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MARSHALL, SAMUEL LYMAN ATWOOD (1900-1977). Samuel Lyman Atwood (Slam) Marshall, military historian, was born on July 18, 1900, in Catskill, New York, son of Caleb C. and Alice Medora (Beeman) Marshall. A few years after his birth the family moved to Boulder, Colorado, and subsequently to Niles, California, where young Marshall worked for a while part-time as a child actor with the Essanay Motion Picture Company. The family settled in El Paso in 1915. Marshall was attending El Paso High School when the United States went to war with Germany, and on November 28, 1917, he enlisted in the army. He served in France as a sergeant with Company A, 315th Engineers, of the Ninetieth Division. In later years he claimed that he had received a battlefield commission, commanded troops on the Western Front, and was the youngest second lieutenant in the American Expeditionary Forces. It has since been shown, however, that he was not commissioned until 1919, after he had completed the course of instruction for infantry-officer candidates at La Valbonne. Thereafter he held various posts with the Services of Supply until he left France in the summer of that year.
After returning to civil life in September 1919, Marshall briefly attended the Texas School of Mines (now the University of Texas at El Paso) and then worked at various jobs until 1922, when he began his journalistic career with the El Paso Herald. During this time he adopted his nickname, Slam, an acronym of his initials, for his bylines. He served as a reporter, sports editor, and city editor of the paper until 1927, when he joined the staff of the Detroit News. There he remained as editorial writer for most of the remainder of his life except for absences connected with military service. During the pre-World War II years he traveled frequently to Mexico and Central America as a correspondent covering events in those countries. He also became a commentator on military affairs, and when the war broke out in 1939 he began an evening radio broadcast on station WWJ. In 1940 he published his first book, Blitzkrieg, which was favorably received by the great British military historians J. F. C. Fuller and Basil H. Liddell Hart.
Marshall reentered the army as a major in September 1942. He was assigned initially to the Information Branch, Special Service Division, Services of Supply, at the War Department. In 1943, by then a lieutenant colonel, he was transferred to the newly formed Historical Division of the General Staff, where his first task was to write a definitive analysis of the recent raid of James H. Doolittle on Tokyo. In October 1943 he was sent to the central Pacific to develop methods of combat research. In pursuing this work, he was attached to the Twenty-seventh Infantry Division during the invasion of Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and to the Seventh at the taking of Kwajalein. In these operations he devised the after-action, group-interview technique as a means of determining precisely what had happened in an engagement and why success or failure ensued.
In June 1944 Marshall was sent to the European Theater of Operations on temporary duty. He was attached to the Historical Section, Headquarters ETOUSA, and remained with that organization until the end of the war. In Europe he introduced the group-interview technique that he had developed in the Pacific and applied it to numerous major operations, including the D-Day airborne landings and the Ardennes campaign. In July 1945 he was designated theater historian, and a year later he returned to civilian life and the Detroit News. In 1947 Marshall published what is probably his most influential work, Men Against Fire. Based on his after-action interviews during the World War II, he advanced the claim that fewer than a quarter of American infantrymen actually fired their weapons in any given action. The work stressed the importance of training, discipline, and, above all, communication, in overcoming the paralyzing effect of the modern battlefield. The book was discussed in army circles and had some impact on the formation of military doctrine in the immediate postwar period, yet some high-ranking officers expressed doubt about the source and veracity of his data, and by the 1980s several articles by professional historians had appeared questioning his research methods.
In the postwar years Marshall, a colonel in the Officers' Reserve Corps, continued his close association with the army. He lectured frequently at service schools throughout the country and served occasional brief periods of active duty at the Pentagon. During the Korean War he served in the winter of 1950-51 as an operations analyst for the Operations Research Office, a Johns Hopkins University think tank under contract to the Department of the Army. In 1953 he again visited Korea as a journalist.
He was appointed a brigadier general in the United States Army Reserve on May 7, 1957, and on July 31, 1960, he was placed on the retired list. Even in retirement he continued his endeavors on behalf of the army. Beginning in 1966 he made a series of quasi-official visits to Vietnam. Although his status was essentially that of a private individual, he traveled with the army's blessing and cooperation and worked in the army's interest, employing once again his group-interview technique, imparting it to a new generation of army historians, and making known through his writings the army's point of view in that unpopular war.
In his long career as a military commentator, Marshall wrote more than thirty books, dozens of journal articles, and countless newspaper, radio, and television pieces. His books include The River and the Gauntlet (1953), Pork Chop Hill (1956), Battle at Best (1964), and Battle in the Monsoon (1967). In addition to his participation in four American wars, he observed the Sinai War of 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967, the Lebanon crisis in 1958, the civil war in the Congo in 1961, and the unrest in Southwest Africa in 1965. Marshall received many honors and awards during his lifetime, including the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star with oak-leaf cluster, the Combat Infantry Badge, and the Legion of Honor. He was also elected to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1972.
In 1974 he returned to El Paso to live in retirement amidst the scenes of his youth. He marked the occasion by donating his professional library to his alma mater, the University of Texas at El Paso, where it now occupies a separate room in the University Library. Marshall died on December 17, 1977, and was buried in Fort Bliss National Cemetery with all the honors due a departed general officer. His first marriage, to Ruth Elstner of El Paso, ended in divorce. They had one son. His second wife was Edith Ives Westervelt of Detroit, who died of multiple sclerosis in 1953. Marshall had three daughters with his third wife, Catherine (Finnerty), who survived him by eleven years. His autobiography, Bringing Up the Rear, was published in 1979.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: David H. Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989). Lloyd L. Leech, Jr., "Tribute to Samuel L. A. Marshall," Password, Winter 1989. Fredric Smoler, "The Secret of the Soldiers Who Didn't Shoot," American Heritage, March 1989. Roger J. Spiller, "S. L. A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire," RUSI Journal 133 (Winter 1988). Who's Who in America, 1974-75.
Thomas F. Burdett
S.L.A. Marshall (full name, Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall) (July 18, 1900 – December 17, 1977) was a chief U.S. Army combat historian during World War II and the Korean War. He authored some 30 books about warfare, including Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, which was made into a movie of the same name.
Marshall was born in Catskill, New York and first served in the Army as an enlisted man in World War I with the U.S. 90th Infantry Division. While his writings implied that he was an officer who led troops in combat, Marshall did not fight and was commissioned an officer in April 1919 to assist in demobilization. After that he worked as a newspaper reporter. During WWII he became an official Army historian, and was a proponent of oral history techniques. Marshall favored the group interview. He would gather survivors of a unit together and question them about the previous battle's details.
Body of work
Marshall's work on infantry combat effectiveness in World War II, titled Men Against Fire, is his best-known and most controversial work. In the book, Marshall claimed that of the World War II U.S. troops in actual combat, 75% never fired their personal weapons at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even though they were engaged in combat and under direct threat. (Later research has cast doubts on his methods, but research into killing ratios of other wars, including the U.S. Civil War, has supported this claim; see below.) Marshall argued that the United States Army should devote significant training resources to increase the percentage of soldiers willing to engage the enemy with direct fire.
Less well known, but perhaps more significant was Marshall's effort to assemble German officers after the war to write histories and analyses of battles in all theatres of the European war. At the height of the project over 200 Germans officers participated in the project, including Heinz Guderian and Franz Halder. Hundreds of monographs came out of the project, of which three are available in commercial print (see "The Anvil of War: German Generalship in Defense of the Eastern Front" edited by Peter G. Tsouras, 1994, ISBN 1-85367-282-9)
He was recalled from the Reserves in late 1950 for three months' duty as a Historian/Operations Analyst for the Eighth Army during the Korean War.
Retirement, Vietnam tour and death
Following his retirement from the Army Reserve in 1960, with the rank of brigadier general, Marshall continued to serve as an unofficial adviser to the Army. As a private citizen, he spent late 1966 and early 1967 in Vietnam on an Army-sponsored tour for the official purpose of teaching his after-action interview techniques to field commanders, in order to improve data collection for both the chain of command and the future official history of the Vietnam War.
The Army Chief of Military History's representative on the tour, Colonel David H. Hackworth, collected his own observations from the trip and published them as The Vietnam Primer, giving Marshall credit as co-author.
S. L. A. Marshall died in 1977 in El Paso, Texas. The University of Texas at El Paso library has a special collection built around his books.
Marshall is used as a character in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, a video game released in 2005.
Controversy after death
Despite the surprising nature of Marshall's statistics about soldiers being unwilling to kill, the conclusion has been mostly accepted by the U.S. Army, as evidenced by the profound change in the standard training for U.S. soldiers. Other military scholars have been inspired by his research to look at historical records and have found remarkably consistent data across wars and over time, supporting his conclusion about the 75% rate of non-firing soldiers in combat. Nonetheless, certain professional soldiers have publicly cast doubt on Marshall's research methodology.
Professor Roger J. Spiller (Deputy Director of the Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College) demonstrated in his 1988 article "S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire" (RUSI Journal, Winter 1988, pages 63–71) that Marshall had not actually conducted the research upon which he based his ratio of fire theory. "The 'systematic collection of data' appears to have been an invention." This revelation called into question the authenticity of some of Marshall's other books, and lent academic weight to doubts about his integrity that had been raised in military circles even decades earlier.
The controversial figure, Col. David Hackworth, wrote in his 1989 memoir, About Face, described at length his initial elation at an assignment with a man he idolized, and how that elation turned to bitter disillusionment after seeing Marshall's character and methods firsthand. Hackworth described Marshall as a "voyeur warrior" for whom "the truth never got in the way of a good story," and went so far as to say "Veterans of many of the actions he 'documented' in his books have complained bitterly over the years of his inaccuracy or blatant bias".