Thursday 2015-10-15

Men Against Fire by Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall

This 1947 review of the US Army in World War II looks at the problem of keeping infantry firing. The astonishing claim is that only 1/4 infantry in combat ever fired their guns.

Our talks were always relaxing. The praise usually terminated an evening of drinking together. Whether the words made me feel better than the scotch is beyond saying. At first the latter was taken more seriously. Then there came an evening when Archer (the time was March, 1944) was extra mellow and extra serious. Just before we said good night he insisted that we solemnly shake hands while I promised out loud that I would begin writing the book on the day I started my terminal leave. He said: Unless you have a plan, you won't do it. Well, we got that over with, but when I awakened bright-eyed next morning, the promise was only dimly registered. Separation came in May, 1946. I was at the Pentagon, anticipating a holiday in Florida. Archer was still in Europe. On that day there came to my office a messenger with a special delivery letter from him, the gist of which was: You promised me. Now do it!
What was most noticeable in Korea was that every infantry company was aware of the problem.
One of the simplest truths of life is that it is possible for a problem of major dimension to exist within fighting bodies (or any other organization) and remain unrecognized for years until one person points it out. It must be circumscribed before there is belief in its existence. We often preach about the virtue of completed staff work; but we seldom tell the junior executive that this means command of his data above all else. It should encourage him to know also that the jungle is full of diamonds awaiting the digger and that there is more to be learned about men against fire than has ever appeared between the covers of books.
I hold it to be one of the simplest truths of war that the thing which enables an infantry soldier to keep going with which his weapons is the near presence or the presumed presence of a comrade.
we could identify only 36 men as having fired at the enemy with all weapons. The majority were heavy weapons men. The really active firers were usually in small groups working together.
There is no feature of training known to any company commander I have met which enabled him to determine, prior to combat, which of his men would carry the fight for him and which would simply go along for the ride.
The information which we had from the French was more than adequate. Moreover, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and General Sir Frederick Morgan had both come out that way in 1940. They told us about the country, describing it quite accurately. They were very pessimistic about our chances of coping with it. But we couldn't believe what we heard. It was beyond our imagination. The fact was that we had to get into the country and be bruised by it before we could really take a measure of it.
In Europe they were frequently astonished at the incessant talking and shouting that went on among the enemy formations during an action. They mistook it for naivete in the Japanese that in combat they frequently acted in the same way. That there was a direct connection between these methods and the phenomenal vigor with which our enemies organized and pressed their local counterattacks seems scarcely to have occurred to our side.
When a retrograde movement becomes necessary in combat, it is an invitation to disaster to move before men are told why they are moving. If the pressure has made they'll fact obvious, then they still must be told how far they are to go and the line or point to which they are withdrawing must be made clear and unmistakable. Otherwise they will keep moving and all control will be lost. The spoken word is the greatest of steadying forces in any time of crisis. An excited lieutenant shouting: Get the hell out of here and follow me to that tree line on the far side of the creek, will succeed, though a perfectly calm captain, trying to bring off the same movement but keeping his voice down with the result that the men do not hear him will fail.
They tighten up when the immediate pressure rises; they relax as the immediate pressure lifts. Of themselves, they will not remain vigilant, even though they are battlewise. The degree of vigilance depends altogether on the measures taken by their lead EM. Unfortunately, the majority of junior leaders have this same tendency.
Probably the great panic at Bull Run in the Civil War started in some such trivial way as the incidents here described, and there would be only minor variations of the same theme in most cases of battlefield panic. An army is still a crowd, though a highly organized one.