Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Blow by blow: Island Victory, S.L.A. Marshall 1944/2002

Posted: Mar 02, 2024 13:03;
Last Modified: Apr 10, 2024 11:04



I’ve always had a soft-spot for S.L.A. (SLAM) Marshall. He is the author of Men Against Fire, the incredibly influential study of unit level leadership among American troops in World War II, the most memorable finding from which — that less than 25% of the troops in a battle actually used their weapons — may or may not have been a guesstimate. In addition to (possibly) faking his most important contribution to military science — a finding that changed the war the U.S. military trained its troops in order to make them more trigger happy — he also appears to have faked most of his biography: he claimed to have served in the front lines in WWI, to have been the youngest officer to receive a battlefield commission, and so on and so forth. None of it, apparently, true. He also inspired what appears to have been a deep-seated hatred in his grandson, whose offence was to be dishonourably discharged from the Marines as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war.

None of this suggests a particularly attractive character, of course. But weighing in on the other side is the fact that Marshall, much as writers like Paul Fussell and Ernie Pyle, were extremely good at capturing the hopes, fears, and bravery of the individual soldiers who fought in the second world war. In SLAM’s book, as in Fussell’s, Pyle’s, and, to a lesser extent, Farley Mowat’s war memoirs and histories, one gets what really seems like an real feel for what it was like to be not only a grunt, but also a platoon leader, a company leader, a regiment leader.

Another thing that seems very characteristic to me about Marshall in particular, moreover, is the degree to which he seems to see these men (and so far, I’ve only ever read him write about men) as part of a much larger universal history of the soldier. The Marine in the Pacific in the 1940s are the direct descendents in Marshall’s view from the Greeks who fought at Troy, or the Red Coats who fought in Crimea, or the retainers in Beowulf’s comitatus. This is in fact where I’d say he differs most from Pyle: Pyle’s soldiers are Americans, from individual streets and towns in Illinois and Texas, and Brooklyn. Marshall’s are soldiers, who may comes from cities and towns in America but belong to the same profession as Alexander the Great.

One of the reasons for this difference is that Marshall considered himself to be, in essence, a military scientist. Although he was trained as a journalist — and writes like one — his writing about the U.S. army was mostly conducted in an official capacity as an Army historian. And as an Army historian, he saw his job as to provide scientific-sounding reports on how the soldiers performed.

His great contribution to the field is the group debriefing. Although in practice, acording to people who worked with him, Marshall’s actual implementation of the method seems to have been quite slipshod-verging-on-fraudulent, he always described the method in the clear positivist terms of mid-century American Social Science: as a technique that could be used by investigators to get at the truth held by the soldiers who actually fought the battles. After an action, he recommended, the soldiers should be gathered together and then interviewed as a group, without consideration of rank. Start by asking who had the first contact with the enemy and then, using a map, get the soldiers to walk through what happened next: who was standing where, how they moved forwards of backwards, what they thought they saw or heard. The result, Marshall claimed, would be a comprehensive and accurate description of any battle.

Island Victory is an early example of this method, written by Marshall for the Infantry Journal in 1944. It is the story of the capture of the southern part of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in January and February of 1944.

The book is really a regimental history of the 7th Infantry division, providing a blow-by-blow account of how its different units captured the southern-most islands in the atoll: Gea, Chance, Ninni, Kwajalein, and Ebeye, in the course of a week or so. And by blow-by-blow, I mean blow-by-blow: pages spend on the movements of individual soldiers from one building to the next, maps pointing out the locations of individual bodies or the movements of individual men, discussions of tanks moving backwards and forwards.

I’m sure that this is very interesting for students of military tactics — seeing how individal units lost control of their flanks and so on — in the way that generals often seem to consume histories of ancient battles. But apart from the sense of timelessness to it all, it is perhaps less interesting for the general reader. It was remarkable to me how ahistorical the problems the soldiers encountered were — that is to say, they seemed to me to be problems of organisation and motivation in the face of extreme emotional pressure, rather than problems related to the specific circumstances or weapons of WWII in the Pacific. but as a non-military expert, I found them hard to follow.

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