Whose Warmest Heart Recoiled at War


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

    You know I don’t want to start a fight but ‘wow’ I’m not sure I can believe that a max of 20% of the troops on a battle front would engage the enemy with musketry in the face of an advance. This violates my conception of ‘survival’ where we mere mortals will do just about whatever we can to survive..like shoot a gun, run away, hide, whatever.
    I really would like to get the opinion of those interlocutors who have participated in combat and ask if they think that figure is accurate.Report

    • Not sure there are a lot of Revolutionary War veterans reading here at LOOG; I think they’re all over at TAS. Try asking over there.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      One of the problems in infantry training is actually getting troops to fire at the enemy. Up to at least Vietnam most of them habitually shoot to the side or in the air to avoid actually killing anyone. One of the benefits of muskets, ironically, is that they’re terribly inaccurate – musket men fight in lines or squares so they can fire in barage and actually have a chance of hitting something. Of course if you’re doing that you don’t particularly need to aim …Report

  2. This is addressed somewhat briefly in Band of Brothers; sort version being that by comparison to the men of Easy Company, the average US and German soldier were (compared to our cinematic vision of soldiers) extremely eager not to engage with one another. Even within Easy Company there were soldiers who distinguished themselves with their will and ability to find and kill Germans soldiers.

    No citation, but a friends who’s a pretty enthusiastic amateur historian of military culture (by way of playwriting) put me on to Marshall’s findings years ago. IIRC, what the found is that troops don’t fire, purposely fire over the heads of the enemy, and generally do whatever they can not to kill people, even when taking fire themselves. Pretty amazing, and strangely hope inspiring, no?

    But these findings have also had a big effect on how troops are trained since WWII. Again, IIRC, the phrase is “removing the safety”, ie putting recruits through training that is predicated on the idea that there is a revulsion to killing.

    Again, IIRC, Marshall’s findings were privital in teh development of teh M16. No reason to burden troops with a rifle capable of killing at 500+ yards if troops go out of their way to find excuses not to kill the enemy.

    And lastly, in The Atlantic I think, probably a Mark Bowden article I think I remember reading that even among the elite forces there is a category of soldier that simply doesn’t seem burdened by human emotions around killing, and does so with particular ease. “Carnivore” maybe? I’m getting old and it’s harder to remember things.

    See also: Gross Point BlankReport

    • I wouldn’t read too much into it for obvious reasons, but this is consonant with a conversation I had about 10 years ago with a friend who had just completed boot camp. In that conversation, he repeatedly emphasized that he found the entire point of the training to be to strip him of his humanity so that he would not have any compunction about killing someone in battle.

      This training seems to be quite effective as well. Another acquaintence of mine several years later enlisted for the sole purpose of being a medic. This guy was basically a peace-loving hippy who at the time was even opposed to us being in Afghanistan. By the time he was done with boot camp, he had no interest in being a medic and has since served multiple tours in both wars in special ops.Report

      • Conversely, in Guns, Germs & Steel, Jarod Diamond describes New Guineans as being (up until very recently) xenophobic and insanely homicidal; with the killing of outsiders being very nearly a first and best response in all encounters.

        See also: Jack Crabb’s use of the phrase “human beings” through out his testimony in Little Big ManReport

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          Yes, that’s an inconsistency that needs to be explained somehow – in non-hierarchical societies people kill strangers pretty much on site. Diamond talks about strangers meeting in the forest and basically the whole initial conversation is trying to find a personal connection so they’ll be under some obligation not to kill one another. But now we can’t even train infantrymen to shoot at a dot on the other side of the battlefield.Report

          • I don’t see any inconsistency. Perhaps you can explain what you mean?Report

            • Avatar Simon K says:

              It seems like people who live in hunter-gatherer bands have a much greater willingness to kill one another than people who live in industrialized democracies, no?Report

              • Hmmm.

                My take was that human beings have a difficult time killing other human beings, but that how “human being” is defined varies from society to society, but some predictive generalities about how broadly the concept will be applied can be developed on the basis of the size of the society in question.

                Have you visited http://withoutsanctuary.org/ ?Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                Point taken. But then let me put the question another way – why is that mid-century volunteer soldiers considered distant figures across the battlefield to be fully human, but a Papue New Guinean hunter doesn’t consider the guy he’s have a conversation with right in front of him to be?Report

              • What is “brother against brother”, Alex?Report

              • Avatar Creon Critic says:

                I agree, the boundaries of who counts as human have been elastic with brutal consequences for whoever ends up as the Other. I learned about the Without Sanctuary exhibit on the Newhour ten years ago and am still struck by Roger Rosenblatt’s short piece on it, Confronting the Past. Rosenblatt concludes,

                That ordinary people did these things is deeply disturbing; that they manufactured a social rationale for their acts is more disturbing still. Look for a while at the picture of the lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1930. Look first at Stacy, then turn to the little girl in the summer dress, looking at Stacy, and then to the man behind her, perhaps her father, in the spotless white shirt and slacks and the clean white skimmer. They will stand there forever, admiring the proof of their civilization.


  3. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    Marshall’s findings are pretty interesting, but his methodology has drawn fire over the years for a number of procedural problems (note: many of his conclusions have been supported, to one degree or another, regardless).

    What is limiting is that all the research is (unsurprisingly) limited to the post-warrior caste societies (something Tony alludes to above). Kill rates can only be meaningfully studied, essentially, in modern post-industrial armies where the substantive volume of the force is conscripted civilians (or at the very least, civilian volunteers who are not career military).

    I doubt the Spartans had much trouble with kill avoidance, they trained youngsters specifically for this. Other warrior caste societies had other manhood tests that required killing of an individual to become full members; it’s a fairly common historical mechanism for ensuring death-dealing is second nature.Report

  4. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I was not aware of the Marshall study or that factoid; in addition to what everyone else already said, as bloody as the 20th century was, it’s hard to imagine it being 5 times worse.Report

    • Avatar James K says:

      The main reason the 20th Century was so bloody is that there was so much blood sloshing around to be spilled. I’ve read that the 30 Years War was far worse than either of the World Wars once you adjust for population size.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      Much of the carnage of the 20th century was aimed at those not felt to be human (e.g. Jews) or via mechanisms that don’t involve seeing the victim (e.g. aerial bombing).Report

  5. Avatar Graham J. says:

    Actually S.L.A. Marshall has been pretty thoroughly debunked, starting more than twenty years ago. It isn’t just his methodology that’s been discredited, it’s his conclusions as a whole. Fred Smoler published the initial article: http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1989/2/1989_2_36.shtml

    And Melvin Matthews wonders why the myth is still passed off as truth: http://hnn.us/articles/1356.html

    Also see:

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      The reason this “myth” has been passed off as truth are several.

      First, it’s been replicated by other studies.

      Second, it dovetails well with other results in social psychology.

      Third, changes to military training in the intervening years were designed with his findings in mind. These changes helped — as predicted — to bring up the rate of genuine fire.Report

      • Avatar Graham J. says:

        As for Grossman’s assertion that Marshall’s been ‘ignored’ by academia, Marshall has not been ignored so much as discredited. That’s not to say Marshall’s focus on training as of equal importance as battle, or his emphasis on the “small group” as the actual motivator of loyalties in combat was necessarily wrong (as one article puts it, “right for the wrong reasons“). But his findings on the ‘rate of fire’ are dubious.

        The statistics he uses and the way he obtained them have come under severe fire. Many of his number were, in fact, fabricated. “There is no evidence that Marshall carried out the statistical techniques that his claims imply,” and Grossman’s general over-reliance on Marshall renders much of his own theses weaker.

        And R.J. Spiller has the harshest words for him:

        The foundation of his conviction was not scholarship but his own military experience, experience that he inflated or revised as the situation warranted. Marshall often hinted broadly that he had commanded infantry in combat, but his service dossier shows no such service. He frequently held that he had been the youngest officer in the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War, but this plays with the truth as well. Marshall enlisted in 1917 and served with the 315th Engineer Regiment—then part of the 90th Infantry Division—and won a commission after the Armistice, when rapid demobilization required very junior officers to command “casual” and depot companies as the veteran officers went home. Marshall rarely drew such distinctions, however, leaving his audiences to infer that he had commanded in the trenches. Later in life, he remarked that he had seen five wars as a soldier and 18 as a correspondent, but his definitions of war and soldiering were rather elastic. That he had seen a great deal of soldiers going about their deadly work was no empty boast, however. This mantle of experience, acquired in several guises, protected him throughout his long and prolific career as a military writer, and his aggressive style intimidated those who would doubt his arguments. Perhaps inevitably, his readers would mistake his certitude for authority.