S.L.A. Marshall

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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.

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/branchEmblem of the United States Department of the Army.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/warsPancho Villa Expedition
World War I
World War II
Korean War
AwardsLegion of Merit ribbon.svgLegion of Merit
Bronze Star Medal ribbon.svgBronze Star Medal (2)
Combat Infantry Badge.svgCombat Infantryman Badge
Other workauthor

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 during the Vietnam War. Marshall wrote some 30 books about warfare, including Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, which was made into a film of the same name.

His most famous work was Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command; based on group interviews, he concluded fewer than 25% of men in combat actually fired their weapons. While his data collection methods and percentages have been challenged, his conclusion that a significant number of soldiers do not fire their weapons in combat have been verified by studies performed in other armies.[1]

The key issue remains why this is so; Marshall concluded social conditioning against killing was so strong, many could not do so even at the risk of their own lives. Others argue so-called 'low fire' is a function of training and discipline, and is a positive attribute.[2] These debates continue; understanding the reasons helps overcome them through training, as well as dealing with actual or potential combat-stress disorder.

Early and personal lifeEdit

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; after his family relocated to El Paso, Texas, he attended El Paso High School.[3]

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. He and Catherine Finnerty, his third wife, had three daughters.[3]


Early military serviceEdit

After joining the US Army in 1917, Marshall was stationed on the Mexican border before being transferred to France with the American Expeditionary Forces. While serving with Company A, 315th Engineer Regiment in the 90th Infantry Division, he was promoted to sergeant.[3] The 315th took part in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensive.[4]

Shortly after Saint-Mihiel, Marshall was selected to take the entrance examinations for the United States Military Academy as part of an initiative to replenish the officer corps with exceptional soldiers from the ranks.[5] He subsequently attended Officer Candidate School, was commissioned in early 1919, and remained in France to assist with post-war demobilization.[6]

After Marshall's discharge, he remained in the Reserve, and attended the Texas College of Mines (now the University of Texas at El Paso). He worked at a variety of jobs, including bricklayer.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

World War II combat historianEdit

During World War II, Marshall was an official Army combat historian, and came to know many of the war's best-known Allied commanders.[3] He conducted hundreds of interviews of both enlisted men and officers regarding their combat experiences, and was an early proponent of oral history techniques. In particular, he favored the group interview, where 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.[3]

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.[3] 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.[3]

While his data collection methods were later challenged, his conclusions were verified by similar studies performed in other armies.[10] 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.[11]

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 serviceEdit

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.[12]

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.[3] 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.[3] 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.[13]


Marshall died in El Paso, Texas, on December 17, 1977, and was buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery, Section A, Grave 124.[3]


The University of Texas at El Paso library has a special collection built around his books.[14]

Marshall appears as a character in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, a video game released in 2005.[15]

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.[16]

Later controversyEdit

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.[17] Despite questions on the reliability of the data, his overall conclusions were 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.[10] Much of the continuing debate surrounds reasons for 'non-firing', which Marshall attributed to an unwillingness to kill. While others disagree, this does not undermine the validity of the percentage; understanding these reasons is of continuing interest to militaries in order to determine training solutions.[18]

Others have questioned details contained in some of Marshall's other books, including his account of D-Day, although these criticisms were also directed at the American historian Stephen Ambrose.[19] Perhaps his fiercest critic was 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."[20] However, Hackworth himself has been dismissed as an unreliable witness.[21]

Veracity of World War I experienceEdit

A 1989 article by historian Frederic Smoler suggested Marshall exaggerated his World War I experiences to establish a reputation for having led soldiers in combat, thus enhancing his credibility. Smoler claimed the 315th Engineers were a rear-echelon unit, and Marshall did not participate in combat during the war.[22][23]

His grandson John Douglas Marshall later wrote a book on his grandfather's war service, which includes letters written at the time to Caleb Marshall. These contain details of his participation in the Meuse–Argonne offensive and Saint-Mihiel, where he was "slightly" gassed. He also found his grandfather's World War I scrapbook, which dedicated to a colleague in the 315th, killed in action on November 8, 1918; this claimed he was shot near Bantheville and Marshall was with him when it happened. Subsequent investigation revealed the friend was hit by artillery fire, while Marshall was absent taking the West Point entrance exams that day.[24] John Marshall ultimately concluded while some claims about his grandfather's wartime experiences were exaggerated, many are valid, and the body of his later work still has value.[25]

Medals and decorationsEdit

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


Partial list of books (by title)Edit

  • 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. ^ Engen 2011, pp. 40-42.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Burdett 2010.
  4. ^ United States War Department 1920, p. 37.
  5. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 50–57.
  6. ^ Marshall 1993, p. 184.
  7. ^ Williams 1990, p. 10.
  8. ^ Marshall 1947, p. 2.
  9. ^ Marshall 1940, p. 1.
  10. ^ a b Beevor 2009, pp. xxi–xxii.
  11. ^ Men Against Fire: How Many Soldiers Actually Fired Their Weapons at the Enemy During the Vietnam War
  12. ^ Marshall 1951.
  13. ^ Hackworth & England 2002, p. 53.
  14. ^ University of Texas at El Paso, The UTEP Library's Special Collections Department, Description, S. L. A. Marshall Collection, retrieved March 7, 2014
  15. ^ Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood on YouTube, Chapter 1 - Bookends, retrieved March 7, 2014
  16. ^ "Black Mirror postmortem: Showrunner talks season 3 twists". Entertainment Weekly. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 24 October 2016.
  17. ^ Spiller 1988, pp. 63–71.
  18. ^ Engen 2011, pp. 47–48.
  19. ^ Elsby 2003.
  20. ^ Hackworth 1989, p. ?.
  21. ^ Bacevich.
  22. ^ U.S. Army Infantry School, Infantry magazine, Volume 79, 1989, page 3
  23. ^ U.S. Army War College, Parameters magazine, 2003, page 121
  24. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 181–182.
  25. ^ Marshall 1993, pp. 282–284.


External linksEdit