S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, and Whether Men are Conditioned to Kill in Combat or Not.

I am currently reading The Roman Army at War 100 BC – AD 200 by Adrian Kieth Goldsworthy. In the final chapter he talks about the motivation of the Roman soldier to fight. What brings up this topic that starting on page 264 he references S.L.A. Marshall’s (hereafter SLAM) work Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command and repeats the claim that only 25% of men actively participate in combat, the rest being cowards in place at worst or half-hearted fighters at best.   Now, being a recently retired soldier who has seen combat, in Iraq I have several issues with the claim.   In fact, I completely dispute it and have been at pains to do so at times.   Mostly in concert with my disagreements with the claim by Dave Grossman in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society that you have to be insane to actually fight in the first place.   This has caused to me to have a few heated debates about the subject.

My biggest problem with all of this is that the basis for much of this work is Marshall, which has been debunked.   On of the most vociferous people to counter Grossman and Marshal’s claims is Tom Aveni, a member of the Police Policy Studies Council.   He has a good refutation of SLAM here and the transcript of a debate with Grossman here. Below is a list of links that debunk the entire premise of Marshall that only 15%-25% of infantrymen fired their weapon in combat.

  1. SLA Marshall and the Ratio of Fire
  2. Why Does the NYT Continue to Cite Historian S.L.A. Marshall After the Paper Discredited Him in a Front-Page Story Years Ago?
  3. S. L. A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: new evidence regarding fire ratios
  4. Killing for their Country: A New Look at “Killology”, a good look at both Grossman and Marshall in the Canadian Military Journal
  5. S.L.A. Marshall and the ratio of fire, the original article by Roger Spiller

I won’t claim to be an expert on combat psychology.   I can only speak from personal experience and years of studying military history.   I find it extremely difficult to believe that very few men actually fight in combat, I personally never had a problem with pulling the trigger and neither did any of my comrades that I saw.   That does not mean there are not soldiers who do not fire, there undoubtedly are, I just believe that they are a tiny minority and not the other way around.

To get back to what brought on this post, Goldsworthy writes a well researched, very interesting book.   I just cannot take his last chapter seriously.   The mental picture of 75% of a Roman Legion listlessly waving there swords while the other 25% get down to the serous business of defeating the enemies of Rome simply steals any credibility the chapter has.   My full review of his book is forthcoming.

It is my view that killing, whether of men or animals by men, is a natural act.   The loathing and reluctance to kill in the modern world is result of societal and not natural factors.   The savageries committed everyday around the world is testimony to the naturalness of the destructive act.   The ideas proposed by both Grossman and Marshall represent wishful thinking idealism more than observable fact.   It sure has made two careers though hasn’t it?

5 thoughts on “S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire, and Whether Men are Conditioned to Kill in Combat or Not.”

  1. Marshall’s been pissing people off for about 60 or 70 years now, often because they’re not paying close enough attention to the details. Note that his original claim was 15% for normal infantry, about 25% for elite infantry. Note, too, that that was for a citizen-soldier-conscript army, which army also had both a fairly poor training doctrine and sprang from a society that emphacized the mechanical and technical over the moral. However, Marshall takes some pains to point out that things got quite a bit better by Korea, and the combat participation ratio was very high in Vietnam. Society, of course, hadn’t changed much, but the Army’s (and Corps’) approach to training, organizing, and motivating troops had. (Note, too, however, that Marshall’s later claims were possibly a bit self serving.) He also never claimed anything remotely like cowardice as the reason for lack of combat participation, but rather emphacized that a) doctrinally, we were box-o-rocks stupid in doing just about everything possible to make the soldier feel alone on the battlefield, and b) the rifleman just never felt important to the mission, what with all these highly mechanical gadgets everyone continuously told him really _mattered_, and c) (post The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation), we’d cut down on the rifleman’s combat load so that he wasn’t too exhausted to fight.

    As for Adrian Goldsworthy, that particular book is probably his least good. It reads like a doctoral thesis (which I suspect it was). However, everything he else he has written on the Roman Army is quite good. I especially like that he doesn’t try to claim certain knowledge of things that we just cannot know.

    • From reading Marshall’s later stuff I get the impression that he oh so slightly changed his story to bolster his initial credibility and ingratiate himself with the higher ups. I still totally fail to buy the whole 25% piece. He really expects us to believe that people are loath to kill when given positive license to? The only reason more people don’t kill in so-called polite society is fear of punishment and even then the urge is sometimes, or often if you look at the stats, is higher than the fear of punishment. I notice that Marshall does not make the same fire ratio claims for wars prior to WWII, nor do I find too many other historians taking them seriously unless they have an obvious axe to grind as well. The notion that 75% of Legionnaires stood there randomly waving there swords that Goldsworthy paints is ludicrous at best.
      I am somewhat wary when listening to someone with no combat experience talk about combat experience in the first place. Combat strikes me as perhaps the only human activity where individual motivation is hard to understand unless you have been there. I don’t try to tell pregnant women what it feels like to be pregnant, I don’t expect the uninitiated to tell me what it feels like to kill.

    • Well…personally I’d expect a very high combat participation ratio from prior wars because the men were fighting shoulder to shoulder, under what the French would term “surveillance,” the rifle (or musket) was the most important weapon, making noise – uttering the battle cry – was expected and encouraged, hence nobody felt alone, and they were drilled numb. To a large extent, this was true in the Great War, too, for much or it. WW II was really the first time we spread out to the point of routine individual isolation.

      Yeah, making a claim that sword armed infantry, under their centurions’ eyes, with triarii to ensure everyone stayed up there (that was the bulk of the triarii’s function; they rarely fought themselves) only participated to the tune of 25% strikes me as ludicrous. I just started rereading that book a couple of days before I saw your post, so haven’t gotten again to the last chapter yet. Did he claim 25% participation or did he merely suggest that it might have been lower than 100% (which it was, since, as mentioned, the triarii of the manipular legions mostly didn’t fight, by design).

  2. I think the Goldsworthy book is excellent as well. I just have issues with the final chapter. I think you are perhaps a little too generous with SLAM, his whole point in the Ratio of Fire piece is that only 25% of men at the point of contact engage the enemy. He is not talking cooks and bakers but 25% of infantrymen, the actual supposed trigger pullers.

    Actually, if you look at Roman Legions, just about every one of them was a sword swinger. The tooth to tail ratio in roman armies was unbelievably small when compared to modern armies.

    Be sure to let me know when you get a blog up, it is enjoyable to do and I would love to look at what you have to say as well. Thanks for reading.

  3. Patrick, I read Goldsworthy a few months ago and really enjoyed the book, actually loved it, it was hard to put down – my wife on the hand yawns at the site of any of my favorite books.

    I share your opinion on the SLA Marshall’s writings of only 25% of men actually fight in war. I did a little reading about that also and come to the conclusion that if you actually think about all the men in the division then it may be close to only 25% actually doing the fighting – there are a lot of support soldiers behind those infantry regiments. It goes along the same lines with Romans also. Not all of them could fight at the same time as they were formed up; they would rotate back for rest so maybe 25% were fighting at the same time. That is how I look at giving SLAM any credit at all, but very little because it does overemphasize so many that never fought and were cowards.

    I totally agree with you but just believe SLAM miscued his writings and interpretations. I enjoy your blog and hope to start my own on Military History before the year is out.

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