Men Against Fire: How Many Soldiers Actually Fired Their Weapons at the Enemy During the Vietnam War
In a squad of 10 men, on average fewer than three ever fired their weapons in combat. Day in, day out — it did not matter how long they had been soldiers, how many months of combat they had seen, or even that the enemy was about to overrun their position. This was what the highly regarded Brigadier General Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, better known as S.L.A. Marshall, or ‘Slam,’ concluded in a series of military journal articles and in his book, Men Against Fire, about America’s World War II soldiers. Marshall had been assigned as a military analyst for the U.S. Army in both the Pacific and Europe. The American, he concluded, comes ‘from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable….The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed by him so deeply and pervadingly — practically with his mother’s milk — that it is part of the normal man’s emotional make-up. This is his great handicap when he enters combat. It stays his trigger finger even though he is hardly conscious that it is a restraint upon him.’
Marshall’s claims did not go unchallenged, but despite the disagreements they were widely accepted as truth both within the nation’s military and by those writing about the war and its American fighting force. Marshall continued in his role as analyst and self-proclaimed military historian before, during and after the Korean War, authoring many more books and frequently appearing as a guest lecturer at Fort Leavenworth and other installations around the United States. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was more or less a living legend by the mid-1960s. Largely due to his influence, noncommissioned officers and officers sent to Vietnam at the beginning of the American buildup were concerned that their soldiers and Marines would not fire at the enemy.
The American fighting man made sure that these concerns were short-lived. He showed little hesitation to use a rifle, pistol, shotgun, machine gun, grenade launcher or whatever other weapon he carried. Marshall himself visited Vietnam to conduct studies similar to those done during World War II and later emulated in Korea. He concluded that much had changed since those earlier conflicts and that it was not unusual for close to 100 percent of American infantrymen to engage the adversary during firefights in Vietnam. It seemed that all was well. Marshall had seemingly found that the Americans’ hesitation to fire was all but gone.
Some 20 years later, the validity of Marshall’s analysis was called into doubt. Respected researchers interviewed those who had accompanied him in World War II and also pored over his personal notes during the mid-1980s. Convincing evidence pointed to his having fabricated his World War II ratio-of-fire values, still so widely accepted at the time. The question seemed inevitable: Had there been a problem with Americans’ willingness to engage the enemy in World War II? If so, had it actually been rectified during the Vietnam War as Marshall claimed, or was the research done there just as flawed as had been the case a quarter of a century before?
The concern was fundamental to the nation’s military readiness. Americans would die needlessly and wars would be much extended if U.S. troops failed to perform the essential act of firing on the enemy. Compelled to determine whether a problem existed, I conducted a survey of 258 1st Cavalry Division Vietnam veterans in 1987. My motivation had nothing to do with determining Americans’ willingness to use their weapons in World War II; any results from Vietnam would not apply to a war fought decades before. The question was whether there might be an existing problem in the U.S. armed forces. Despite Marshall’s fall from grace, there were those who had agreed with him. The issue was important enough to investigate rigorously. Since Vietnam was the most recent U.S. war, its veterans were the men who could provide answers to critical questions addressing willingness to fire. Ultimately it was their responses that formed the basis for a detailed study of this issue and the influence of training, the 12-month rotation and the six-month command tour on the American fighting man’s combat performance. The results of that study were published in 2000 in the book Reading Athena’s Dance Card: Men Against Fire in Vietnam. This article summarizes those findings relating to whether men fired their weapons and what factors influenced their willingness to do so.
Only nine of the 1st Cavalry Division veterans reported that they never personally fired on the enemy, a far different result from what Marshall had written was the case in the Pacific and Europe. But some might suspect that a man would hesitate to admit his own shortcomings under fire. The veterans were therefore also asked to reflect on the performance of their comrades in arms. When asked what portion of their fellow soldiers fired during any given engagement, the veterans estimated that about 84 percent of a unit’s men armed with individual weapons (rifles, pistols, grenade launchers, shotguns) and approximately 90 percent of those manning crew-served weapons (generally the M-60 machine gun) did so.
From these responses it seems that Americans in Vietnam had little hesitation to engage their enemy. Yet the observations of these veterans prompt the question of why, on average, nearly two of every 10 men were not firing when their unit was in contact. The apparent problem was not of the magnitude Marshall had reported for World War II, but losing the firepower of so many soldiers was still no small matter. In a unit with 500 riflemen, some 80 would not engage. Unlike the numbers from Marshall’s work, these estimates came directly from the men who had fought in the cities, jungles, firebases and rice paddies of Vietnam. Why did so many not fire?
No single factor explains it. A man’s duty position was one critical element. Soldiers surveyed in the 1st Cavalry Division can in general be said to have come from one of two basic groups. The primary job of the first group was to engage the enemy with small-arms fire. These men served as riflemen, machine-gunners, helicopter door gunners, vehicle crewmen or others who were to kill the adversary with the weapon they carried. The second basic group consisted of others who accompanied those of the first group. It included men who might sometimes fire on the adversary, but that was not their primary responsibility. These Marines and soldiers were squad leaders, first sergeants, platoon leaders and company commanders directing maneuvers, distributing ammunition, calling for fire or performing the many other tasks that success in a firefight demanded. They included assistant machine-gunners, whose first responsibilities were to load an M-60 and help the gunner to identify targets. Others were artillery forward observers who called for and directed artillery and aircraft fire; medics caring for the wounded; engineers destroying bunkers, removing mines or investigating tunnel complexes; chaplains; radio operators passing information; or pilots flying helicopters.
In the case of the second group, vital duties were left undone if on contact these men first raised rifle to shoulder or drew a pistol to engage. There were occasions when firing their weapons was essential, but many times their choice to engage rather than perform their other duties would have done more harm than good. Lieutenant General Harold Moore recalled what his responsibilities as commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, demanded of him in his classic book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. Moore noted that he was tempted by the opportunity to join his riflemen in firing on the enemy during fighting at LZ X-Ray in 1965, but he ‘resisted the temptation. I had no business getting involved with the actions of only one company. I might get pinned down and become simply another rifleman. My duty was to lead riflemen.’ For a very different reason, chaplains rarely engaged the enemy. Regulations proscribed men in those positions from carrying weapons, though some felt compelled to do so in a war in which medics and chaplains, who were not legitimate targets under accepted rules of war, were shot and killed nonetheless.
But even the men whose primary job was to engage the enemy found that at times they could not fire. Location was a second factor that determined whether a man pulled, or should have pulled, the trigger of his weapon. A soldier at the tail of a column winding through the dense foliage of a Southeast Asian jungle might hear an engagement to his front, yet be unable to see where his comrades were located. If he fired, he risked shooting his own men. That same infantryman might later be on the perimeter of a defensive position when the enemy attacked the other side of his firebase. Sluing his weapon around in the dark and firing meant those bullets could strike other defenders in the back.
And it should be no surprise that at times fear kept men from firing. Although the habitual coward was rare, 80 percent of those explaining why a fellow soldier did not fire cited fear as one of the causes. Yet these respondents noted at the same time that fear was generally a passing condition; a man not engaging on one occasion could be expected to use his weapon later in the same engagement, or during subsequent battles. Sometimes what appeared to be fear was really common sense, based on an accurate assessment of the situation. A man could be pinned down by heavy and accurate incoming fire. Given that everybody in a unit rarely faced such focused attention, men would wait until the enemy pointed their weapons elsewhere before engaging. One veteran recalled situations when ‘many soldiers don’t return fire because they are behind a tree or log under heavy suppressive fire. Once artillery or other units create a distraction of fire with the enemy, these same soldiers will return fire with relish.’ Another bitterly recalled that his platoon leader ‘chickened out and let a large NVA force through our ambush without engaging them,’ perhaps because he had been fearful. Then again, perhaps it was good judgment on the part of an experienced lieutenant. It was not unusual for an ambush party to let the enemy pass because the Americans were so greatly outnumbered that engaging would have led to disaster. Several veterans recalled that they had been on ambushes where they did not spring the trap for just such a reason.
Level of personal experience could be linked to how scared a man was. New men were too frequently overwhelmed by the sudden roar of a contact, the flying debris of dust, leaves and wood. Even experienced men could find such situations difficult; they were potentially terrifying when first encountered. The consequence of a replacement’s failure to respond could sometimes mean the new man’s death. A 1st Cavalry Division veteran recalled one recent arrival who lost his life ‘because he was apparently looking for a foxhole with a concrete lining. As he was dying, he kept saying, `I couldn’t find a hole.’ He was hit about 10 to 15 seconds after we received the first shots and was standing up looking confused. He didn’t respond to the `get down’ yells by other troops.’ Another soldier concluded that when someone failed to fire, it ‘was usually during their first firefight experience and was mainly due to fear or the unsure feeling of how to respond.’ A third admitted that this was undoubtedly the case for at least one rifleman: himself. He wrote that he did not fire in one of his first encounters with the enemy due to fear, adding, ‘I am ashamed to admit this.’ Not firing on one or two occasions did not mean the same man’s response would not be far different during a subsequent event, however. And in fact fear could also have just the opposite effect, as was the case with a veteran who recalled that he was ‘too damned scared to do anything else than shoot and hope I did not get shot.’
Weapons malfunctions sometimes kept a man from engaging even if he wanted to — as did unfamiliarity with a weapon. Controversy regarding the M-16 rifle and its variants developed soon after it was designated as the rifleman’s primary weapon in the theater. Many veteran respondents remained bitter about what they perceived to be a failure to properly train them during the transition from the M-14 to the newer rifle. A considerable number recalled how the weapon they used during basic and advanced individual training was the older M-14, but that the M-16 was issued on their arrival in Vietnam. Too often these men received inadequate training on the unfamiliar rifle before they were committed to active operations. Others are equally passionate about the M-16’s alleged mechanical unreliability. Whether he carried an M-16 or some other weapon, a soldier was fortunate if a rapid reaction drill corrected the problem. If not, a replacement weapon had to be found either during or after the firefight. In either case, the warrior was under fire with no means to engage his attackers.
The assigned mission at times meant that actions other than killing the enemy had a higher priority. Units on intelligence collection operations frequently let a threat pass by unmolested. The members of these patrols sometimes called for artillery to engage the targets after they passed; in other instances, the Americans simply reported what they had seen. Firing their weapons risked compromising a patrol’s position, whereas resisting the temptation could provide the information-collectors with several more days of unmolested activity. Given the difficulty of inserting a patrol in many instances, preserving secrecy could easily outweigh the immediate benefit of a few enemy taken under fire.
Similarly, good tactics at times meant that a soldier did not use his primary weapon, if he engaged at all. Experienced units often shifted some if not all of their men just before or after darkness fell so that the NVA or VC could not mark American locations for attack later that night. Enemy sappers routinely made post-sunset attempts to determine the location of U.S. perimeter defensive positions. They sought to cause the Americans to fire so that muzzle flashes would give the defenders’ positions away. Determining the location of heavy weapons such as machine guns was especially desirable; those were primary targets during any attack because of their greater killing potential. Men in well-trained units knew when to detonate a Claymore mine, call for mortar or artillery support, or throw a grenade instead of using a rifle, pistol, machine gun or grenade launcher. These alternatives were means of dealing with a threat without compromising firing positions.
Personal beliefs did play a role, though a far less pervasive one than Marshall claimed was the case during World War II. Conscientious objectors accompanied infantry units into combat as medics, ammunition bearers for machine guns, or in other noncombatant roles. They often put themselves at greater risk by not carrying weapons. If the 1st Cavalry Division respondents reflect the majority veteran view, such men generally performed their duties well and were often respected for their convictions. A veteran respondent remembered that he ‘had a medic who was a conscientious objector in the platoon. He chose not to carry a weapon during his tour. When asked if he would fire a weapon if our platoon was being overrun and some of his buddies might die if he did not, his answer was that he `would not fire a weapon.’ He was still respected for his deep conviction against weapons.’
A unit could be in a no-fire zone, an area in which using weapons was prohibited. Poor training that improperly prepared soldiers for combat underlay other cases of failing to engage. In at least one instance a man turned to point out an enemy soldier rather than firing as he should have. Finally, one veteran recalled his simply being outgunned as he stood ‘naked on top of a shower stall put-ting water in. I threw the water can at the enemy, but the round fell way short.’
The list is not exhaustive, but it helps to explain why a unit might have several men not engaging despite being under fire. Often every man fired during a contact; at other times, only a few had the opportunity. And there were occasions when fear, cowardice, poor judgment or confusion kept men from employing weapons against their foes when they should have. However, such occasions were the exception in Vietnam.
It is evident that the vast majority of those whose duties put them in harm’s way fired when the situation dictated they should do so. But what factors influenced how many times a man had the opportunity to engage the enemy during his time in Southeast Asia? Were there factors that made it more likely for some men to fire than others? We already know that duty position had such an effect, but the likelihood that someone engaged varied even among those whose primary job was to shoot to kill. More than a third of the 1st Cavalry Division veterans fired on the NVA or VC less than 15 times while in-country. Nearly 80 percent engaged 50 or fewer times. Members of one group in particular, however, consistently saw much more action: aviators and their door gunners. Enlisted men, warrant officers and commissioned officers who flew or crewed aircraft tended to have considerably more engagements on average. A third of this group engaged the enemy more than 100 times; fewer than half fired on the enemy less than 50 times.
Besides influencing whether and how often a man fired, duty position also greatly affected his chances of coming home alive. On average, two 1st Cavalry Division soldiers awoke to their last sunrise every day of the 612 years the unit was in Vietnam. Riflemen, door gunners and others who served at the cutting edge, men like the vast majority of those who took my survey, were of course more likely to suffer wounds than others in less exposed specialties.
Climate was another element that made a given day more or less likely to involve enemy contact. The northern part of South Vietnam normally had its rainy season from September to January, the southern part from May to September. That meant enemy infiltration routes were difficult to travel during all but the February-to-May period. Not surprisingly, American units (and the French before them) suffered their largest numbers of casualties during these late winter and spring months.
Likewise, men quickly learned where the chances of enemy contact were greater. That was true locally, in that a given village or region habitually had more contacts than did others in the vicinity. It was also true at the province level. Three of South Vietnam’s provinces (Quang Tri, Quang Nam and Thua Thien) accounted for more than 40 percent of American casualties. More than three-quarters of U.S. servicemen were killed in action in just 10 of the country’s more than 40 provinces.
Time likewise played its part. Although it was not evident until after the war, 1968 was undeniably the year in which the chances of being killed were greatest. It was the only year during the U.S. participation in the conflict in which more than 10,000 Americans lost their lives. For every 1,000 Americans in Vietnam in 1968, 28 died, a higher ratio than in any other year.
Time influenced fatalities in another way, too. The amount of combat experience played a dominating role in the likelihood a man survived. The replacement who was killed while in a panic-stricken search for a ‘concrete foxhole’ lost his chance to learnthe skills needed to survive. Veterans repeatedly cited how vulnerable the new man was until he had a chance to learn the ropes after arriving in the combat theater. The chances that a man would die during his first three months in Vietnam were virtually equal to those for the last nine months of his tour combined. The likelihood that a man survived to return home alive dramatically increased if he lived long enough to discover the lessons of war.
A nation sending its youth to war must prepare them well if those individuals are to survive the experience. Veterans who responded to the survey regarding their months at war passed on many thoughts regarding their performance, expectations, weapons, training, the 12-month tour of duty and the six-month command tour. The lessons of Vietnam are there for those willing to learn.
This article was written by Russell W. Glennt and originally published in the April 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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