S. L. A. Marshall's Men against Fire: New Evidence regarding Fire Ratios

By Chambers, John Whiteclay, II | Parameters, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

S. L. A. Marshall's Men against Fire: New Evidence regarding Fire Ratios


Chambers, John Whiteclay, II, Parameters


The findings of journalist-soldier S. L. A. Marshall about combat fire ratios--particularly that in World War II less than 25 percent of American combat infantrymen in battle fired their weapons--have been controversial since Marshall published them in his 1947 book, Men Against Fire. (1) He continued to apply his methodology--the after-action, group interview with enlisted men--during the Korean War, where he concluded that more than half the front-line soldiers were firing their weapons. In the past 20 years, Marshall's controversial figures have come under more intensive attack, in part because, after his death in 1977, his papers did not include statistical analyses or more than a couple of the field notebooks produced during group interviews. (2) Yet Marshall continues to have supporters as well as detractors, and the controversy rages on, fueled by emotional beliefs, individual vested interests, missing documents, and absent statistics. (3)

One of the key questions concerns where Marshall obtained his figures about the ratio of fire, the proportion of a rifle unit firing its weapons in battle. Marshall claimed it was derived from his group after-action interviews, a method he developed as a field historian in World War II and which as a civilian journalist, Reserve officer, and military consultant, he employed and advocated for use by the US Army and later by the Israeli Defense Force. Although the ratio-of-fire figure was his most famous product, Marshall was proudest of his methodology--informal, open-ended, group interviews of enlisted personnel, as soon as possible after a particular combat action, to learn about the actual behavior of the soldiers in battle. Timing was sometimes but not always on his side. In the Pacific in November 1943, he was with G.I.'s when a forward unit at Makin Island in the Gilberts sustained a Japanese counterattack at night, and Marshall could interview American survivors the next day. But in the European Theater of Operations the following year, he was not able to interview the combat troops involved in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944 until several weeks afterward. (4) In each case, however, he would interview the men and, he said, take contemporaneous notes and later write up his report on the action.

The following oral history provides some fresh insights into Marshall's methodology and findings. It also raises troubling questions about the reliability of Marshall's statistics on fire ratios.

The oral history comes from a citizen-soldier, Frank J. Brennan, Jr., now a retired high school and community college history instructor and administrator. As a young junior officer in Korea in 1953, Brennan accompanied S. L. A. Marshall on some of the journalist's after-action group interviews along the Main Line of Resistance, including the Battle of Pork Chop Hill.

A native of New Brunswick, New Jersey, Brennan graduated from Rutgers in the spring of 1951 with a B.A. in journalism. Having completed ROTC, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry. After additional training, including Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia (where Marshall's Men Against Fire was among the required reading), and in Japan, he arrived in Korea in May 1952, assigned to the 7th Infantry Division, a Regular Army division that had been fighting in Korea since September 1950. Lieutenant Brennan was sent to the front line with the 32d Infantry Regiment in the 7th Infantry Division's central sector near the 38th Parallel. For six weeks on the line, he served as a rifle platoon leader. His unit was engaged in patrols and in repelling attacks on its position along the Main Line of Resistance.

Perhaps partly because of his journalism degree, Brennan was assigned to G-3 (Operations) at Headquarters, 7th Infantry Division, in late July 1952. He was subsequently promoted to first lieutenant. At G-3, Brennan's main responsibility was to prepare the monthly reports of the division's activity and send them directly to Washington, D.

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