A Myth of Military History

It is one of the most remarkable—and enduring—statistics about the way men fight war: in combat no more than a quarter of fighting men, even disciplined and well-trained soldiers, will fire their weapons. The claim, first made by military historian S.L.A. Marshall in his 1947 book, "Men Against Fire," has become accepted wisdom. John Keegan, the popular historian of war, repeats it in his landmark 1976 study, "The Face of Battle." So does historian Max Hastings in his widely read 1984 book on the D-Day invasion, "Overlord." The reason soldiers don't shoot, explained Marshall, who claimed to have interviewed thousands of American GIs in World War II, is not that they are afraid, exactly—although inertia, he wrote, is "fear's twin." Rather, they are restrained by a civilizing impulse not to kill and a faith that a few heroes will emerge to carry the action—which, Marshall wrote, is generally what happens.

Over the years hundreds of journalists have quoted Marshall's famous study—including me, in the pages of NEWSWEEK. But last month a reader sent me a copy of a March 1989 article from American Heritage magazine that set me straight. In fact, there is no real evidence that so few soldiers open fire, writes Frederick Smoler in "The Secret of the Soldiers Who Don't Shoot." "It just may be," concludes Smoler, "that Samuel Lyman Marshall made the whole thing up." Smoler reports on the digging of Harold P. (Bud) Leinbaugh, an Army infantryman who saw a lot of combat in Europe during the war, and a military historian named Roger Spiller. Both men were skeptical about Marshall's claim, and they decided to look into his research. They discovered that among the soldiers Marshall interviewed at Makin Island, a battle in the Pacific, there was a tendency to fire too much, not too little—to blaze away for no good reason. Marshall seems to have just invented his interviews in the European theater.

Why would Marshall make up such a thing? Marshall was "by professional upbringing and temperament a journalist above all," wrote Spiller. Like many journalists then (and now), he was in love with the heroic ideal, that one man among many might stand up to carry the day. "Marshall may have come to war wanting it to be the place where single heroes counted," says Leinbaugh. Marshall himself apparently loved to play soldier, and he wanted to demonstrate that he knew more about combat than anyone else. His books seemed so detailed and persuasive, and he appeared to have interviewed so many soldiers, that readers believed him. Why did professional historians swallow Marshall's claim? "Intellectual sloth," wrote Spiller. Marshall's theory seemed to "promise entree into the hidden world of combat." (A 1994 New York Times review of "Reconciliation Road," a memoir by Marshall's grandson John Douglas Marshall that's mostly about his grandfather's assertion, concludes, "the most that the author can show is that his grandfather had tried to quantify what should have remained conjecture …")

Marshall claimed to have led men in combat in World War I. Apparently, that too was fiction. Marshall's regiment in World War I was behind the lines, involved in road work and building delousing stations. Leinbaugh discovered records of Marshall's unit, which include such stirring reports as "1 mule killed by kick from mule. Drop from rolls." By the time Marshall was writing his World War II histories, he was claiming to have fought with three infantry regiments in two different divisions and in three separate countries. The U.S. Army embraced Marshall as its quasi-official historian. The only real skeptics at the time were a few of the soldiers whom Marshall profiled in his histories, like "The Men of Company K." Asked one old Company K sergeant, "Did the SOB think we clubbed the Germans to death?"

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