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 SocietyÂ 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.
- SLA Marshall and the Ratio of Fire
- Why Does the NYT Continue to Cite Historian S.L.A. Marshall After the Paper Discredited Him in a Front-Page Story Years Ago?
- S. L. A. Marshall’s Men Against Fire: new evidence regarding fire ratios
- Killing for their Country: A New Look at “Killologyâ€, a good look at both Grossman and Marshall in the Canadian Military Journal
- 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 sureÂ hasÂ made two careers though hasn’t it?