S.L.A. Marshall

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S.L.A. Marshall
S.L.A. Marshall.jpg
Born(1900-07-18)July 18, 1900
Catskill, New York
Died17 December 1977(1977-12-17) (aged 77)
El Paso, Texas
Place of burial
AllegianceUnited States of America
Service/branchUnited States Department of the Army Seal.svg United States Army
Years of service1917–1960 (non-consecutive)
RankUS-O7 insignia.svg Brigadier General
Unit90th Infantry Division.patch.svg 90th Infantry Division (WWI)
Eighth United States Army CSIB.svg Eighth Army (Korean War)
Battles/warsWorld War I
St Mihiel; Meuse-Argonne Offensive;
World War II
Korean War
AwardsLegion of Merit ribbon.svgLegion of Merit
Bronze Star ribbon.svgBronze Star Medal (2)
Combat Infantry Badge.svgCombat Infantryman Badge
Other workauthor

Brigadier General Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, also known as Slam, (July 18, 1900 – December 17, 1977) was a military journalist and historian. He served with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, before leaving to work as a journalist, specialising in military affairs.

In 1940, he published Blitzkrieg: Armies on Wheels, an analysis of the tactics used by the Wehrmacht, and re-entered the U.S. Army as its chief combat historian during World War II and the Korean War. He officially retired in 1960 but acted as an unofficial advisor and historian during the Vietnam War. In total, Marshall wrote over 30 books, including Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, later made into a film of the same name, as well as The Vietnam Primer, co-authored by Colonel David H. Hackworth.

His most famous work was Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command, which claimed fewer than 25% of men in combat actually fired their weapons at the enemy. While the data used to support this has been challenged, his conclusion that a significant number of soldiers do not fire their weapons in combat has been verified by multiple studies performed by other armies, going back to the 18th century.[1]

Why this is so remains contested; Marshall argued that even with their own lives at risk, the resistance of the average individual “...toward killing a fellow man" was such that "he will not...take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility and at the vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector".[2] Others argue so-called 'low fire' is a function of training and discipline, and is a positive attribute.[3] These debates continue since understanding is crucial to overcoming them through training, as well as dealing with actual or potential combat-stress disorder.

Personal biography[edit]

Marshall was born in Catskill, New York on July 18, 1900, the son of Caleb C. and Alice Medora (Beeman) Marshall. He was raised in Colorado and California, where he briefly worked as a child actor for Essanay Studios; his family relocated to El Paso, Texas where he attended high school.[4]

He was married three times, first to Ruth Elstner, with whom he had a son before divorcing; his second wife, Edith Ives Westervelt, died in 1953 and he had three daughters with his third wife, Catherine Finnerty. Marshall died in El Paso on December 17, 1977, and was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Section A, Grave 124.[4]


Service in WWI and career pre-1942[edit]

Marshall enlisted in the US Army on November 28, 1917, joining the 315th Engineer Battalion, part of the 90th Infantry Division. Based initially in Camp Travis, near San Antonio, Texas, his division transferred to France with the American Expeditionary Forces in June 1918 and Marshall was promoted sergeant.[4] The 315th took part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensive.[5] Shortly afterwards, Marshall was selected to take the entrance examinations for the United States Military Academy, part of an initiative to promote exceptional soldiers from the ranks.[6] He subsequently attended Officer Candidate School, was commissioned in early 1919, and remained in France to assist with post-war demobilization.[7]

After his discharge, he remained in the United States Army Reserve, and attended the Texas College of Mines, now the University of Texas at El Paso.[8] In the early 1920s, he became a newspaper reporter and editor, first with the El Paso Herald, and later The Detroit News. As a reporter, Marshall gained a national reputation for his coverage of Latin American and European military affairs, including the Spanish Civil War.[9] In 1940, he published Blitzkrieg: Armies on Wheels, an analysis of the tactics developed by the Wehrmacht prior to World War II, and used during its invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia.[10]

World War II combat historian[edit]

Marshall collected data using the small group debrief or After action review, a technique still employed by modern armies

During World War II, Marshall was an official Army combat historian, and came to know many of the war's best-known Allied commanders.[4] He conducted hundreds of interviews of both enlisted men and officers regarding their combat experiences, and was an early proponent of oral history techniques, using the process known as After action review, a technique still employed by modern armies. He would gather surviving members of a front line unit and debrief them as a group on their combat experiences of a day or two before.[4]

His best known and most controversial work was published in 1947; titled Men Against Fire, it claimed 75% of troops engaged in combat never fired at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even under direct threat.[4] Marshall argued conscripts were so conditioned by civilian norms against taking life that many could not bring themselves to kill, even at the risk of their own lives and the Army should therefore devote its training to increasing the percentage of soldiers willing to engage the enemy with direct fire.[4]

While his data collection methods were later challenged, his conclusions were verified by similar studies performed in other armies.[11] There remains significant debate over the reasons why, since understanding them is key to training, but many of his ideas were incorporated by the US military; Marshall reported far more men fired weapons during the Vietnam War.[12]

Less well known, but perhaps more significant, was Marshall's effort to assemble German officers after the war to write histories and analyses of battles in all theatres of the European war. At the height of the project, over 200 German officers participated, including Heinz Guderian and Franz Halder. Hundreds of monographs were written based on this data project, of which three are available in commercial print.[a]

Later military service[edit]

Marshall was recalled in late 1950 for three months' duty as a Historian/Operations Analyst for the Eighth Army during the Korean War. He collected numerous Korean combat interviews with Americans in Korea into a treatise analyzing U.S. infantry and weapons effectiveness, Commentary on Infantry and Weapons in Korea 1950–51. The Army classified his findings as restricted information, later incorporating them into a plan to improve combat training, weapons, equipment, and tactics.[13]

Following his retirement from the Army Reserve in 1960, with the rank of brigadier general, Marshall continued to serve as an unofficial adviser to the Army.[4] As a private citizen, he spent late 1966 and early 1967 in Vietnam on an Army-sponsored tour for the official purpose of teaching his after-action interview techniques to field commanders, in order to improve data collection for both the chain of command and the future official history of the Vietnam War.[4] The Army Chief of Military History's representative on the tour, Colonel David H. Hackworth, collected his own observations from the trip and published them as The Vietnam Primer, with Marshall credited as co-author.[14]


The University of Texas at El Paso library has a special collection built around his books and manuscripts.[15]

Marshall appears as a character in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, a video game released in 2005.[16]

The series 3 Black Mirror episode, "Men Against Fire" (2016), was partly inspired by Marshall's Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command and explores the same themes.[17]

Later controversies[edit]

Some veterans and historians have cast doubt on Marshall's research methods, challenging the data collection methods used to support his ratio-of-fire theory.[18] These were initiated seven years after Marshall's death in 1977 by Harold Leinbaugh, a former WWII infantry veteran who viewed the concept as a slur on the fighting ability of American soldiers.[19] In fact, the suggestion many soldiers did not fire in combat was verified by separate studies conducted at the same time in the British and Soviet armies. It was so widespread Russian officers suggested inspecting rifles after combat, and court-martialling those found with clean barrels.[11]

Despite questions over methodology, percentages and the need to adjust for context, the basic principle is accepted and much of the continuing debate surrounds reasons for 'non-firing', attributed by Marshall to social conditioning. This was partially supported by historians like Omer Bartov, who suggests deliberate brutalisation as one reason for the Wehrmacht's higher combat performance compared to other armies. Social norms against killing were weakened by a combination of the long-standing German military doctrine of wide scale reprisals against civilians and Nazi propaganda describing opponents as "sub-human". However, Bartov identified other elements in overcoming this reluctance, the strongest being loyalty to the group; paradoxically, the enormous casualties suffered by the Wehrmacht led to an increased focus on sections of 4–6 'comrades', which were far better at maintaining morale and fighting ability.[20]

David H. Hackworth, previously a collaborator and admirer, later a critic of Marshall's methodology

Others argue small group loyalty and better weapons training are the biggest factors in increasing rate of fire and that creating sections of 4–8 men was the single most important factor for improving this metric in Korea and later Vietnam.[21] A minority reject his claims in their entirety, perhaps his fiercest critic being Hackworth, originally an admirer of Marshall and his collaborator in Vietnam. In his 1989 memoir, About Face, Hackworth described him as a "voyeur warrior", for whom "the truth never got in the way of a good story",[22] although Hackworth himself was later dismissed by some as an unreliable witness.[23] The debate is of continuing interest to militaries in order to determine training solutions and how to manage issues like post traumatic stress disorder.[24]

Arguments over Marshall's reliability expanded to include challenging details in his account of D-Day, although similar criticisms have been directed at American historian Stephen Ambrose.[25] Leinbaugh contended Marshall was simply wrong, and since no "front-line veteran" would ever make such claims, descriptions of his experiences must therefore be false. As a result, he argued Marshall must have fabricated details such as his whereabouts on Armistice Day, claiming the 315th Engineers were a rear-echelon unit and did not see combat.[26]

In 1993, his grandson John Douglas Marshall wrote a book analysing his grandfather's war service, using army records and letters written to family during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He also discovered a scrapbook complied by his grandfather and dedicated to a colleague in the 315th killed in action on November 8, 1918. In the preface, Marshall wrote of being present when his friend was shot near Bantheville; records show he was in fact hit by artillery fire, while Marshall himself was absent taking the West Point entrance exams that day.[27]

However, the scrapbook was intended for others to read, including the family of the individual killed. Casualties from artillery fire often suffered severe trauma and the description is consistent with a pattern of veterans suggesting they directly observed comrades suffering a 'clean death' to comfort relatives.[28] John Marshall concluded the vast majority of his grandfather's wartime experiences are independently verified by his service record, while A Company alone lost nine dead and fifteen wounded in six weeks of front-line service.[29] He suggested any exaggerations are minor and irrelevant in assessing the validity of his later work.[30]

Medals and decorations[edit]

Combat Infantry Badge.svg Combat Infantryman Badge
Legion of Merit and "V" Device
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze Star Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster and "V" Device
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Army Commendation Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
World War I Victory Medal with four Battle Clasps
Army of Occupation of Germany Medal
American Campaign Medal
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with four service stars
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Korean Service Medal with three service stars
Armed Forces Reserve Medal
French Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 with Palm
United Nations Korea Medal


  • Blitzkrieg (1940)
  • Armies on Wheels (1941)
  • Bastogne: The Story of the First Eight Days... (1946)
  • Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (1947)
  • The Soldier's Load and The Mobility of a Nation (1950)
  • The River and the Gauntlet (1951)
  • Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, Korea, Spring, 1953 (1956)
  • Sinai Victory: Command Decisions in History's Shortest War, Israel's Hundred-Hour Conquest of Egypt East of Suez, Autumn, 1956 (1958)
  • Night Drop: The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy (1962)
  • Battle at Best (1963)
  • World War I (1964)
  • Battles of the Monsoon (1965)
  • The Vietnam Primer (1967) (with David H. Hackworth)
  • Swift Sword: The Historical Record of Israel's Victory, June 1967 (1967)
  • Ambush (1968) (The battle of Dau Tieng)
  • Bird; the Christmastide battle (1968)
  • The fields of bamboo : Dong Tre, Trung Luong, and Hoa Hoi, three battles just beyond the South China Sea (1971)
  • Crimsoned Prairie (1972)
  • Bringing Up the Rear: A Memoir (1979) (posthumous autobiography)


  1. ^ see Anvil of War: German Generalship in Defense of the Eastern Front, edited by Peter G. Tsouras, 1994


  1. ^ Holmes 2003, p. 13.
  2. ^ Marshall 1947.
  3. ^ Engen 2011, pp. 40–42.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Burdett 2010.
  5. ^ United States War Department 1920, p. 37.
  6. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 50–57.
  7. ^ Marshall 1993, p. 184.
  8. ^ Williams 1990, p. 10.
  9. ^ Marshall 1947, p. 2.
  10. ^ Marshall 1940, p. 1.
  11. ^ a b Beevor 2009, pp. xxi–xxii.
  12. ^ Glennt, Russell W. (April 2002). "Men Against Fire: How Many Soldiers Actually Fired Their Weapons at the Enemy During the Vietnam War". Vietnam Magazine. Retrieved November 12, 2021 – via HistoryNet.
  13. ^ Marshall 1951.
  14. ^ Hackworth & England 2002, p. 53.
  15. ^ University of Texas at El Paso, The UTEP Library's Special Collections Department, Description, S. L. A. Marshall Collection, retrieved March 7, 2014
  16. ^ Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood on YouTube, Chapter 1 - Bookends, retrieved March 7, 2014
  17. ^ "Black Mirror postmortem: Showrunner talks season 3 twists". Entertainment Weekly. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 24 October 2016.
  18. ^ Spiller 1988, pp. 63–71.
  19. ^ Smoler 1989, p. 5.
  20. ^ Bartov 2001, pp. 89–92.
  21. ^ Jordan 2002, pp. 135–138.
  22. ^ Hackworth 1989, p. ?.
  23. ^ Bacevich.
  24. ^ Engen 2011, pp. 47–48.
  25. ^ Elsby 2003.
  26. ^ Smoler 1989, p. 6.
  27. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 181–182.
  28. ^ Jones 2006, pp. 229–246.
  29. ^ Millinder 1921.
  30. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 282–284.


External links[edit]