The Sound of a Pedestal Crumbling

The cracks began when I started studying psychology as an undergraduate, and we got to the experimental methods and the value of self-reported data.

Figuring out what a person really thinks, compared to what they they think they ought to say is the difficult problem when dealing with humans. It’s also a problem for historians. By the time I got to college, I had already read several military histories by S.L.A. Marshall, who was a tremendously influential historian of battle. Marshall’s career rocketed higher and higher and he eventually wound up as the Chief US Army Combat Historian, a very important role concerned with the question of how to make men more effective in combat; how to cure battle terror so men could shoot and kill each other without compunction. His method seemed brilliant at the time but when you think about it, it ought to crumble to dust in your hands: [John Keegan The Face of Battle wc]

War Porn [wc]

Marshall is, in a sense, an American du Picq, in the, although owing to him his idee de base – that the battlefield is a place of terror – he has come to a radically different view of how the soldier’s fears of it should be overcome. Both he and du Picq believe that an army is a genuine social organism, governed by its own social laws, and that formal discipline, imposed from above, is of limited utility in getting men to fight.

I read a small shelf of Marshall’s books before I began to realize that they were war porn that didn’t really teach us anything valuable about warfare that one of the least of Caesar’s centurions could have articulated. Of course people are scared of battle; that’s why, at the battle of Waterloo, a lot of the British and French were drunk. Of course militaries are social organisms; Alexander of Macedon knew that and so did Ghengis Khan, who made no distinction between the army and the state. Marshall’s method is redolent of a 1960s social science experiment: get a bunch of soldiers who experienced a particular fire-fight to walk through it back and forth and describe it in minute detail, then look for revealing facts in the places where the details don’t line up. It’s like watching Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron with your finger on the jog-wheel of your player, so you can see the blood fly over and over and over again.

From Cross of Iron

S.L.A. Marshall’s work spawned a different way of looking at warfare; a sort of collective first-person view. But was that really important? It seemed to me, through my sophomore social scientists’ eyes, as though Marshall was writing first-person accounts and cross-checking them against other witnesses. That’s interesting but it didn’t tell much more than that “war is hell.” I had grown up reading Joinville’s chronicles of the crusades and Burgoyne’s memoirs of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia, and it did not seem to be a revelation to me. I read it anyway, as I read Keegan, because it was interesting even where it was not mind-blowing. It all became part of the mass of military writing and I ignored the theorists’ efforts to mine great results from it.

One of those great results bothered me a bit, because it set my bullshit meter on yellow. Apparently one of the findings from Marshall’s research was that some men go into battle and don’t actually shoot at the enemy. They run around on the battlefield like targets, carrying empty or broken rifles, or cower in a ditch waiting for the killing and explosions to stop. Intuitively, that seems obvious. Marshall noted that there are often muskets recovered after battles in the Napoleonic or US civil wars, where the entire barrel of a musket is jammed with bullets and powder – layers and layers – rammed in by a panicing soldier who never fired them at an enemy. The answer seems pretty obvious, to me: some soldier was unable to hear or see in the recoil and smoke happening around them, and didn’t realize their percussion cap had fallen off, or their musket didn’t discharge, and they kept loading it and ‘firing’ it without understanding what was happening. Can’t we forgive them for being a bit distracted? A fair number of double-loaded muskets simply blew up in the firer’s face, too, which is also well-documented. Marshall’s conclusion was grandiose: some large number of men (as much as 20%!) simply could not bring themselves to kill other people, and needed to be psychologically coerced to become effective on the battlefield. Keegan summarizes Marshall thus:

But there are limits nevertheless to the usefulness and general applicability of the Marshall method. For his ultimate purpose in writing was not merely to describe and analyze – excellent though his description and analysis is – but to persuade the American army that it was fighting its wars the wrong way. It was his conviction that success in battle depended on structuring an army correctly; and in arguing his case for a new structure of small groups or “fire teams” centered on a ‘natural fighter’ he was undoubtedly guilty of over-emphasis and special pleading. His arguments were consonantly effective, so that he has had the unusual experience, for a historian, of seeing his message not merely accepted in his own lifetime but translated into practice. But, almost for that reason, they are arguments of which the academic historian, trained not to simplify but to portray the complexity of human affairs, ought to beware. A dose of Marshall is a useful corrective but it is not a cure-all for the ills of military history.

Keegan was politely deflecting Marshall’s impact, which was extreme. As he said, the US army adopted some of Marshall’s ideas in Vietnam – “fire teams” – with notable lack of making any difference at all. Marshall’s work spanned WWII, the Korean war, and Vietnam – he was a real storm-crow, indeed. What was telling, to me, came when (around 1990) I read David Hackworth’s About Face. [wc] Hackworth was one of those old soldiers cast right out of the same mold that had thrown Smedly Butler: an imperial janissary who was going to make the world safe for Americans if it meant killing everyone else that rubbed up against him. Hackworth slaughtered Vietnamese and Koreans in as fair and manly a manner as possible, then changed his mind late in life (as Smedley Butler did) and decried the whole thing as pointless. Hackworth was a bridgade commander at An Khe in Vietnam when S.L.A. Marshall came through on one of his troop interviewing tours:

David Hackworth and S.L.A. Marshall, An Khe

Slam was a marvelous storyteller, and as “senior” guest, most evenings of our stay with the Cav he held the mess-hall floor. One night, however, found him sharing the spotlight with author John Steinbeck, who was in Vietnam to visit his son, a radio announcer for Armed Forces Network in Saigon, and to take home all the “good news” on the war effort. In his last years of life, Steinbeck was in pretty shocking physical condition, particularly compared to Marshall, his contemporary; the two distinguished guests had equally healthy egos, though, and there soon proved to be insufficient room at the head table to contain them both. At the happy hour before dinner, the two old men had spent their time sniffing at each other like bulldogs. Throughout the mean, normally cheerful, twinkly-eyed Slam had been stony-faced as his Nobel Prize-winning rival showed him the respect he might show a copyboy for an insignificant weekly rag. When the dinner was finished, the two men spent the rest of the evening fighting for the floor to deliver their respective tales of “the time I talked to” kings or presidents, and by the time the whole thing was over I wasn’t the only one to tumble into bed, greatly exhausted.

I’m not trying to indict a great artist for having an ego; that’s normal. It’s what success does to men. Hackworth’s descriptions of Slam’s fondness for luxury and kowtowing fits with other assessments of his character. But Hackworth’s real concern was what Slam’s interviews were discovering: often American units were going out and coming back crippled by their own artillery, or being over-extended on pointless assault missions that were not adequately explained to the men. As Hackworth said, “the same lethal mistakes were being made again and again” by commanders who had not done their basic research or studying.

But no one wanted to know. While all the generals Slam and I met seemed wholly behind our endeavor, none showed any real interest in the findings the schools uncovered. The same base-camp complacency that did not see the need for self-examination in the first place had led to what appeared to be a total absence of curiousity (even when the hard work was done for them) about what was happening around them.

Reading this stuff, I began to think that maybe Marshall was just a luxury-loving old blowhard, and I understood why in WWII he had immediately recognized his kind of guy in Earnest Hemingway (who apparently mostly liberated French wines, rather than Paris, during his stint with the resistance) – grifters are pretty good at recognizing their ilk. Hackworth sounds shocked and saddened when he learns that Marshall was fond of putting soldiers’ names in his reports because “every name is worth 10 books at the cash register” and began to realize that Marshall’s whole historic method was more histrionics than anything else:

But it was hard to watch an idol moving closer and closer to the edge of the pedestal I’d placed him on. Despite his glowing reputation, I was beginning to see that Slam was less a military analyst than a military ambulance-chaser, more a voyeur than a warrior, the Louella Parsons of the U.S. Army. Because although it was the 1/101’s hard-learned, well-proven economy of force tactics that held the key to winning the war – wearing the enemy down on our terms for a change, without paying the price – Slam responded only to heroes and heroics, men fighting against impossible odds and, as necessary for the drama, dying. This wasn’t to say he was a bloodthirsty man, it’s just that that was how he saw war. But that wasn’t something I understood at the time.

After having lived within David Hackworth’s head for 568 pages, by this point I was ready to begin to adopt his view of Marshall, too. And, I did. I still remember Marshall’s books as interesting and well-written but I no longer revere them as serious history, in no small sense because I understand the art of history and social science better and have learned that trusting a subject’s self-reported experience is simply to make oneself prey to narcissists and sociopaths on one end, and people with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury on the other. I’m not giving you a fair summary of what Hackworth has to say about Marshall – there are nearly 50 pages about their travels together – so let this serve as Hackworth’s own summary:

The thing was the Slam wanted with all his heart to be a great general. But, in fact, he was more like the Howard Cosell of Combat: he’d never commanded troops either on active duty or in the Reserve but he wanted to command great armies. He wanted to be like the other Marshall, George Catlett, for whom he took great delight in being mistaken (and frequently was, which no doubt accounted for more than a little of the blind respect accorded him, in that he never bothered to correct an awestruck fan) and his books reflected this. “… Having wintered with our line forces and Green Berets in the forward areas….” he would manfully encapsulate our tour together in his autobiography, and perhaps not even consider the dishonest of the statement. The truth was, in the air-conditioned five-star-dining one-day laundry luxury we lived in (or in the oh-so-secure base camps to the farthest rear of the forward areas where we did many interviews and not once, not once, came under fire) the only serious danger we faced was a hangover from one too many martinis in the generals’ mess. But with Slam, the voyeur warrior, the truth never got in the way of a good story.

Hackworth’s commentary on Marshall seems to have uncorked a dam and other re-assessments poured out. In 1994, my dad cut out an article from the New York Times and mailed it to me (It is great to have an eminent historian as your clipping-service!) – a review of S.L.A. Marshall’s grandson’s book about his famous relative. [nyt] Reading between the lines, Marshall was as hard on his family as he was on a bottle of bourbon. I confess I did not bother to read it; I didn’t see anyone rushing out to call Hackworth a liar. In 1989 I had also read an article on Marshall in American Heritage forwarded to me by one of my high school gaming group, Bill K., which revealed Marshall to be even more of a phony than Hackworth thought. [American Heritage ah] I should mention that Marshall, who died in 1977, was no longer able to rebut any of these pieces, should he have wanted to:

Alone among Marshall’s books, Men Against Fire has at times the flavor of social science prose, and this may reflect the book’s ambitions, for in mid-century America it tended to be that sort of prose that revealed secrets and proposed solutions to serious difficulties. But whatever its merits as social science, Men Against Fire had a tremendous, if subtle, effect as a work of current history. Because it sought in the collective experience of soldiery the causes of victory and defeat, it helped shift the focus of military history from an account of generalship to an account of the experience of common soldiers.


Leinbaugh talked to a number of former infantrymen, privates to four-star generals. None of them recalled any experience of failure to fire. One old K Company sergeant asked, “Did the SOB think we clubbed the Germans to death?”

You know what’s coming next, I am sure. It appears that Marshall outright fabricated his social science in favor of a good narrative:

He read through Marshall’s published work and began to notice a series of unconvincing details. In Bringing Up the Rear Leinbaugh was struck by an incident alleged to have occurred when Marshall and a colonel visited a forward position following the siege of Bastogne:

“A youthful paratrooper was walking past, covered only by the bank of a very thick hedge. As we came up he neither halted us nor saluted. …”
“I asked him: ‘Soldier, where is the German front line?'”
“He waved his arm toward the Longvilly road, which ran along a hill about half a mile away.”
“‘Somewhere out there, I think.'”
“I tried again.”
“‘Look son, you see that head moving along behind that stone wall and something bobbing behind it that looks like a stick? (The wall was about a hundred yards away.) Don’t you realize that is a German walking sentry the same as you?’”

“Bizarre,” Leinbaugh says. “Nobody ever ‘walked post’ in the front line with a slung rifle – and nobody ever saw a German doing it either.” Leinbaugh talked to the colonel – then a general – who Marshall says was with him. The man recalled no such incident.

Note the subtle implication that Marshall was right up front where he could literally see German soldiers condescending not to blow his brains out.

As far as Leinbaugh could make out, Marshall had not spent 11:11 A.M. on Armistice Day in a foxhole somewhere near Stenay, the last town taken by American troops in the war – he had been behind the lines attending an NCO school. Marshall had previously served with the 315th Engineer Regiment, at that time part of the 90th Infantry Division. “World War One records,” says Leinbaugh, “show that Marshall’s regiment was involved in road work and building delousing stations. The sole entry on the November 10, 1918, morning report for his company, incidentally, reads, ‘1 Mule Killed by Kick from Mule. Drop from Rolls,’ and on Armistice Day the morning report says, ‘No Change.’”

Hackworth was wrong; Marshall was not a “voyeur warrior” he was just a voyeur.

------ divider ------

I feel about S.L.A. Marshall as I expect any social scientist does who discovers that one of the researchers whose work they relied upon falsified their data. In retrospect, it should have been obvious. But we don’t see these obvious things, because we have read and adopted the opinions of the author as facts, and we see things through the distorted lenses of those facts. The process of adding new facts allows us to see the distortions more clearly and then we have to tip the whole ugly mess into the dumpster where it belonged all along.

If you read Marshall’s argument (as quoted in Keegan) for why some people have trouble killing, I feel it is cringeworthy:

It must reckon with the fact that he comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable. The teaching and ideals of that civilization are against killing, against taking advantage. The fear of aggression has been expressed to him so strongly and absorbed into 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 greatest handicap when he enters combat.

That was supposedly written by someone who had seen Americans at war, someone who was allegedly a historian of American wars. I want to know just who the fuck he is talking about – perhaps the same Americans who had no problem shooting and reloading while they gunned down a bunch of Vietnamese at My Lai?

The reason I had to refer to Keegan to find the Marshall quote is because my collection of S.L.A. Marshall books is no longer on my main bookshelf; they are in long-term storage (moldy boxes piled on the floor in my store-room).


  1. says

    This is why I never put people on pedestals. At least I don’t get disappointed when they inevitable happens and the idol fails to live up to expectations.

    perhaps the same Americans who had no problem shooting and reloading while they gunned down a bunch of Vietnamese at My Lai

    The fact that some percentage of Americans were happy to murder people does not prove that majority are capable of killing their fellow human beings.

    Figuring out what a person really thinks, compared to what they they think they ought to say is the difficult problem when dealing with humans.

    I tend to collect stories of draft dodging. The fact that there exist some people who didn’t want to kill their fellow human beings is inspiring for me and gives me at least a little bit of hope for humanity (not that I have much hope, though).

    When some person refused to join the army, he usually claimed that he didn’t want to kill other people. But what if this answer was a lie? What if in reality the real reason was fear of getting killed? What if people just said what they thought they ought to say instead of what they really believed? When I’m collecting stories of people who dodged conscription, I cannot know their true motives. Most of the time at least. I know that there existed at least some people who preferred to die rather than to kill another person. This guy for example.

    I also know that fear wasn’t everybody’s reason for refusing to join the army. There existed conscientious objectors who refused to kill, but agreed to work as doctors in the battlefield. This was an immensely dangerous job, so fear of getting killed clearly wasn’t the reason why these people refused to join the army as soldiers.

    And here is one more story of a guy who deserted the army knowing that it means risking his life and anded up living in hiding for decades.

    There have been people who took huge risks and personal sacrifices in order to avoid killing another person.

    By the way, my boyfriend’s reason for dodging draft was the simple fact that army life didn’t appeal to him. It was peace time, so there was no risk of getting killed, he just didn’t want to go through the obligatory training. As far as I’m concerned, also such reasons are perfectly valid. As long as somebody ends up not killing other people, I’m happy. The end result is what matters here.

  2. dangerousbeans says

    But no one wanted to know. While all the generals Slam and I met seemed wholly behind our endeavor, none showed any real interest in the findings the schools uncovered. The same base-camp complacency that did not see the need for self-examination in the first place had led to what appeared to be a total absence of curiousity (even when the hard work was done for them) about what was happening around them.

    What did they expect? The point of a lot of the training is to beat the curiosity out of people, so of course after 30 years when they reach the top they will just keep doing what they did. It’s not an environment that encourages curiosity.
    Also changing patterns of behaviour is really hard in general. Getting an organisation to change what it does is an uphill fight at the best of times.

    @Andreas Avester
    There’s also the possibility that they are unwilling to kill and die for other people. If your reason for refusing is “i’m not going to kill people for you”, you might want to say the “for you” very quietly.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I remember reading a summary of Marshall’s views in an article about video game violence. The conclusion of that article was that, if it was ever true that young men were reluctant to kill, then surely all the shooting games must have overcome that sensitivity by now. So good news for the army, I guess.

  4. says

    if it was ever true that young men were reluctant to kill

    The average Roman centurion was 23 or 25. Which, I find amazing, considering that life expectancy in Rome wasn’t anywhere near what it is now. That raises the question “what is ‘young’?” which Marshall just sort of waves away.

    When I read that bit by him, I see an evangelical christian spouting fictions that match their ideology.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @5:

    The average Roman centurion was 23 or 25.

    So, roughly the same as (maybe a bit younger than) a modern platoon or company commander.

    life expectancy in Rome wasn’t anywhere near what it is now

    No, but from what I’ve read it was similar to, say, the UK in the late nineteenth century. High infant and child mortality rates skew life expectancy; if you made it past the age of 10, you could probably get to 60. And soldiers were probably in better health than your average citizen, if they could avoid being skewered by a Gaul or a German. I imagine most of them expected to complete their 25-year terms.

  6. John Morales says


    I imagine most of them expected to complete their 25-year terms.

    Maybe. But troops are there to die, if necessary, to achieve whatever objective.
    Expendable, they.

  7. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#8:
    Good luck! Stay dry.

    I was unaware of that horrible interview by Keegan. Gah! These newly-minted aristocrats sure enjoy giving blowjobs to the powerful, don’t they? That was exceptionally cringe-worthy. Especially since Rumsfeld was unarguably the worst SecDef since, uh… He may be without peer.

  8. Holms says

    Hackworth was wrong; Marshall was not a “voyeur warrior” he was just a voyeur.

    My reading of “voyeur warrior” was that it was not intended to convey ‘a person who is both a voyeur and a warrior’ but rather ‘a voyeur of warriors’.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dorian passed by far enough offshore that my area had only a few minutes of hard wind’n’rain, and less than an hour’s power outage.

    … Rumsfeld was unarguably the worst SecDef since, uh…

    Am currently reading Hugh Howard’s Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War, which suggests that Pres. Madison’s Secretary of War John Armstrong has a strong claim on that title (if you disregard the name change of his position). It seems he and the Secretary of the Navy both insisted that the British fleet filling up the Chesapeake Bay in August 1814 came only to attack Baltimore, practically until the government had to evacuate Washington in a panic.

    Bonus trivia: SecState James Monroe did the major US reconnaissance in that episode, riding horseback all night to reach the Bay, writing notes for express riders to deliver to the president. Pity he forgot his spyglass…

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