admit, however, that Leinbaugh’s revelation that Marshall wasn’t the World War 1 combat soldier he claimed took me by surprise. Marshall swapped stories with the “old warriors,” and I never heard a murmur of doubt. Perhaps I should have suspected that a man with such a keen ear for music but who couldn’t distinguish between a shell coming and going probably hadn’t had much combat experience.

In conversation and published articles, I have repeatedly said that Marshall wasn’t a social scientist who ran surveys but was, instead, an intuitive thinker. His statement of having conducted four hundred or six hundred after-action interviews in Europe was an obvious exaggeration. But he did conduct many, perhaps a hundred in World War II, and he read scores of interviews developed by his field historians. Where most of us stopped with the recording of an after-action account, Marhsall generalized from the interviews—and his generalizations contained the essence of truth.

Sure, Marshall’s statistics weren’t scientifically gathered. Much is made of Marshall’s not asking interviewees how many fired their weapons. Of course he didn’t. After-action interviews weren’t classroom research projects. In such interviews soldiers were reconstructing events; the interviewer’s role was to stand apart as much as possible and record what he heard. A question such as “How many of you boys fired your gun yesterday?” would elicit about as accurate a response as if you asked a bunch of schoolchildren, “How many of you brushed your teeth this morning?” An evaluation, if one is to be made, has to come from the accounts that unfolded. Marshall was wrong in reporting a quantification of something that he couldn’t quantify and that is probably not susceptible to such a technique.

If anyone thinks Marshall and I did not discuss the ratio of men who fired in combat, they didn’t listen very carefully. I was a decorated combat soldier and a trained historian when I met Marshall. From our first meeting we matched his Pacific inquiries and my experiences in Africa and Italy. It may have been that my seeing the 34th and 36th Infantry Divisions, and the 1st Armored Division when they were green troops, influenced our thinking too greatly. But original judgments were reinforced by interviews with troops that had had much more training and had the advantage of learning from the hard lessons of Kasserine and Salerno. The statistics about firing in Men Against Fire are Marshall’s, but I too believe that a large percentage of American soldiers are not aggressive. This isn’t a new idea. Look at Washington’s experience during the Revolution, Winfield Scott’s frustration at Queenston, and the ineffectiveness of American troops in many Civil War battles. The truth is most Americans aren’t duplicates of Sergeant York, Audie Murphy, or John Wayne. I’ve met many brave men in combat and during interviewing, but I have seen many who skulked, who moved only under direct orders, and even those who would go to the guardhouse or a psychiatric ward rather than face fire.

Alleging that Marshall maligned the American soldier because he reported that many were not aggressive in the use of their weapons is ridiculous. If he maligned the combat soldier, why was he so idealized by that soldier? If he didn’t speak the essence of truth, why did fighting men and historians worldwide respect him? A supposition that military historians accepted Marshall only because they were too slothful to seek the truth themselves is as improbable as it is demeaning.

Marshall had his personal vanities and methodological weaknesses. Nevertheless, he sought the truth of battle, came closer to understanding it than others, influenced training, gave stature to the profession of arms, and was himself a unique institution. Let no one deny his significance to the American soldier and to our nation.

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