Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command

Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command

by S.L. A. Marshall


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806132808
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 06/19/2017
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 311,611
Product dimensions: 5.38(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

S. L. A. Marshall served in World War I and then embarked in a career in journalism. In World War II, he was chief combat historian in the Central Pacific (1943) and chief historian for the European Theater of Operations (1945). He is the author of World War I, Blitzkrieg, Armies on Wheels, The River and the Gauntlet, and Pork Chop Hill.

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Men against Fire

The Problem of Battle Command

By S. L. A. Marshall


Copyright © 1947 S. L. A. Marshall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3280-8



"Our business, like any other, is to be learned by constant practice and experience; and our experience is to be had in war, not at reviews."

—Sir John Moore.

In the early years of World War II, it was the common practice of public spokesmen in the United States to magnify the role of the machine in war while minimizing the importance of large forces of well-trained foot soldiers.

When France fell this became a favorite theme of the American press and radio and the few voices which were raised in protest against it were scarcely heard. The idea took hold in the Congress. Makers of military policy argued that we should concentrate on air power and armored force, almost to the exclusion of infantry. Ultimately common sense prevailed and we struck a tolerably good balance. But so strong was the influence of the machine upon our thinking, both inside and out of the military establishment, that as the new Army took shape, the infantry became relatively the most slighted of all branches. In the assignment of man power to other arms and services we allowed a sufficient margin. We did not do so with infantry.

The effects were almost catastrophic. It forced us in the European Theater of Operations to become the first army in modern history to undertake a continuing and decisive operation without the shadow of an infantry reserve. That the Supreme Commander and his Staff accepted and mastered this risk must be rated as among the highest of their achievements. Even so, the strain which the situation put upon command is a small matter when compared to the almost incredible powers of endurance which it exacted of the divisions in line. Once committed, there was no choice but to keep them in action. The only relief afforded them was when they were moved from one part of the combat zone to another.

Some of the facts in the record are almost unbelievable. On August 6, 1944, exactly two months after the invasion of Normandy, the entire re-enforcement pool for infantry forces in Europe—here I speak of infantrymen ashore in France and ready to go into battle—consisted of one lone rifleman. I repeat, there was only one man at hand to replace the many who were being killed on that day. That was the low point so far as the immediate reserve in France was concerned. But the situation with respect to infantry replacements arriving from or training in the United States grew steadily worse. By November the Theaters were scraping the bottom of the barrel. Battle was continuing to take its daily toll from the infantry divisions then in line. As in World War I, some of our hastily trained reenforcements were arriving at the front without a working knowledge of their weapons. But while the strain on the front grew worse by the hour, in the rear there were no more infantrymen, either at hand or in sight or promised.

How real was this crisis? It was so very real that in the middle of the Ardennes fighting in late December, 1944, the governing condition that made certain of the commanders, including Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, hesitate and argue for postponement of the counteroffensive was the non-availability of American riflemen re-enforcements. That was the sum and substance of Montgomery's general misgiving about the condition and situation of the First United States Army, which had recently come under his Army Group command. The story that Montgomery overrated the power of the German attack, that his blood turned to water, and that he saw no alternative but to withdraw to behind the line of the River Meuse is a piece of headquarters gossip which has no foundation in fact. He objected only on the ground which has been here stated. The validity of his objection was soon supported by the turn of events, for in the middle of the battle, and under the threat of defeat, our authorities reached their belated decision to succor the infantry situation by training infantry re-enforcements from among the surplus man power which had been assigned to the Air and Anti-Air services. In this way the crisis was passed.

The propaganda which had sought the practical elimination of foot forces as a major factor in mobile war was thoroughly injurious, however well intended. Throughout the war, it reacted as a depressant upon the self-esteem of our infantry forces, thereby reducing their general combat efficiency. This fact is established by Army polls which show that our infantrymen, in the great majority, continued to hold a low opinion of the importance of their own branch.

However, the really curious thing about the prophets who were so ready to proclaim the supreme importance of the machine and the relative unimportance of trained man power in modern warfare was that they had remained singularly blind to the most obvious conditions of the war which was already in progress. Had they but studied these conditions more closely, they would have observed that the effect of machine war was already to increase the masses of mobilized man power beyond anything previously known in history. Not only were there more millions of men under arms. Within the armies then engaging there were larger musterings of infantry forces than ever before.

The nature of the weapons of modern warfare made such a balance inevitable. The mode of warfare and the make-up of armies are never determined by arbitrary choice. The conditions of war are fixed primarily by the civilization of the period. The character of a society, the inventive genius of its people, and the productive potential of its lands and cities determine finally the choice of weapons in war. In turn, it is the choice of weapons which regulates whether armies shall be large or small and whether national defense can be delegated to a compact and highly mobile professional army or must be entrusted to the national mass, under professional guidance.

These are the dominating and unalterable considerations. In a well-roaded and therefore accessible industrialized civilization, where such weapons as the medium tank and heavy bomber made it certain that the flanks and rear of a national society would come under constant and severe attack, there was never the slightest possibility that the issues between great nations could be settled by limited forces in a thunderclap of action along their frontiers. General Charles de Gaulle dreamed of such a thing, but he did not dream very clearly. Marshal Hans von Seeckt likewise advocated it in his theory of Lightning War. But the context of his writings establishes that he believed in it only as the precursor to the total war between national societies.

When World War II began, it was self-evident that the only possible form of the conflict in its decisive stages would be total war. The illusions of the Sitzkrieg period did not deceive those who kept their minds on weapons rather than on politics, realizing that in war the latter is shaped by the former. The embattling of an entire society was certain to necessitate defense by the entire society, to the limit of its material and man-power resources.

But it is unfortunately the case that the masses of men are not capable of taking other than a superficial judgment on the effect of new weapons. History records, moreover, that their military leaders do not always see and think clearly in such matters. As great a soldier as U. S. Grant was slow to understand the revolutionizing effect of the rifle bullet upon tactics. For more than a generation following the Civil War, our naval experts could foresee development of the armored vessel only in the form of a ram. The failure of higher commanders in World War I to understand the potential of armored power and to make proper tactical application of it is an example of almost incredible blundering.

Yesterday's lesson underscores the moral for today. Once the total contest between national societies is predicated, it becomes impossible to write off the ultimate clash between the masses of men who fight on foot. They are the body of the national defense. If foresight has not already assured their prompt and efficient mobilization, the emergency will compel it. In the hour when decision is made possible through the attainment of a superiority in the striking (fire) power of the heavy weapons of war, they must go forward to claim the victory and beat down the surviving elements of resistance. There is no other way out. The society which looks for an easier way is building its hope on sand.

The belief in push-button war is fundamentally a fallacy. But it is not a new fallacy. It is simply an age-old fallacy in modern dress. There is one controlling truth from all past wars which applies with equal weight to any war of tomorrow. No nation on earth possesses such limitless resources that it can maintain itself in a state of perfect readiness to engage in war immediately and decisively and win a total victory soon after the outbreak without destroying its own economy, pauperizing its own people, and promoting interior disorder.

War must always start with imperfect instruments. Equally, these instruments can never be fully perfected in the course of war. There are fixed limits to the national resources and within these limits each element of the national defense competes with all others. Too, once the sides are drawn, each side must reshape and balance its own mechanism according to what appears to be the point of greatest vulnerability in the other. The Germans in the last war were markedly short of field and siege artillery and of motorized supply. But they had expected to win before there was need of these things. The Japanese were short in many materials, among them such basic needs as wire and explosives. We were short not only of infantry but of motorization. The tightest checkrein of all upon our general operations was the shortage of landing craft. And so it will be in the future. Improvisation is the natural order of warfare. The perfect formulas will continue to be found only on charts.

Though these broad propositions may appear to be so clear and simple as to be generally acceptable, the difficulty arises in the attempt to apply them to any new situation. Today we have such a situation. The atom bomb has conditioned and clouded all thinking about general military problems. Fear is uppermost. The public imagination, caught by the flights of fancy of self-appointed spokesmen who have taken snap judgment on the problem of the new weapon, is ready to believe that atomic power has negated all military truths. The fatal idea continues to spread that nothing counts except the future use, or non-use, of this one weapon.

Yet the principle remains inviolate: The existence of any weapon which fully jeopardizes a whole society necessitates the readiness for defense by the whole society.

One reads the fatuous prediction by a national columnist that the next war will be won by five men smuggling atom bombs in suitcases through a customs line. Another writer of national repute makes the equally preposterous comment that the wars of the future will be won by scientists and engineers and will have little use for soldiers.

The fact remains that no society can afford to risk its fate on the possibility that decision may be obtained quickly by use of the new weapons, though their power is such that they reduce cities to rubble in the twinkling of an eye. Least of all can our society afford such a risk. Our tradition and our law remain as we have known them. We have not forsworn our national character because of the bomb. We will not wage aggressive war upon our neighbors. Therefore we can never count on striking the first blow.

The fatal flaw in the logic of any belief in quick victory is that it is but one side of the coin, the other side being the submission to quick and final defeat in the event that the first round goes badly. If we are not willing to accept this alternative risk, then the vaporings of those whose main appeal is to the fears and imaginings of the multitude rather than to the national intellect cannot be permitted to prevail against the immutable common-sense truths of war which have been confirmed by the experience of man throughout the ages.

So long as men live on this earth, and until the arrival of the hour when there is a weapon of such lethal capacity as to make it evident beyond doubt that the whole race of man can be blotted out by the turning of a switch, it must be reckoned that the prime effect of the increase in the killing power of weapons is to increase the need for man power in the national defense.

But it is not solely with respect to this over-all aspect of modern war and the effect of its weapons that we are called upon closely to re-examine the position. Just as in industry the machine has brought fresh and untold confusion to the problems of human relationship, in armies it has transformed the problem of the human equation without at the same time provoking its essential re-estimate. I do not refer to social relationships within an army, which is another though not less important facet of the general problem, but to the tactical relationships of men in battle.

Since more than a century ago, when the rifle bullet began its reign over the battlefield and soldiers slowly became aware that the day of close-order formations in combat was forever gone, all military thinkers have pondered the need of a new discipline. It has been generally realized that fashioning the machine to nian's use in battle was but half of the problem. The other half was conditioning man to the machine. The mechanisms of the new warfare do not set their own efficiency rate in battle. They are ever at the mercy of training methods which will stimulate the soldier to express his intelligence and spirit.

The philosophy of discipline has adjusted to changing conditions. As more and more impact has gone into the hitting power of weapons, necessitating ever widening deployments in the forces of battle, the quality of the initiative in the individual has become the most praised of the military virtues. It has been readily seen that the prevailing tactical conditions increased the problem of unit coherence in combat. The only offset for this difficulty was to train for a higher degree of individual courage, comprehension of situation, and self-starting character in the soldier.

From this realization have come new concepts of discipline which have altered nearly all of the major aspects of life and of human association within western armies. We have continued to grapple with the problem of how to free the mind of man, how to enlarge his appreciation of his personal worth as a unit in battle, how to stimulate him to express his individual power within limits which are for the good of all. It is universally recognized that as the means of war change, so must the intelligence of man be quickened to keep pace with the changes.

Our weakness lies in this—that we have never got down to an exact definition of what we are seeking. Failing that, we fall short in our attempt to formulate in training how best to obtain it, and our philosophy of discipline falters at the vital point of its practical, tactical application.

I say that it is a simple thing.

What we need in battle is more and better fire.

What we need to seek in training are any and all means by which we can increase the ratio of effective fire when we have to go to war.

The discipline, the training methods, and the personnel policies of our forces should all be regulated to conform with this one fundamental need. In whatever we do to mold the thought of the combat soldier, no other consideration should be given priority ahead of this decisive problem.

Today we are once again at the parting of the ways. We have come through another great war and its reality is already cloaked in the mists of peace. In the course of that war we learned anew that man is supreme, that it is the soldier who fights who wins battles, that fighting means using a weapon, and that it is the heart of man which controls this use. That lesson we are already at the point of forgetting. We can ill afford it.

Since my return to the United States in January, 1946, I have been astonished at the number of my civilian friends who have told me pointedly that it is folly to write about the experience of World War II except in the measure needed faithfully to record the facts of the national history for the benefit of those who have purely an academic interest. They are already certain that the outline of the next war is shaping up as something entirely different. They doubt that any of the tactical and human lessons of the past will continue to apply. They believe that it is ox-cart thinking to dwell now on the importance of the human element in close combat.

With these conclusions I disagree. Further, I believe that they are so completely wrong that they constitute a positive danger to the future security of the United States.


Excerpted from Men against Fire by S. L. A. Marshall. Copyright © 1947 S. L. A. Marshall. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION by Russell W. Glenn,

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