for 6 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Them Against Fire
Best to double-check the background of S.L.A. Marshall. His tale of leading troops in WW I proved to be a lie, as was much of what he claimed about himself and his research. See David Hackworth's book, About Face. Hack worked with him at one point and learned the truth about this fraud.
Ah, good. I was waiting for someone to bring this up. Because, okay, if you go to for example the online encyclopedia at Infoplease.com, you'll get a one-line dismissal of SLAM as a once-respectable military historian and theorist whose work has since been debunked. And I think that's far more the product of a desire to believe that his conclusions are false than a product of any kind of reality about the man. Three, maybe four, things:
1.) The Army itself clearly still believes that Marshall's work holds up. His books are still on the reading lists at just about any ROTC program or Army command course, from OCS to ICCC; his picture still hangs in a prominent spot in the entryway at Infantry Hall (home to the US Army Infantry School); and the PX at the Infantry School still retails great enormous piles of Men Against Fire.
2.) All kinds of entirely respectable contemporary military historians and theorists treat his work with respect. Read Dave Grossman's On Killing, or Richard Holmes' Acts of War, or John Keegan's The Face of Battle, and you'll see Marshall's name over and over again. They're not attacking his stuff; they're talking about how useful it is in understanding combat.
3.) Plenty of other research supports his conclusions about the participation of riflemen in killing during WWII. David Grossman cites a bunch of these cases: The 12,000 dropped rifles at Gettysburg that had never been fired; Richard Gabriel's conclusion that 1 percent of WWII fighter pilots shot down 30 to 40 percent of the total number of enemy planes destroyed, suggesting that most (or at least many) pilots chose not to shoot at all; the 1986 reenactment of a hundred 19th and 20th century battles by the British military, in which the weapons of the time in each battle were found to be likely to have caused far more casualties than actually occurred, suggesting that many soldiers deliberately fired high or never fired; and all kinds of anecdotal evidence about individual soldiers encountering an isolated enemy in the confusion of battle, and, absent the social pressure to fight, waved and moved on quietly. I mean, there are stories about enemies in WWI climbing out of the trenches to share cigarettes with one another, in the absence of orders to fight, then resuming combat when told to do so. So, yeah, SLA Marshall: Killing in combat is usually the result of social pressures, and it stops when the social pressures are removed.
4.) The Army actually published a book on The Influence of S.L.A. Marshall on the United States Army in 1990; it was written by an active officer, and published by the Training and Doctrine Command. And it credits Marshall with producing accurate work that had an enormous positive impact on the Army. "Some critics, in their attack, for example, on Marshall's 25 percent firing ratio, betrayed a vested interest in its invalidity, seeing the ratio as a reflection of their own combat leadership," that book says. The same book also notes that Marshall tended to adopt a swagger and could be really, really irritating, and so made enemies by just generally being a jerk. Still: Valid and useful work, still used by the Army to shape training.
5.) And so on, but you get the point. Doubt the doubt, in this case, and consider the motivation for it.
Ambrose Beers does it again. I'm going to have to cancel my subscription to Foreign Affairs review and The Economist, because they don't come close to providing the quality of insight, to what's going on in the world, that you do. Particularly telling is your reference to Clinton (the nations foremost draft dodger) calling this terrorist act cowardly. In light of your review the act seems less than cowardly. And less than final.
I think this reduces the circulation of Foreign Affairs to, like, ten. But think of the trees you've saved...
As a former Marine, I salute your writing. I was talking with a more learned friend of mine and he told me that he thought that, because we as a nation are so committed to our policy in the middle east and blind to what could be the full implication of that policy, the U.S. would be willing to sacrifice the life of 500,000 service men to the middle east! This shocked me because I had placed the number at only 5,000 (roughly ten percent of the U.S. dead in Viet Nam). Having read your article I may be forced to reconsider my position. A change of heart seems to be particularly apt considering the stunning fact that the candidacy of Dubya Bush is considered legitimate by almost half the voters of the U.S. I will read Men Against Fire.
A "former" Marine? I thought that was supposed to never happen.
Anyway, I'm a soldier, so I'm going to go ahead and hope that both the 5,000 and 500,000 figures are wrong. Honestly I don't think the country would stand for that kind of bloodshed, but who knows? Anyway, we have the coca fields on Latin America on our dance card, first. Oh boy.
And you should definitely read the thing I wrote about Dick Cheney and the military, a few weeks back:
Thanks for writing,
You should write for the Times op-ed. I must admit that I never imagined that Suck.com would become such a good source of foreign and military policy analysis, but today's piece was at least as insightful as anything by Anthony Lewis, and much more interesting. Dismissing one's enemy as a coward is a good tactic for mobilizing the public, but that doesn't make it accurate.
I wonder, though, what do the webmasters at all the .mil sites you link to think of all the Suck.com referrers? They must get a bit confused sometimes.
Go Army, Beat Navy,
I will call the Times tomorrow morning, and let them know. One thing: "as insightful as anything by Anthony Lewis" is not generally considered a compliment. Except by Anthony Lewis, of course.
And I prefer not to know what the .mil webmasters are thinking on that subject. Let's just keep hoping they don't notice.
Excellent article. Inspired me to go straight to Amazon to order Men Against Fire. I also noticed a "Vietnam Version" called "Reading Athena's Dance Card: Men Against Fire in Vietnam", by Russell W. Glenn (who wrote the intro to the new paperback edition of MAF). Have you read that one as well?
Your article reminds me of the old "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", and of the rag-tag band of Minute-Men who were the ur-US Army. To dismiss the men is to dismiss the cause without having to argue the case it may be that the cause isn't right, but it should be faced fairly and in the open, and let the chips of public opinion fall where they may.
The whole Cole episode passed me by, I'm ashamed to admit. I've been living in Scotland for a few years now, though, and so have a lot of first-hand experience of public opinion in these isles about the Northern Ireland problem. Anyone who has sympathy in the US for the "brave Fenian men" should at least have the same respect for the bombers of the Cole, or those stalwart Basque patriots of ETA or the AIM, for that matter.
You've just said the whole thing I was trying to say, in about 1400 fewer words: To dismiss the men as cowards, in this instance is to dismiss the case without having to argue the case. Contemporary American political leadership in a nutshell. Yep.
Haven't read the Vietnam version thanks for pointing it out.
Your essay today on terrorism was very interesting and very well put. Men Under Fire is an amazing book and I'm glad you brought it into view. What I consider most interesting is how terrorism is most likely to come out of consistent marginalization.
...and the response to which is to try to marginalize it. In geometry, this is known as a "circle." It doesn't have an end, is the problem.
Nice essay today. Paul Fussell covers a lot of the same ground in Wartime, an amazing book about his experiences in WWII. Wartime was kind of ignored in the post-Private Ryan "good war" glut, but he talks a lot about soldiers all being kids who were motivated to move forwards by preferring death to appearing weak in front of others.
Extrapolating this behavior to terrorists was smart, and unfortunately probably correct.
Haven't read this one, but I'll go buy it. Thanks.
Great column today. I forwarded it to those who would appreciate it. Most important is this: you've made us see why the dumbing down of an issue by others is an act much like that of Marshall's soldiers. Perhaps we should coin a term.
"Marshall's Law: when media fails to follow it own directives of truth to the nth degree. Usually caused by a lack of compassion for the readers and a lack of compassion for media leaders."
A useful term, sure. But I'm picturing a bunch of soldiers running through the streets, shooting and beating everyone in sight and setting up giant detention facilities. And then, when someone finally explains which law had been mentioned, being all, like: "Uh... We thought you said martial law, man. Sorry about that."
It's best to be safe.
Thanks, and glad you liked it,
Final End III
"A big block of bitch cheese." That's pretty goddamned funny. I'm sitting at my desk chuckling like an idiot every time I read it. I would have snorted milk out of my nose if I hadn't been drinking water. Keep up the good work.
You mean every time you're not drinking water, you snort milk out of your nose? Sounds messy. But thanks for the kind note...
Them Against Fire
"People who destroy human life in this precise manner are not alone, and not disorganized, and very much not finished."
Thank you for your brave words. I look around me at all the heads in the sand, all the infants whimpering for their daily pabulum, and disappointment threatens to unhinge me.
I've been reading Suck for years. This marks the first time I've been moved to write in a compliment. I'll be watching you more closely henceforth.
Best regards from Redmond, WA.
Those infants whimpering for their daily pablum? I used to date a couple of 'em, back in the day. It was kind of fun, to tell the truth. Anyway, they never read my stuff, so...
You're a very special young man.
You know, I've heard those words before. You're not a probation officer, by any chance, are you?
Excellent essay. I am going to get a copy of "Men Against Fire" today.
Yep, not a bad idea. Two things, quickly, on that topic:
1.) The first few chapters? Establishing a premise. Which is something like "in war, people shoot guns and stuff." S-L-O-W. So if you find yourself feeling bored by the thing, don't start with that "that guy from Suck is an idiot" thing that I get so often. Just, you know, skip ahead a few pages. It starts really getting interesting around chapters ten ("Why Men Fight") and eleven ("The Aggressive Will.") (Chapter twelve, "Ten Easy Steps to Slim Your Waistline," is less valuable. Military historians generally pretend not to notice that chapter.)
2.) You might also find On Killing, by Dave Grossman, a really excellent book on the same topic. Picks up where Marshall left off, adds some detail, offers additional proof of the same ideas. And is, besides, a great title to ask the clerk for at Barnes and Noble. They get all sketchy and distant on you, pretty much instantly. It's cool.
Glad to see you're still among the living, though I have to admit that, in the absence of any cause worth fighting for, your tenure in the U.S. Army still somewhat puzzles me. That this was, indirectly, the topic of your missive makes the puzzle even larger: the U.S. very frequently finds itself in the position of an uber-bully without being smart enough to know it, which puts you in the position of abetting the very circumstances engendering the problem. Are we interested in peace in the middle east? Then why do we so heavily subsidize the Israelis? Is Iraq fighting its neighbors without our permission? Hmm, weren't we sending them big fat cashier's checks back in the '70s?
Himalayan ironies mount: the U.S. was founded because George III, and the ministers who governed in his name, wanted absolute control over everything that went on in the colonies. The hubris of our current leaders is even worse: they imagine they can recast the rest of the world in their image, with political philosophy reduced to FDR's comment about Trujillo: that is, they like oppressive foreign governments that can be bought ("he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."). People laugh at Patrick Buchanan, and in the main, rightfully so he is a crackpot, frequently. But the sneakiness and venality Americans tolerate at home and encourage abroad is sufficient cause to cut loose the empire.
Trust me: My tenure in the U.S. Army puzzles the U.S. Army, too. Me, I'm not puzzled: I'm just angry. But there are, apparently, laws against just going home. The dirty bastards.
Okay, here's one: I eat in the same DFAC (Dining FACility, pronounced dee-fak) as the students at the School of the Americas. So I'm sitting there, morning after morning, reading the newspaper over breakfast, and reading about Vladimiro Montesinos fleeing Peru, and soldiers taking hostages, and the U.S. sending messages to the military to please not stage a coup, and so on. And at the tables to my left and right, shoveling down Krispy Kreme donuts, are uniformed Peruvian military officers, here to receive training in the organized application of violent force. Yeah! Go team!
On a positive note, considering the shit we're feeding them, they may all drop dead before they get a chance to go home and screw things up any worse.
And the caissons go rolling along,