“Lytton Strachey was neither a fool nor a hack. He possessed a rare and truly remarkable creative gift, and a splendid talent for exposition…. Strachey’s intuitions and expository gifts were perfectly compatible with a better method of research, which would not have required more labor than he actually performed….But an improved method would taken a toll of Strachey’s intentions in one important way. It would have confined him within limits with which he was apt to be more than a little impatient the limits of truth. It would have told him when he was falsifying, and that was something which Strachey did not wish to hear.”
David Hackett Fischer Historians’ Fallacies
S.L.A. Marshall’s invention of the “ratio of fire” was the greatest hoax in military history. Unfortunately, it is all too representative of Marshall’s work rather than being an isolated lapse. As an historical writer, S.L.A. Marshall might have been plopped from the Lytton Strachey mold. Marshall, too, was impatient with the limits of truth, and the methods of open inquiry.
In one of the most disturbing, and nutty, passages in Marshall’s Men Against Fire, he explains why he kept his wartime findings to himself. Surely, something as serious as riflemen not firing should have been reported or at least discussed with colleagues. This is how Marshall explains it:
The data which came of [my] prolonged personal research was my own and I made no attempt to cross-check or co-related it with the findings of my friends and colleagues in the Historical Division, ETO. There was a reason for this quite apart from the lack of time and high pressure of duty. Each man judges performance according to some standard deriving from his own experience. But the impressions of others, and how they evaluate man against fire, are also either validated by a breadth of experience or colored by a lack of perspective. Where the armchair historian may pick and choose whatever fits in to the making of a good story, the combat historian may be sure only of his own datum plane.
“Prolonged personal research” while heading an historical mission for the United States Army? How can Marshall call his colleagues in the field, who were as close to the frontlines as he, “armchair historians”? (And why would he dedicate the book to them, if they were such dullards?) Wasn’t it Marshall’s “duty” to record and share findings? And, while we’re at it, what on earth is a “datum plane” that can only be understood be its creator?
From top to bottom, Marshall is fibbing.
The “Marshall problem” is that he was both a perceptive commentator and a fibbing windbag. A supreme over-reacher, he was a habitually dishonest man in a field where honesty is everything.
Some writers still claim that Marshall’s work has an overall validity Some have said that he helped focus the Army’s attention on fighting men rather than bombs. But fraud can never have an altogether beneficial result. Fraud saves the perpetrator from an honest effort which might have been useful, and wastes the victim’s time and energy on nonsense. It is alarming, for instance, to find Marshall’s “ratio of fire” quoted as fact in the War PsychiatryTextbook of Military Medicine (Office of the Surgeon General, 1995). One would wish for a bit more intellectual rigor on the part of our boys in white coats.
For present historians and readers who want a clear head, the “Marshall problem”, has only one solution. His work must be regarded as historical fiction.
Books such as Bastogne: The First Eight Days and Night Drop: The American Airborne Invasion of Normandy are highly enjoyable and illuminating. Marshall’s work will live, though his claims for it cannot, because it is irreplaceable. No one but Marshall recorded airborne actions in the ETO or details of ground combat in the Pacific. But the inescapable fact is that Marshall was not a serious historian. He was a brilliant combat journalist who fatally put a premium on telling a good story.