Book Review: Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command


More often quoted in speeches than actually read, Brig Gen SLA Marshall’s classic “Men against Fire, The Problem of Battle Command” is seldom seen by its intended audience: platoon and company commanders. Marshall, a reserve officer and journalist, spent World War Two touring the battlefields of the Pacific and Europe to observe troops going into action and debrief them afterwards. From this he learned many lessons, distilled by 1947 into this title as well as into the training curricula of many armed forces.

The value of this book lies in the fact that we have largely forgotten how much we learned from Marshall and what debt we owe him.

Firstly, he observed that the battlefield was a frighteningly lonely place: under effective enemy fire soldiers seek cover and are shocked into a state of near apathy by their sensation of being fired upon from an unseen source and having, weapon crew apart, having to endure it alone. Of their section or platoon mates, the dead and wounded excepted, there is usually no sign. Battle is no less traumatic for section leaders and platoon as well as company commanders. Enemy fire dissolves their commands and it takes near suicidal bravery, and about an hour, to reconstitute their sub-units. Marshall ascribed the root cause of this problem to a lack of communication. His remedy: battle talk.

More controversially, he determined that the vast bulk of men, even in the face of attack and certain death did not want to fire their weapons at the enemy. Factors responsible included their upbringing and morals and, in battle, translated into a fear of killing. He recalled from his own service during World War One that men were visibly relieved when assigned to a quiet sector and would nearly always allow Germans who carelessly exposed themselves live, saying they would “get” them another day. This approach, he found mirrored ordinary life, where “a minority of men and women carry the load of work and accept the risks and responsibilities which attach to progress; the majority in any group seek lives of minimum risk and expenditure of effort, plagued by doubts of themselves and by fears for their personal security.” Fire wins wars, Marshall observed, and it wins the skirmishes of which war is composed. The prime object of training then is to teach men to fire when ordered – even when no obvious target presented itself. Fire leaders had to be taught to allow natural firers to use their initiative and to mark and encourage those who were less inclined to fire. “The doctrine of fire discipline has accented for so long the need for controlled fire that it has almost obscured the fact that the fundamental problem is how to build up fire volume and develop more willing firers,” Marshall argued.

Turning to discipline and leadership, Marshall famously wrote that “the fault in our disciplinary level was not primarily that the discipline of the ranks needed to be more relaxed, but that the discipline of a considerable percentage of our officers needed to be tightened.” Peering into the future, Marshall believed that as weapons became increasingly sophisticated and deadly, the need for good leadership would increase rather than decline. The value of this book lies in the solid and sensible advice it gives its reader to become such a leader. As Military Affairs put it many years ago: “This is one of the great volumes on fighting published since World War Two and should be required reading for every staff officer as well as every combat officer of the arms which fights on the ground. It deserves a place among the really great volumes on combat and command.”

Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command

SLA Marshall

University of Oklahoma Press