True or false: "Soldiers tend to intentionally fire over the enemy's head, or not to fire at all."

A sidebar in a book I’m currently reading discusses the wartime behavior of soldiers and their reluctance to kill even in life-threatening situations.

This strikes me as pacifist hopeful thinking – when it comes to “kill or be killed”, do people really deliberately aim to miss?

Posting in GQ because this is primarily a factual question, but opinions and anecdotes are welcome as well.

Both Marshall’s and Grossmans works have been highly criticized by some and extolled by others.

A good answer to this would be nice to see.

Nope this is definitely a fact. It was the subject of much research in the defense community after WW2. It lead to a revision of modern infantry training to emphsise “suppressing fire” (where you just fire in the vague direction of the enemy to encourage them not to fire back at you), and instinctively shooting as soon as you see the outline of the time enemy appear (as opposed to previous training which concentrated on shooting at static target in the open).

I’ve heard it claimed that there has been a commiserate increase in PTSD and like in modern wars as a result of this.

False with a caveat.

General Marshall did report that the firing rate in World War II was only about 15 percent in his “Men Against Fire”. However, later historians have realized that Marshall pretty much made up his figures, and that they couldn’t be trusted. See Roger Spiller’s “S.L.A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire”

Marshall is, in general, a pretty polarizing figure, and even though his stuff is entertaining, it’s not usually good history.

It is a truism that men under stress tended to fire high; Bernard Fergusson, in either Beyond The Chindwin or The Wild Green Earth, writes about the Japanese ‘firing high as usual’ and speculates as to whether this was due to defective training or a defect in the weapon. General Sir Garnet Wolseley’s advice to the troops in the Ashanti campaign was to ‘fire low, fire slow, and charge home’. Of course individual marksmanship standards in 19th c. armies tended to be abysmal as they did not get much practice and it tended to be collective firing rather than individual.

This phenomenon is described and analysed for WWI by Axelrod (1984) Evolution of Cooperation, New York: Basic Books.

Axelrod’s analysis of cooperation under anarchy has been fiercely criticized but still, it does seem to be the case that at some point during WW I, some German and English (IIRC) soldiers, without communicating directly, did manage to create arrangements by which it would be safe to leave the most forward trenches. Or something … I’m not sure on the details :slight_smile:

I thought that was why they made the switch between practicing on bulls-eye style targets to the figure 8 style (outline of a person) we use now…

Definitely whether or not the original study holds water (I had no idea it was controversial), it was definitely the basis for changes in infantry training post-WW2.

I think it’s important to differentiate between draftees and volunteers. WWI and WWII soldiers were mostly draftees with minimal training. It was not like what we have today with an all-volunteer army. There were high levels of panic in new troops. It is likely that element of pacifism or desire against killing was a portion of the result, but it doesn’t make sense to chalk most of it up to that.

I don’t have access to it now, but I’ve done research on the difference between green troops and veteran troops in WWII, and the numbers are night and day. Green troops fit the profile of people who die quickly and often don’t use their guns at all. Experienced troops do not fall into that category.

I think it’s also important to emphasize the fact that there are reasons to shoot other than to hit someone. In modern warfare with air support and artillery, it makes sense to do just enough shooting to keep the enemy contained, then let the big weapons take care of the problem. Even if you’re committed to an infantry action, you do a lot of shooting just to make sure the enemy keeps his head down, doesn’t charge your position, etc.

What the statistics tell me is not that people are averse to killing, but that they are averse to being killed. They’d rather stay behind cover than shoot. And they’d rather skimp on aiming than shoot well.

Rifle range training did change through the years to try to overcome this issue, from the man-shaped targets to pop-up targets and other immediate response scenarios. My cite is my late father, past Commanding Officer, Weapons Training Battalion, Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina (1969 timeframe).

Why is it that soldiers in the modern era supposedly had difficulty firing at the enemy, but soldiers during the pre-modern era had no problem hacking each other to pieces with swords and axes and bashing each other to death with maces and warhammers?

The “aversion to killing” certainly does NOT seem to be inherent in human nature.

I can’t say I’ve ever heard of this being true. I can’t think of one example. Now, maybe in WWII, when the troops are just trying to get home to their families alive, maybe the two sides just sorta “faked it” until the battle ended. But in Iraq, where them-killing-you is nowhere near as likely as you-killing-them, I’ve never heard of someone intentionally missing unless they weren’t supposed to be killing the person in the first place (warning shots or whatever).

For one thing, in premodern fighting, in formation fighting, you’re standing right face to face with the enemy, and if you don’t kill them fast, they’re going to kill you. In modern fighting, when you and the enemy both have rifles, and you’re not in a set formation, the safest thing to do is stay under cover and present as small a profile as possible to the people shooting at you and hope they aim at easier targets.

My WAG would be that in hand-to-hand combat you are unarguably at dire threat of your life, and your will to live overcomes any reticence to kill. Archers didn’t fire at an individual but at enemy formations as a whole. But rifle fire one on one at a distance may seem more like wanton killing than desperate self-defence.

This study tends to bear out the proposition that people are not killers by nature, and describes how unit commanders can identify and “nurture” the natural killers in their units.

Comparing a period where people slaughtered their own meat and lived in fear of tyrannical monarchies to a period of TV dinners and baseball games may not be an especially effective one.

Perhaps another factor would be that in WWII many of the guns would kick and so each bullet fired would be progressively higher. It takes some experience to hold a Thompson sub-machine gun in such a way that you are anywhere near your target.

It is also important to note that technology had advanced to where it was possible to shoot large quantities of projectiles. It wasn’t like the Revolutionary War where it was important that each shot be used to maximum effect. Suppressing fire with a bunch of muskets would not have worked particularly well. It also seems extremely unlikely that the genesis of the idea of suppressing fire would have been the unwillingness of one man to kill another. It has too many practical benefits for that to have been the case.

Adducing willingness to kill from the number of bullets used would seem to be a more or less hopeless way of going about things.

As to people fighting with swords in previous ages I wonder if the distance doesn’t have something to do with it. If I am standing near a guy with an axe the chances are near certain that I will die if I do not strike with intent to kill. With modern weapons the distance is greater. You may increase your chances of surviving by hiding and not exposing yourself or by shooting enough to keep the other guy from aiming properly.

That does nothing to explain how you come into close proximity with the enemy in the first place when all you have are swords and more primitive weapons. It would take a great deal of bravery to rush across a field with only a glorified sharpened stick at your disposal.

WWI and the American Civil War are two conflicts where impromptu truces were declared by the soldiers themselves. I am sure none of this was new behavior.

It seems several people mentioned the proximity effect for hand to hand combat while I composed my post. In defense of the repetition I am teaching my six year old to play 21 as a means of teaching her to count and it took a while to type… sorry guys!

This comes up when I talk about the Milgram Experiment.

As everybody knows, about 65% of people will complete the experiment by (essentially) shocking the student to death.

What some people might not know is that one of the replications involved real shocks, real puppies, and real death:
Charles Sheridan and Richard King hypothesized that some of Milgram’s subjects may have suspected that the victim was faking, so they repeated the experiment with a real victim: a puppy who was given real electric shocks. They found that 20 out of the 26 participants complied to the end. The six that had refused to comply were all male (54% of males were obedient[25]); all 13 of the women obeyed to the end, although many were highly disturbed and some openly wept.[26]

So, why do we have this difference? I theorize that like a zombie movie, all species are genetically hardwired to avoid harming their own species. For example, cannibalism is very rare. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to me that soldiers, if given the opportunity, would try to avoid killing another human being if given the choice.

I took a class in high school (the teacher was quite an eccentric guy) that focused somewhat on the psychology behind warfare; the first few weeks at least were focused on determining when it was appropriate to kill. One of the major results was that it is far more appropriate to kill that which is not human, or if clearly “human”, a lesser one. This is the reasoning behind propaganda in which one attempts to demonize and/or de-humanize the enemy: making them more acceptable targets for their soldiers to kill.