“MEN AGAINST FIRE”
To review Men Against Fire, by S. L. A. Marshall, and
report on its value for officers in the command.
Official Historian of the European Theater of Operations during World War Two. The focus of his wartime work was a close evaluation of small-unit tactics and operations.
Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1947.
Broadly, though not formally, Men Against Fire is
divided into two sections: the first discusses the tactical problem of small-unit infantry operations, with an emphasis on the importance of firepower; the second surveys the leadership qualities which Marshall identifies as critical in infantry combat under modern conditions.
Marshall was possibly the first military historian to actually look closely at small-unit operations and tactics in modern war. And in his research he made a discovery that was completely unexpected, and which largely shaped his discussions of both firepower and leadership: that in the American Army in World War Two, on average fewer than one in four combat riflemen actually fired their weapons during combat.
This low figure counted all men who fired their weapons at all, not the presumably smaller number who put out steady and effective fire. It applied to seasoned as well as to green units. It did not, however, apply to crew-served weapons, whose fire performance was on average much more effective. Analysis of this pattern lead to a number of specific recommendations but also to a more general and fundamental analysis of the modern battlefield: it’s emptiness and loneliness.
Marshall argued that the fire ineffectiveness of infantry stemmed from their general misperception of what to expect on the battlefield. Their training, reinforced by movies and books, led them to expect a battlefield crowded with men and machinery. Instead, however, when they reached the front lines what they found was an emptiness where they did not see the enemy, and soon fell out of contact with their comrades as well. The individual rifleman found himself effectively alone, with no obvious live target to shoot at and no strong impression of support from his own unit. In this environment, the typical rifleman did not so much “freeze” as feel lost; the result was still a lack of effective action.
Marshall gave a typical example of the problem as encountered during island fighting in the Pacific (129-131). A skirmish line would be moving forward when a few hostile rounds forced it to “hit the dirt.” The moment it did, however, its forward momentum was completely lost. On the rough ground, each soldier was isolated from his fellows; with unit cohesion temporarily gone, no individual infantryman was likely to start moving on his own, and officers had great difficulty restoring the movement. One such interruption typically cost an hour. Three or four were sufficient to temporarily break unit morale and render the unit ineffective for the rest of the day.
Marshall identified one root of the problem as an attitude towards training and discipline that carried forward, unconsciously, the conditions of war in an earlier age when units fought in close formation. Under those conditions of massed parade-like formations, soldiers were always in close contact with their comrades. The essence of training was to drill soldiers to a reflex-like response to orders.
On the modern battlefield, reflex training is not enough: training must focus on initiative. For the small-unit officer, this means that he must strive actively to increase initiative
in the bluntest terms, to get his men to shoot, even (especially) when he isn’t right there to order them to. The modern battlefield also makes the basic retention of small-unit solidity and cohesion more difficult, since in combat the soldier is unlikely to see the men “next” to him in line. (As noted earlier, crew-served weapons showed much better fire performance. The reason is that the crews of these weapons were necessarily close enough together to reinforce one another.)
Marshall also identified communications as crucial in small-unit action. The American Army, he suggested, did not talk enough in combat: their silence added to the isolation that he found most crippling to the infantry’s effectiveness.
Having dealt with the issues of fire and communications, Marshall turned to the requirements of command. The conditions of modern warfare have increased the burden on the small-unit commander. He must encourage his troops to show initiative, not simply react mechanically to orders.
The unit commander must be aggressive in maintaining communications, not only between his unit and the rear, but with his flanks as well. The natural lines of communications and command help to support rear communications, but flank communications are often ignored. At higher command levels -– and to Marshall, a successful general is just a successful small-unit commander in his “postgraduate work” –- reconnaissance with the front is a vital requirement as well.
Marshall cites with approval those senior commanders who made their presence visible at the front, both to reassure their troops and (vitally) to inform themselves of actual conditions. He notes the problem of the battalion commander who finds that the companies at right and center are moving forward, while the company at left is stalled. This commander is likely to jump to the erroneous conclusion that the company commander on the left just isn’t pushing -– and once that idea is formed, it may be hard to shake. On-hand reconnaissance, however, might indicate that the left was the center of gravity of hostile forces, and that his battle plan should be modified to take that new situation into account.
More generally, Marshall identifies six qualities which are critical in the small-unit commander (163-164):
punishments and promotions according to a standard of resolute justice.
wish to think of themselves as soldiers and that all military information is nourishing to their spirits and their lives.
work of other men.
Marshall gave several examples of small-unit actions
in order to demonstrate his points. Colonel George B. Crabill and the 331st Infantry Regiment seized a crucial bridgehead on the Elbe on April 13, 1945. He had troops in small boats crossing the river before the Germans could react and fire a shot (140).
. . . I was more excited and enthusiastic than my men. When I got to the water’s edge, I moved along the line of my men, giving them a love kick in the butt . . . “Don’t waste the opportunity of a lifetime . . . you can get there. You can cross without a shot being fired. But you got to move NOW. Don’t wait to organize. Get into those boats! Get going!”
Crabill showed the BE, KNOW, and Do qualities of a successful officer.
BE: Crabill was committed to action and service. He did not just report an opportunity to a general somewhere: he acted on it. He was committed to his men, a commitment that shows through the lines of his account. He didn’t just tell them to do a dangerous job – he told them why it mattered, that it was the “chance of a lifetime.”
KNOW: Crabill immediately recognized the significance of the situation, and the crucial importance of moving fast -– before the Germans could react to his presence and act to defend the far bank. He recognized that swift action was more important than over-preparation.
DO: Crabill wasted no time. He set his priorities -– swift action first of all. He got his men into the boats and across the river, and by the time the Germans knew what was going on, the Americans had a defensible bridgehead.
Doctrine surely would have called for more careful preparation. Indeed, had Crabill been wrong, his unit would have been shot to pieces in the river. But he had sized up the situation, and had the guts and nerve to act on it, and cross the river.
The instance recounted above is only one of a number of
specific illustrations that Marshall gives to demonstrate his points. He focuses on fundamentals that were not fully known in World War Two, and which have sometimes, inexcusably, been ignored since that time. For example, he stresses the importance of the soldier knowing the men he is fighting with. And he insists that replacement policy should acknowledge it -– as was not done in Vietnam, where men shipped over alone, separated from their training buddies who were the only other soldiers they knew, and were dumped into front-line units to whom they were strangers. The lesson should not have to be taught again.
With its firm focus on the real problems facing the infantry soldier and tactical commander in actual fire situations, this book is particularly valuable reading for officers and future officers.