One of the most widely read military historians of the 20th century, S.L.A. Marshall was also a liar and a shameless self-promoter. His best-known book, Men Against Fire, is at least in part, and perhaps wholly, a work of fiction. Yet it has been, and unfortunately continues to be, read by generations of officers and historians who have subsequently applied the “lessons learned” to their own work. Faced with the “facts of combat” such as the ratio of fire provided in Men Against Fire, even writers of U.S. Army doctrine modified texts in an attempt to overcome the problems Marshall outlined.
It has been known for more than a decade now that Marshall made up “facts” to support his personal theories and pet ideas. The most famous (or infamous) of those was his fiction that “no more than 15 percent of the men in combat fired their weapons in World War Two.”
Despite being credited with inventing “bottom-up” history, Marshall was really just a newspaper reporter in a soldier’s uniform. Yet his puffery endures, influencing historical analysis and popular history. Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall was born in Catskill, N.Y., in 1900. That he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 is documented, as is his discharge in 1919. According to Marshall, he was commissioned as the youngest lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Force and served in the infantry in the Soissons, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. In Bringing Up the Rear, he claimed he ended the war on November 11, 1918, “in a foxhole not far from Stenay.”
The research of author, historian and World War II combat veteran Harold Leinbaugh into Marshall’s personal records indicates that he was actually a sergeant. Marshall’s unit, the 315th Engineer Battalion, built roads and delousing stations. According to Leinbaugh, it was only after the war that Marshall attended an abbreviated Officer Candidate School in France. Given the massive and rapid demobilization of the Army in the months after the armistice, gaining acceptance into this version of OCS was not terribly difficult. Marshall apparently did receive a commission but left the Army at the end of his commitment.
During the 20 years between the two world conflicts, Marshall worked as a reporter for various newspapers. Selling heroes to the American public has never been particularly difficult, and Marshall mastered the winning formula of the underdog and the common man displaying uncommon attributes. When World War II began and Marshall was brought on active duty, first as a public relations man and later as a “historian,” he brought with him the techniques he had learned as a sports writer. He wrote history in an anecdotal style—not creating a history so much as telling stories. He was the consummate storyteller.
Nobody would dispute the fact that Marshall talked to many soldiers, perhaps thousands, who had recently been rotated out of combat. Questions surface, however, when one examines what he was talking to them about. Roger Spiller of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., noted in an article more than a decade ago that the number of companies Marshall claimed to have interviewed seemed to change over time. For example, in the original text of Men Against Fire, Marshall claimed that his statistics were the result of interviews with “approximately four hundred infantry companies.” But as Spiller discovered, during addresses made at Fort Leavenworth in the early 1950s, Marshall claimed that he had interviewed 603 infantry companies, while by 1957 the number had dropped back down to “something over 500.” These numbers are indeed significant, but one has to wonder. After all, according to Marshall, it generally took two or three days to interview a rifle company.
Marshall started his interviewing in the Pacific, specifically after the Makin Island invasion in November 1943. In the European theater, the first interviews he conducted did not start before June 1944. Since Marshall did not start practicing his technique of “post-combat interviewing” before that date, and the war ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945, how could he possibly have interviewed 600 companies (1,800 workdays or almost five years), or 500 companies (1,500 days or just over four years) or even 400 companies? The simple answer is that Marshall made it up.
If Marshall spent every single day all year for more than 2l⁄2 years doing absolutely nothing but interviewing combat soldiers fresh off the front lines, it is conceivable that he could have interviewed something like what he claims. But he did not, an observation buttressed by the research conducted by Spiller in Marshall’s papers. Specifically, it seems that even in the interviews that he did conduct, his much vaunted “after-action review” technique was not methodical and consistent, but more anecdotal in nature. Moreover, his own notebooks seem to indicate that wherever Marshall got that famous “15 percent fire their weapons” statistic, it was not from his own interviews.
Even more damning than Marshall’s inflation of the number of interviews he conducted is the fact that he never seems to have asked anyone, “Did you fire your weapon in combat?” In none of his notes, either in the Army’s possession or on deposit in El Paso, Texas, is there any record of his ever asking that question. Spiller noted that the absence of notes on the fundamental question of the ratio of fire, as well as testimony of Marshall’s coworkers from that time, suggests that he actually had no solid material on which to base his statement that only 15 percent of men in combat fire their weapons.
Marshall’s style and what he considered “history” seem to have changed over time. Initially the only fabrications he foisted upon others were about himself. As time went on and his influence grew, he began to modify or create facts to support his arguments. Eventually, as Marshall began to publish more commercial histories, he also resorted to lies to create better characters to act on his historical stage. A careful reading of his Korean and Vietnam War works clearly shows how he created larger-than-life heroes for his narrative. One shining example is Marshall’s account of then-Major (now retired Colonel) David Hackworth from Battles in the Monsoon:
The word for Hackworth is merry. He has that kind of smile, accented more by the deep twinkle in his eye than the cracking of his face, and that rarer thing yet in a soldier—a merry gait; he rolls along like a sailor. Under high pressure he is utterly calm without having to be self-restrained, up to the moment when he must take the initiative, which he may do either with a laugh or with words that sting. Yet he is never abusive. A thoroughly likable man, Hack, a stimulating companion who in conversation acquires force by deliberate understatement. And he is a fighter born, as well as being the kind of commander who sees beyond the skyline of immediate orders.
Spit and polish—no, not for him. There was a four day beard on his face that added nothing to his age or beauty. I had last seen him when he was a platoon sergeant in Cap. Lew Millett’s company in Korea, fifteen years before. It was the day the outfit staged the one great bayonet attack of that war. Lew got a Medal of Honor from it, Hack got a commission, and I got a wife. So the drinks should be on me.
I should preface this part by saying that personally I know and like Hackworth. He is a hero, winning a battlefield commission in a bayonet charge. Nobody denies that getting a commission in this manner is the ultimate “hard way.” The problem is that Marshall’s single passage contains several factual errors, including three outright lies.
To begin with, Hackworth himself says he never met Marshall while he was a platoon sergeant in Korea. Beyond that, he was not in Captain Lewis Millett’s company, which means that he could not have participated in its famous bayonet charge on February 7, 1951. Moreover, this could not have been an “honest mistake” because Marshall knew and worked with Hackworth extensively. It all sounded awfully heroic, though, didn’t it?
Battles in the Monsoon was published in 1967. Marshall didn’t stop there, however, because he continued and amplified the account of the engagements described in that book a few years later in his autobiography Bringing Up the Rear. This time Marshall repeats and adds to his earlier lies regarding Hackworth—and also places himself in the situation, under fire:
Before we could settle in to work, there came a new rattle, again as close as the next second. This time it was for real. A group of North Vietnamese skirmishers had closed in on us; the firing came from the higher ground. In the next thirty minutes, before the incident closed, there were seven dead Charlies on the hill, against two Americans so slightly wounded that they wouldn’t leave the hill.
“This is a typical SLAM error,” according to Colonel Hackworth. “Throughout the time he was with the battalion doing his AAR [after-action report] we were not under fire. The night before he visited my small battalion TOC [tactical operations center] we were hit and there were some NVA piled up nearby. I think this ‘war story’ came from his urgent need to be a warrior. Something he probably never was.” Once again, Marshall created fiction to bolster his image and inserted it directly into the historical record.
Despite all the lies and the fabricated statistics about the behavior of men in combat, is there anything in what Marshall wrote from which military scholars can learn today? Surely there are nuggets of wisdom embedded in his texts, but is it worth the trouble to go mining for them? It would likely prove impossible to determine what is true and what are merely Marshall’s personal pet theories in his two quasi-theoretical works, Men Against Fire and The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation. There are going to be elements of “pure truth” about the nature of men in combat that could be lost by dismissing Marshall entirely—but only a massive amount of archival research can determine what those parts might be. Meanwhile, do we want to train the next generation of soldiers and leaders with such a flawed source? Already one of the most potentially promising works of military psychology in recent years, On Killing, by David Grossman, is badly contaminated by its reliance on Marshall’s frauds.
Better, newer works are now available on similar topics—in some cases written by infantrymen who also happen to hold doctorates in military history. We can trust books like Keith Bonn’s When the Odds Were Even, John McManus’ The Deadly Brotherhood and most recently Peter Mansoor’s The G.I. Offensive in Europe. It’s high time that this generation shook off the cloak Marshall has thrown over its eyes for so long and sought truth in history, rather than just some good stories.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.