Making a cup of tea, a flatmate was watching Netflix. The dialogue caught my attention. Rather, a monologue caught my attention, one that immediately prompted a Google search.
A soldier is in what appears to be a maximum security cell and someone in authority comes in the cell to speak to him. The search term “only 15% of British soldiers fired their guns” immediately allowed the programme to be identified as Men against Fire, an episode of a series called Black Mirror. The monologue is reproduced in full on a website called The Wrap.
“Humans. You know we give ourselves a bad rap, but we’re generally empathetic as a species. I mean, we don’t actually really want to kill each other. Which is a good thing. Until your future depends on wiping out the enemy … I don’t how much history you studied in school. Many years ago, I’m talking early 20th century, most soldiers didn’t even fire their weapons. Or if they did they would just aim over the heads of the enemies. They did it on purpose. British Army, World War I — the brigadier, he’d walk the line with a stick and he’d whack his men in order to get ‘em to shoot.
Even in World War II, in a firefight, only 15, 20 percent of the men would pull the trigger. Fate of the world at stake, and only 15 percent open fire. Now what does that tell you? It tells me that that war would have been over a whole lot quicker if the military got its shit together. So we adapted. Better training, better conditioning. Then comes the Vietnam War, and the shooting percentage goes up to 85. Lot of bullets flying. The kills are still low. Plus the guys who did get a kill, most of them came back messed up in the head.”
Having led tours to the Western Front and being familiar with accounts of combat, the claims seemed questionable, to say the least. In 1914, soldiers with the British Expeditionary Force were so rapid and precise with their rifle fire that the Germans thought they were using machine guns. It was an impression that would hardly have been likely if most of them weren’t firing their weapons.
The Wrap fact-checks the programme. The assertion that most soldiers did not shoot came from research allegedly conducted among American soldiers in the Second World War: different army, different war. The research was the work of Samuel Lyman Marshall, whose book, Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command provided the title for the episode.
Marshall interviewed 603 men, only 25% of whom claimed to have fired their weapons. Any researcher will know how difficult it is to rely upon interview evidence. There seems no verification of the claim by reference to army figures on how much ammunition was expended.
The Wrap quotes Fredric Smoler, who, writing in American Heritage in 1989, suggested, “Unfortunately, the fruit of Marshall’s interviews, the astonishing insight, turns out to be a little too good to be true. In fact, it just may be that Samuel Lyman Marshall made the whole thing up.”
One wonders how many Netflix viewers fact-check programmes. Will a cohort of younger people now believe the trenches were filled with men who did not fight?