Whose Warmest Heart Recoiled at War

During World War II, Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall asked average soldiers how they conducted themselves in battle. Before that, it had always been assumed that the average soldier would kill in combat simply because his country and his leaders had told him to do so, and because it might be essential to defend his own life and the lives of his friends.

Marshall’s singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the combat period, an average of only 15 to 20 “would take any part with their weapons.” This was consistently true, “whether the action was spread over a day, or two days, or three.”

…Those who would not fire did not run or hide — in many cases they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. They simply would not fire their weapons at the enemy, even when faced with repeated waves of banzai charges.

Why did these men fail to fire? As a historian, psychologist, and soldier, I examined this question and studied the process of killing in combat. I have realized that there was one major factor missing from the common understanding of this process, a factor that answers this question and more: the simple and demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense resistance to killing other people. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.

Indeed, the study of killing by military scientists, historians, and psychologists gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human
nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species, under just about any circumstance. Yet this understanding has also propelled armies to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, and, as a result, we have seen a sharp increase in the magnitude and frequency of post-traumatic response among combat veterans.

Via Cracked, which is surprisingly on-point with its analysis of dehumanization in… Star Wars. Well worth the read.

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22 thoughts on “Whose Warmest Heart Recoiled at War

  1. You know I don’t want to start a fight but ‘wow’ I’m not sure I can believe that a max of 20% of the troops on a battle front would engage the enemy with musketry in the face of an advance. This violates my conception of ‘survival’ where we mere mortals will do just about whatever we can to survive..like shoot a gun, run away, hide, whatever.
    I really would like to get the opinion of those interlocutors who have participated in combat and ask if they think that figure is accurate.

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    • One of the problems in infantry training is actually getting troops to fire at the enemy. Up to at least Vietnam most of them habitually shoot to the side or in the air to avoid actually killing anyone. One of the benefits of muskets, ironically, is that they’re terribly inaccurate – musket men fight in lines or squares so they can fire in barage and actually have a chance of hitting something. Of course if you’re doing that you don’t particularly need to aim …

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  2. This is addressed somewhat briefly in Band of Brothers; sort version being that by comparison to the men of Easy Company, the average US and German soldier were (compared to our cinematic vision of soldiers) extremely eager not to engage with one another. Even within Easy Company there were soldiers who distinguished themselves with their will and ability to find and kill Germans soldiers.

    No citation, but a friends who’s a pretty enthusiastic amateur historian of military culture (by way of playwriting) put me on to Marshall’s findings years ago. IIRC, what the found is that troops don’t fire, purposely fire over the heads of the enemy, and generally do whatever they can not to kill people, even when taking fire themselves. Pretty amazing, and strangely hope inspiring, no?

    But these findings have also had a big effect on how troops are trained since WWII. Again, IIRC, the phrase is “removing the safety”, ie putting recruits through training that is predicated on the idea that there is a revulsion to killing.

    Again, IIRC, Marshall’s findings were privital in teh development of teh M16. No reason to burden troops with a rifle capable of killing at 500+ yards if troops go out of their way to find excuses not to kill the enemy.

    And lastly, in The Atlantic I think, probably a Mark Bowden article I think I remember reading that even among the elite forces there is a category of soldier that simply doesn’t seem burdened by human emotions around killing, and does so with particular ease. “Carnivore” maybe? I’m getting old and it’s harder to remember things.

    See also: Gross Point Blank

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    • I wouldn’t read too much into it for obvious reasons, but this is consonant with a conversation I had about 10 years ago with a friend who had just completed boot camp. In that conversation, he repeatedly emphasized that he found the entire point of the training to be to strip him of his humanity so that he would not have any compunction about killing someone in battle.

      This training seems to be quite effective as well. Another acquaintence of mine several years later enlisted for the sole purpose of being a medic. This guy was basically a peace-loving hippy who at the time was even opposed to us being in Afghanistan. By the time he was done with boot camp, he had no interest in being a medic and has since served multiple tours in both wars in special ops.

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      • Conversely, in Guns, Germs & Steel, Jarod Diamond describes New Guineans as being (up until very recently) xenophobic and insanely homicidal; with the killing of outsiders being very nearly a first and best response in all encounters.

        See also: Jack Crabb’s use of the phrase “human beings” through out his testimony in Little Big Man

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        • Yes, that’s an inconsistency that needs to be explained somehow – in non-hierarchical societies people kill strangers pretty much on site. Diamond talks about strangers meeting in the forest and basically the whole initial conversation is trying to find a personal connection so they’ll be under some obligation not to kill one another. But now we can’t even train infantrymen to shoot at a dot on the other side of the battlefield.

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  3. Marshall’s findings are pretty interesting, but his methodology has drawn fire over the years for a number of procedural problems (note: many of his conclusions have been supported, to one degree or another, regardless).

    What is limiting is that all the research is (unsurprisingly) limited to the post-warrior caste societies (something Tony alludes to above). Kill rates can only be meaningfully studied, essentially, in modern post-industrial armies where the substantive volume of the force is conscripted civilians (or at the very least, civilian volunteers who are not career military).

    I doubt the Spartans had much trouble with kill avoidance, they trained youngsters specifically for this. Other warrior caste societies had other manhood tests that required killing of an individual to become full members; it’s a fairly common historical mechanism for ensuring death-dealing is second nature.

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  4. I was not aware of the Marshall study or that factoid; in addition to what everyone else already said, as bloody as the 20th century was, it’s hard to imagine it being 5 times worse.

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  5. Actually S.L.A. Marshall has been pretty thoroughly debunked, starting more than twenty years ago. It isn’t just his methodology that’s been discredited, it’s his conclusions as a whole. Fred Smoler published the initial article: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1989/2/1989_2_36.shtml

    And Melvin Matthews wonders why the myth is still passed off as truth: http://hnn.us/articles/1356.html

    Also see:
    http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0717F63D5A0C7A8DDDAB0894D1484D81&scp=2&sq=%22Historian%27s%20Pivotal%20Assertion%20On%20Warfare%20Assailed%20as%20False%22%20&st=cse

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    • The reason this “myth” has been passed off as truth are several.

      First, it’s been replicated by other studies.

      Second, it dovetails well with other results in social psychology.

      Third, changes to military training in the intervening years were designed with his findings in mind. These changes helped — as predicted — to bring up the rate of genuine fire.

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      • As for Grossman’s assertion that Marshall’s been ‘ignored’ by academia, Marshall has not been ignored so much as discredited. That’s not to say Marshall’s focus on training as of equal importance as battle, or his emphasis on the “small group” as the actual motivator of loyalties in combat was necessarily wrong (as one article puts it, “right for the wrong reasons“). But his findings on the ‘rate of fire’ are dubious.

        The statistics he uses and the way he obtained them have come under severe fire. Many of his number were, in fact, fabricated. “There is no evidence that Marshall carried out the statistical techniques that his claims imply,” and Grossman’s general over-reliance on Marshall renders much of his own theses weaker.

        And R.J. Spiller has the harshest words for him:

        The foundation of his conviction was not scholarship but his own military experience, experience that he inflated or revised as the situation warranted. Marshall often hinted broadly that he had commanded infantry in combat, but his service dossier shows no such service. He frequently held that he had been the youngest officer in the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War, but this plays with the truth as well. Marshall enlisted in 1917 and served with the 315th Engineer Regiment—then part of the 90th Infantry Division—and won a commission after the Armistice, when rapid demobilization required very junior officers to command “casual” and depot companies as the veteran officers went home. Marshall rarely drew such distinctions, however, leaving his audiences to infer that he had commanded in the trenches. Later in life, he remarked that he had seen five wars as a soldier and 18 as a correspondent, but his definitions of war and soldiering were rather elastic. That he had seen a great deal of soldiers going about their deadly work was no empty boast, however. This mantle of experience, acquired in several guises, protected him throughout his long and prolific career as a military writer, and his aggressive style intimidated those who would doubt his arguments. Perhaps inevitably, his readers would mistake his certitude for authority.

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