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John D Salt

What did you make of Grossman’s work? Does it stand up to critique? I’m interested in anything that deals with how ready and able people might be to kill other people, especially if it might be relevant to early medieval warfare and how that might have proceeded. I recall Grossman being massively slated on another forum, but I’m not sure how expert the slaters were.

I like Grossman’s stuff, although I found “On Combat” (with Loren Christensen) more useful than “On Killing”, simply because it contained more stuff new to me.

The criticisms I have seen of Grossman so far fall into two categories. One is that his concern about operant conditioning, and the idea that exposure to repeated casual violence through TV or video games can teach kids to kill, smacks of censorship and the bad old days of Mary Whitehouse. I am not especially interested in that branch of criticism; I remain surprised at the strain of perverse prudery that regards scenes of violent dismemberment as less offensive that pictures of people’s genitals, but I doubt either does much harm, and whatever needs to be said on the matter has for my money yet to be said better than Anthony Burgess did years ago in “A Clockwork Orange”.

The other branch of criticism is based on Grossman’s references to the work of S L A Marshall, and this is more a reaction to Marhsall than a reaction to Grossman. Some people regard Marshall as entirely discredited, and some are alarmingly prone to fits of the vapours whenever his name is mentioned. Yes, Marshall fixed his results; so did Gregor Mendel. A distressingly large amount of Marshall-knocking relies on selective quotation from Roger Spiller’s considered critique in the Winter 1988 edition of RUSI Journal. For myself, I think there is much of value in Marshall’s “Men Against Fire”, and his neglected classic “The Soldier’s Load”; the latter contains an idea which, as far as I am aware, is original to Marshall, and I shall not repeat here because I don’t want to distress Tim by saying “fungible” again so soo after the last time. “Men Against Fire”, while it was the book that made Marshall’s name (though not his fortune — that was “Pork Chop Hill”, another fine book, but enriching because it became a film — as Dory Previn sings, “Hooray for Hollywood”) was based largely on original thinking by Ardant du Picq, and one can easily trace Marshall’s headline 25% participation figure to du Picq’s chapter on “Tirs à la Carabine”. There is also independent support for Marshall’s ideas on participation from, notably, Lionel “The Forgotten Father of Battle Drill” Wigram. But everybody seems to have a go at Marshall, never at du Picq or Wigram. And there has been a lot of more constructive engagement with Marshall — not just dismissing him as a plonker for fibbing about is data, but trying to find if his reported results are applicable in other times and places. I’m thinking here of Russel W Glenn’s “Reading Athena’s Dance Card: Men Against Fire in Vietnam”, Robert Engen’s “Canadians Under Fire”, and Ernest Ashworth’s “Trench Warfare 1914-18: The Live and Let Live System”.

So, on the whole, I reckon Grossman is a good kiddy, and if there’s a sound argument that he’s talking eyewash I’ve yet to hear it.

Not sure how applicable this is to early medieval warfare, though — it’s one of my large collection of unpopular opinions that combat morale worked quite differently before the advent of pointy bullets, nitrocellulose propellants, high explosives, and the empty battlefield.

All the best,