Why Does the NYT Continue to Cite Historian S.L.A. Marshall After the Paper Discredited Him in a Front-Page Story Years Ago?

Fact & Fiction

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"Studies by Medical Corps psychiatrists of combat fatigue cases ... found that fear of killing, rather than fear of being killed, was the most common cause of battle failure, and that fear of failure ran a strong second." -- S.L.A. Marshall, military historian, quoted in the Hartford Courant (March 20, 2003)

"Historian's Pivotal Assertion On Warfare Assailed as False" read the headline in a story featured on the front page of the New York Times on February 19, 1989. The subject of the story was Brigadier General S. L.A. Marshall, one of the most influential military historians of the twentieth century, most famous for claiming that a majority of American foot soldiers failed to fire their weapons in combat during World War II. The Times story was based on an upcoming article in American Heritage by Frederic Smoler, an historian at Sarah Lawrence.

Marshall started out in life as a newspaperman, eventually working for the Detroit News. Upon America's entry into World War II, he was given a commission as a major and was assigned to the Army Historical Section. His studies of World War II combat began in the Pacific, where he covered the landings on Makin Island and Kwajalein. After a battle on Makin, he asked the survivors questions about their experience in combat, which he referred to as the "after-action interview." "By the end of those four days," he observed, "working several hours every day, we had discovered to our amazement that every fact of the fight was procurable--that the facts lay dormant in the minds of men and officers, waiting to be developed. It was like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle with no missing pieces but with so many curious and difficult twists and turns that only with care and patience could we make it into a single picture of combat."

After his work in the Pacific, Marshall interviewed those who fought in Europe, becoming chief historian of the European Theater of Operations. His experience and the evidence he amassed provided the basis for his pioneering book, Men Against Fire, which was published in 1947. The sixth chapter of that book spelled out Marshall's concept of what he termed the ratio of fire: "a commander of infantry will be well advised to believe that when he engages the enemy not more than one quarter of his men will ever strike a real blow. " "The 25 per cent estimate," he added, "stands even for well-trained and campaign-seasoned troops. I mean that 75 per cent will not fire or will not persist in firing against the enemy and his works. These men may face danger but they will not fight."

Later Marshall raised the number from 75 percent to 85 percent. "We found on average not more than 15 per cent of the men had actually fired at enemy positions or at personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BARs, or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. . . . The best showing that could be made by the most spirited and aggressive companies was that one man in four had made at least some use of his fire power."

In Marshall's view there were reasons why the men didn't fire their weapons: in both the civilian world and on the battlefield, the majority let the minority shoulder the burden. Moreover, civilization imparts a "fear of aggression" into "the normal man's emotional makeup." The obvious solution was to train soldiers to fire their weapons in combat, overcoming their instincts. Marshall claimed that as a result of his studies the army altered its training and the "ratio of fire" improved. By the time of the Korean War (which Marshall also studied), he reported that the ratio of fire had increased to 55 percent.

One who didn't buy Marshall's argument was Harold R. Leinbaugh, who served as a rifle company commander during World War II, and co-authored The Men of Company K. Leinbaugh characterized Marshall's assertions as "absurd, ridiculous and totally nonsensical." Leinbaugh wasn't alone in his skepticism. Roger Spiller, an historian at the Army's Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, challenged Marshall's claim that he questioned 400 companies of approximately 125 soldiers each immediately after they had fought in combat: "The systematic collection of data that made Marshall's ratio of fire so authoritative appears to have been an invention." Spiller studied Marshall's records and other documents. He discovered there was no evidence to support support Marshall's grand claims. Spiller said that Marshall's aide, John Westover, who accompanied Marshall in Europe, didn't remember hearing Marshall ask soldiers if they had fired their weapons. Additionally, Westover didn't "recall Marshall ever talking about ratios of weapons usage in their many private conversations," said Spiller. Westover subsequently wrote: "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, Marshall generalized from the interviews--and his generalizations contained the essence of truth."

Leinbaugh was reportedly personally offended by Marshall's charges for two reasons. First, Leinbaugh felt that Marshall criticized "not only our efforts at Geilenkirchen (a German town) but the performance of every American rifle company that did battle in World War II." Secondly, Leinbaugh observed the use of Marshall's judgments by historians John Keegan and Max Hastings in their work.

Spiller believed that Men Against Fire was born of the simplistic "harum-scarum" journalistic style of the 1920s when Marshall learned his trade. "He liked making heroes," said Leinbaugh. The military accepted his theory because he was sympathetic to professional soldiers, and they reciprocated that feeling. But why did professional historians accept Marshall's prognostications? "Intellectual sloth," said Spiller."The ratio of fire was an easy answer, one that seemed to promise entree into the hidden world of combat." Leinbaugh was even more blunt: "Most people who are writing the histories now have never been on a battlefield." Scant good material existed below the level of regimental records concerning World War II, "so historians had to rely on Marshall." According to Spiller: "Marshall, for all his faults, made real and lasting contributions to an understanding of the military art."

By the time Frederick Smoler's article on Marshall appeared in American Heritage in March, 1989, Marshall wasn't around to defend himself, having died in 1977, but his grandson came to the general's defense. A columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, John Marshall contended that there was ample research and experience to support his grandfather's contention. He said there were reports in the S.L.A. Marshall Military History Collection, housed at the University of Texas, El Paso, authored by his grandfather and other combat historians confirming the ratio of fire theory. In the dustup that followed American Heritage provided lukewarm support for Frederick Smoler. While declaring that the magazine stood by Smoler's article, editor Bryon Dobell conceded: "We don't know what the truth is. Marshall may or may not have been right."

A more recent assessment of Marshall's legacy is provided by Randolph Hils, an amateur historian who served as an airlift planner with the Marine Corps during Vietnam. He says that Marshall "is credited with the development of the ‘after action interview' which, in my mind, is just taking the debriefing process already common to the command level down to the squad level. Troop Carrier crews were routinely debriefed after each mission in detail, not because of any influence by Marshall. Rather, it was the logical process of recording for the record mission events as well as gathering intelligence and information that might influence successive missions."

Hils's area of expertise is the history of World War II Airborne Troop Carrier Groups and in particular Operation Neptune, the name given to the airlift of 13,000 paratroopers into Normandy on June 6, 1944. "In nearly every history written since then," Hils says, "the pilots have been accused of wholesale cowardice and blamed for the deaths and injury of many paratroopers. Researching backwards and investigating the sources of many historians including Ambrose, Keegan, Hastings, Huston and Clay Blair led me to Marshall."

Marshall and his staff wrote the regimental field or unit studies of the parachute infantry regiments of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions that jumped into Normandy and wrote essentially the root history on the operation though the historians named and many more would embellish Marshall's work. What struck me most about the Marshall studies was not what they contained but rather was excluded. As an airlift planner I was looking for the critical analysis of the primary events of any airborne/airlift mission and they just weren't there.

Hils has requested that the Army open an investigation into OPERATION NEPTUNE but has yet to receive a response.

"Besides the Troop Carrier controversy," Hils further explains, Marshall, writing in an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1960, "accused British sailors of cowardice at Omaha beach." He said that one Captain Zapacosta had to hold his weapon to the head of the coxswain to get him to get the Landing Craft Assault boats closer to the beach. The only survivor of that landing craft was Zapacosta's bodyguard, Bob Sales, who has given sworn testimony that Marshall fabricated the incident as well as repeating his story in the Lynchburg News Advance newspaper."

Despite the many questions that have been raised about Marshall's research and conclusions, he continues to be cited by the media--including the New York Times!--as one of the great authorities on military history. Why? The army has refused to repudiate Marshall and the media are reluctant, as Hils puts it, to challenge a historian who, like Ambrose, has a flair for words and style.

David Allender, Editor-in-Chief of Warchronicle.com, say that "the Marshall myth lives on because military writers tend to copy previous books without doing original research.

Regarding the New York Times and other sources, Marshall provides a catchy little statistic for editors and writers in a hurry. If they weren't in a hurry, they would realize that Marshall's stats could never have been measured in the first place. But I suppose the main reason S.L.A. Marshall's ‘research' is still relied upon comes down to simple ignorance. Roger Spiller blew Marshall's research out of the water years ago, but Spiller was published in a British academic journal. On the other hand, Marshall is such a good writer that his books are still in stores; they are reprinted, read, and enjoyed by many people.

Allender adds: Marshall "was not a serious historian. He was simply a brilliant combat journalist.... His books should be enjoyed for the considerable insight they contain. But as a source, they must be used with caution. . . . Respect but suspect."

Note: The New York Times did not respond to requests for a comment.

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More Comments:

Alice Porter - 2/2/2010

Seattle journalist John Marshall wrote a very moving book in the 1990s about his efforts to sort through the controversy surrounding his grandfather's reputation and the findings reported in Men Against Fire. "Reconciliation Road" is also based on a careful study of Marshall's letters and notebooks. The entire book is available to read for free on Libertary.com: http://libertary.com/books/reconciliation-road.

Horst Veckner - 7/30/2009

SLAM was a genius. He had the insight and guts to comment directly on U.S. Army battle-command at the soldier-level, where it counts most. The Army's officer culture is so political and self-serving, top-level accounts of battle-command must be balanced with the kind of studies conducted by SLAM.

I spent 20 years watching officers routinely ignore their soldiers during operations, 100 percent focused, as they were, on interacting favorably with their superiors, to advance their careers.

Careerism is the single greatest threat to the U.S. Army during times of peace. Officers are forced to 'punch tickets', professionally speaking, and politic with their raters and senior-raters, to the extent they literally forget about the most important aspect of military leadership -- BUILDING AND LEADING WARRIORS. SLAM filled that void, and the truth he offered hurt. The truth often hurts like hell.

Kenneth h Bounds - 4/20/2007

Thank all of you brave men that fought for our freedom during World War II.

You are all true heros and the world owes you a debt that can never be repaid.

God bless you all.

Robert Mock - 4/26/2003

At 82 all that I have the I can say is they make me gag!! I remember the crews on the 100 aircraft we had, we were GREAT.
To the Limeys I say god bless all of you.

Mike Ingrisano - 4/23/2003

Just a few words to add to the commnets made by Randy Hils. "Historians" like Marshall, and Ambrose have made much of the reading public conscious of the role played by Troop Carrier personnel during WWII. But their assessments, as Hils points out is dramatically wrong. All one has to do is research the official records (debriefings,and other after=action reports) of TC performances to come closer to the truth. Unfortunately, this has not happened. All that one need do is to read two recent histories in which TC is taken to task ala Ambrose and Marshall. These are E. M. Flanagan Jr. "Airborne. A Combat History of American Airborne Forces" and Victor Brooks, "The Normandy Campaign. From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris."
When Hils and others took Flanagan to task for his irresponsible hisytory,his respond was an apology with the excuse that he did not knbow that such data was available when he wrote his material. Strange, since these official records date back to Torch (North Afica), and Husky (the invasion of Sicily)and are readily available to any historian who is will ing to pursue the truth.

In the same context, when Brooks was taken to task for his Ambrosians, he never had the courage to neither apologize nor to object to the Troop Carrier's assertions that he, too, should pursue the truth from the official records.

Again, unfortunately, for those of us who saw combat as Troop Carrier crewmen, all we have left is the truth, and to mourn our comrades who sleep restlessly in their honored graves throughout the European and Pacific theaters. If we do not pursue the truth and continue to object to those who mangle and distort it, then we have no legacy except that history which is painted by these errant "historians" and our comrade's death's will forever seem
fruitless and their honor unfilfulled.

Randy Hils - 4/23/2003

Mr. Lee, the subject of the article is the credibility of history and the historians who write it. This subject is more important than all the facts of history, past, present and future for with out honest scholarship our view of the past is distorted. Our understanding of the past influences the political and military decisions of the future. If accuracy is sacrificed, the effect can be far reaching.

The other point that needs to be made is about the men who actually made the history. Marshall, Ambrose and a score of other lazy historians have built a myth around OPERATION NEPTUNE that is repeated over and over in histories on D-Day to the decided detriment of veterans who served, sacrificed and died at Normandy.

The US Army, through it's Chief of Military History, Brig. Gen. John S. Brown has apparently chosen to maintain the status quo of bad history if his response, (none) to the recent petitions for a reopening of the NEPTUNE historical studies are any indication. Marshall's work needs serious re-examination in a number of areas. That General Brown would ignore the considerable evidence and remain mum on the subject will invariably cast a lack of credibility over the US Army's entire history program.

Frank Lee - 4/21/2003

Why anyone should care whether the "ratio of fire" is 66.3% or 88.8% or 11.11% is apparently beyond the mental grasp of the author. Supposing, nonetheless, that there are good historical reasons for wanting to know, what do we learn in the way of factual
information concerning actual magnitudes of U.S. soldiers, their guns, and shots fired at German and Japanese soldiers ? Zero. Whatever this article is, it has little or nothing to do with "history", "past", present", or "future".