February 15, 2010

Family Day reading: Engen's "Under Fire"

Finished Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War, by Robert Engen recently. I had a lukewarm feeling about this book, which is largely an attempt to counter S.L.A. Marshall's controversial "Men Under Fire" thesis (that the majority of Western troops in contact in World War Two did not fire back when under contact) through the examination of post-battle questionnaires delivered to company- and platoon-level officers by the British military.

The recovery to the historical record of the Canadian officers' questionnaires, most of which were returned to the Canadian government archives after the war and have lain there unnoticed since, and the collation of the information within them, is certainly a worthy piece of historical research, and credit is due to the author for the inspiration and the care with which he carried it through. The inclusion of this book or the questionnaires in any future major histories of the World War Two army should be assured. So kudos there.

As a stand-alone monograph, however, the work does not meet the criteria of an essential read, I'm afraid. Engen sets up the results of his research as a stronger refutation of Marshall's previous work than they really are. The explanation of why Marshall is his windmill to be tilted at takes up too much space for too little payoff.

A different and more rewarding tack would have been to compare the individual questionnaires to previous histories of the same battles to see how accounts add to what we know of them, and/or not to aim at the Marshall white whale alone. Trevor Dupuy's "fighting effectiveness" ratings might be at least as vulnerable in the face of contrary first-person accounts, but are barely mentioned here, for instance.

By the time the author finally leaves Marshall behind, and talks about how contemporary observers rated the tactics and weapons systems they used, the monograph is already running out of steam, even though this was by far the most interesting part. One could have imagined a very different volume with similar source material... a compendium of lessons learned from junior officer leadership in one of the worst wartime crucibles history has ever seen, almost. At the very least, a comprehensive evaluation of all of the different weapons systems they used (medium machine guns, for instance, are never mentioned at all, although I'm sure those interviewed must have had some thoughts on their employment) would have been more valuable than what ended up on the page.

Marshall is controversial because his work is now practically tautological. The primary arguments in his favour were always that very few "regular" soldiers at the time objected to his assessment (likely because few of the rapidly demobilized rank and file would have cared about his assessments one way or the other), and that those who did object were either not in a position to know (Marshall rated NCO recollections above those of officers), or readily admitted to not being able to get more from their men in public. A review of post-battle questionnaires filled out for one's own chain of command by Canadian captains and majors, no matter how well exploited by the researcher, is not the right tool to challenge that edifice. Marshall, in life, would have no trouble discounting it.

I know Engen was just trying to make his work relevant. He does this by rather tenuously explaining that the work of another controversial figure, David Grossman ("On Killing") hangs on Marshall's research, so therefore a refutation of Marshall would be relevant today. And maybe it would be, if this was a good one. There is a better way to make a book that sells out of this material, however: perhaps for his second work, Engen might think of comparing and contrasting the same archival material with observations of similar Canadian platoon-level fighting experiences in Afghanistan. It's not like there aren't a few veterans around, and being able to reinterpret the Second World War in the light of their living experiences could be a much deeper well for him to draw on.

Posted by BruceR at 01:34 PM