“[In World War II] the best showing that could be made…was that one man in four had made at least some use of his firepower.”
S.L.A. Marshall, 1947


“Marshall’s ratio of fire…appears to have been an invention.”
Roger J. Spiller, 1988

S.L.A. Marshall a perceptive commentator or just a fibbing windbag?


Roger J. Spiller

Source:Roger J. Spiller, “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire”, The RUSI Journal, Winter 1988, pages 63-71. The article is copyright © RUSI Journal.


The author’s bio in this article read as follows: “Professor Roger J. Spiller is Deputy Director of the Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.”

Since then, Dr. Spiller authored “Not War But Like War: The American Intervention in Lebanon” (Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, January 1981). He also served as an editor for the American Library’s World War II journalism volumes.

S.L.A. Marshall as he appeared on his book Sinai Victory in 1958.

In 1947, a slim book entitled Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War made the reputation of S.L.A. Marshall.

During the war, Marshall was employed as a popular historian with a newspaperman’s talent for getting a story through interviews. Indeed, the best parts of Men Against Fire are soldier’s folk wisdom about staying alive.

But that aspect of his book did not make Marshall’s reputation as a social scientist of the battlefield. The book’s central argument did. Marshall stated:

In an average experienced infantry company in an average day’s action, the number engaging with any and all weapons was approximately 15 per cent of the total strength. In the most aggressive companies, under the most intense local pressure, the figure rarely rose above 25 percent of the total strength from the opening to the close of the action.

Marshall’s claims certainly raised eyebrows in disbelief. Significantly, his “ratio of fire” does not appear in the official history series, The United States in World War II. Nonetheless, Marshall found many followers among the gullible. It wasn’t until 1988 that a scholarly article set the record straight.

The article, “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire,” appeared in the British journal, The Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. The author was professor Roger J. Spiller, and his task was an unpleasant one because he believed that Marshall was basically right about the primacy of ground combat. Nonetheless, Spiller pulled no punches. He writes:

Marshall had no use for the polite equivocations of scholarly discourse. His way of proving doubtful propositions was to state them more forcefully. Righteousness was always more important for Marshall than evidence….

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.

What of Marshall’s claims for his research in the field during World War II? Spiller writes:

In Men Against Fire Marshall claims to have interviewed “approximately” 400 infantry rifle companies in the Pacific and in Europe, but that number tended to change over the years. In 1952, the number had somehow grown to 603 companies; five years later his sample had declined to “something over 500” companies. Those infantry companies, whatever their actual number, were his laboratories, the infantrymen his test subjects, and at the focal point of his research was the ratio of fire. “Why the subject of fire ratios under combat conditions has not been long and searchingly explored, I don’t know,” Marshall wrote. “I suspect that it is because in earlier wars there had never existed the opportunity for systematic collection of data.” [Emphasis added.]

Opportunity aplenty existed in Europe: more than 1200 rifle companies did their work between June 1944 and V-E day, 10 months later. But Marshall required by his own standard two and sometimes three days with a company to examine one day’s combat. By the most generous calculation, Marshall would have finished “approximately” 400 interviews sometime in October or November  1946, or at about the time he was writing Men Against Fire

This calculation assumes, however, that of all the questions Marshall might ask the soldiers of a rifle company during his interviews, he would unfailingly want to know who had fired his weapon and who had not. Such a question, posed interview after interview, would have signalled that Marshall was on a particular line of inquiry, and that regardless of the other information Marshall might discover, he was devoted to investigating this facet of combat performance. John Westover, usually in attendance during Marshall’s sessions with the troops, does not recall Marshall’s ever asking this question. Nor does Westover recall Marshall ever talking about ratios of weapons usage in their many private conversations. Marshall’s own personal correspondence leaves no hint that he was ever collecting statistics. His surviving field notebooks show no signs of statistical compilations that would have been necessary to deduce a ratio as precise as Marshall reported later in Men Against Fire.  The “systematic collection of data” that made Marshall’s ratio of fire so authoritative appears to have been an invention.

Puncturing the Marshall legend was Dr. Spiller’s duty rather than his pleasure. He ended his piece this way:

History has a savage way about it. A reputation may be made or unmade when history seizes upon part of a life and reduces it to caricature. S.L.A. Marshall was one of the most important commentators on the soldier’s world in this century. The axiom upon which so much of his reputation has been built overshadows his real contribution. Marshall’s insistence that modern warfare is best understood through the medium of those who actually do the fighting stands as a challenge to the disembodied, mechanistic approaches that all too often are the mainstay of military theorists and historians alike.



The S.L.A. Marshall Military History Collection at the University of Texas at El Paso is the main repository for Marshall’s official and personal correspondence, draft manuscripts, and ephemera.

A considerable body of correspondence between Marshall and B.H. Liddell Hart is collected at the B.H. Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College, London.

The US Army Military History Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, holds several of Marshall’s field notebooks.

For Marshall on Marshall, see almost anything he wrote but specifically: S.L.A. Marshall, “Genesis to Revelation,” Military Review, Vol. 52, No. 2 (February 1972); “The Human Equation in Combat”, in S.L.A. Marshall at Fort Leavenworth: Five Lectures at the US Army Command and General Staff College, ed. by Roger J. Spiller (US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 1980).


Dale L. Walker, interview with S.L.A. Marshall, 18 May 1972, typed transcript, in S.L.A. Marshall Military History Collection, Library of the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas.

For more on John Westover, see: John G. Westover, “Describing the Colonel,” Newsletter of the S.L.A. Marshall Military History Collection, No. 11 (Summer 1985), pp. 1-4 ; “The Colonel Goes Interviewing,” ibid., No. 12 (Winter 1985-1986), pp. 1-3; and “Marshall’s Impact,” ibid., No. 13 (Summer 1986), pp. 1-3.

For a colleague’s assessment (pre-Spiller) the “the ratio of fire” was probably hokum see: Hugh M. Cole, “S.L.A. Marshall (1900-1977): In Memoriam”, Parameters, Vol. 8 (March 1978, p. 4).

To understand the intellectual climate when Men Against Firewas published, see: Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and the World Order (Brace Harcourt, New York, 1946), p. 76. Brodie’s axiom on deterrence was stated: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other purpose.”