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On Bravery in Battle

I was reading John Wukovits One Square Mile of Hell: The Battle for Tarawa and came across an interesting passage on the behavior of men in battle:

“Lt. Frank Plant, Jr. concluded that three categories of men existed in battle. Some froze and could do nothing to contribute. For instance he unsuccessfully tried to halt one terrorized private who dug deeper and deeper into the sand, as if in doing so he could escape the carnage. Not far form this private, two other Marines, rigid with fear, lay immobile on the ground with their arms extended at right angles.

The other extreme offered those, like Hawkins, who not only ignored every risk but seemed eager to face them. He called them “sons of guns” who inspired the men, and concluded “Most of them probably lost their lives.”

The vast majority, he decided, stood in the middle of the two extremes, following orders and killing Japanese because that was what they were supposed to do.”

– Greg Grant

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob June 21, 2010 at 11:57 pm

If you believe the Marines, every Marine is an elite fighting man and hero, just because they are a Marine. Only the Army has ineffective cowards. Now which is it? This officer must be describing Marines, cause there wern't no Army troops on Tarawa. What it sounds like is that when you get down to brass tackst, Marines are not much different than Army troops. Some are really great, some are worthless in a fight, and most of them are in-between, but get the job done.


Ing3nium June 22, 2010 at 12:21 am

Your drawing a conclusion from a gross generalization


MUTT June 22, 2010 at 2:12 am

Why do so many followers of this site seem to attack Marines without provocation? I am tired of men, who are supposed to be my comrades in arms, constantly comparing Marines to Soldiers. We are the same in several aspects, but we do have some very distinct differences. If you cannot see that then you opinion is worthless due to ignorance or blind favoritism, or feelings of inadequacy.

The story posted by the author had nothing to do with pitting one branch against another, if you cannot stick to the main idea do us all a favor and keep your hands of the key-board, you are pathetic and make me sick.


Randall June 21, 2010 at 11:17 pm

I’m an atheists, but amen to that. I m getting really tired of it. I don’t bash the army. My best friend is on his second tour in Baghdad.


Bob June 22, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Its the Marines and their propagada machine , They are the ones that continually remind us of the inate superiority of the USMC. How they do things better than any other service. Marines do the heavy lifting and the Army just follows along to pick up the pieces, etc. Maybe its just USMC propaganda coming back to bit them in the a^%.


Project Thor June 22, 2010 at 12:52 pm

and what exactly have YOU done for your country, Bob? Before you ask me, i was with the 1st/5th SF, 86-92 and earned my paycheck in blood. I have every respect for the Marines… 1st rate soldiers making due with second rate equipment.


AT4 June 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Don't call them soldiers, they get pissed and remind you that they are Marines, not soldiers.

Juan Garcia July 1, 2010 at 3:58 am

Oh I'm sorry Bob. You must have been in the Army. Of course he was talking about Marines. You just have to read the article to see that. Did a Marine steal your girl or something? I have nothing against the Army. I respect all fighting men. In every unit there will be men who don't have what it takes to get the job done when the rounds are flying.
-Sgt. Garcia 0351/USMC combat veteran


jsallison June 21, 2010 at 8:01 pm

These were described as Killers, Filler and Fodder in an an Armor Magazine article back in the early 80′s iirc. And I suspect it’s pretty much a branch-immaterial phenomenon.


SGT June 22, 2010 at 4:25 am

concure the article is a generalization about how "men" not just any service react to contact with the enemy.


Mack June 22, 2010 at 5:36 am

It doesn't matter if the authors were describing Marines hitting a beach, Army Airborne Soldiers at Salerno, Sailors repelling boarders while on the China Station, Air Force SPs defending an airfield in Korea, or Coast Guardsmen during Operation Game Warden, regardless of the branch, there will always be some men who not only rise to the occassion and excel in combat, some who merely follow orders in a simple quest for survivals, and then those, who despite thier training simply shut down and cease to function. That facts transcends uniforms.


@Earlydawn June 22, 2010 at 6:41 am

Indeed. Know why the U.S. adopted machine guns as the basis of platoon firepower after entering WWII? Because the number of riflemen that the average platoon leadership could get firing was pathetic.


Mastro June 22, 2010 at 9:35 pm

The Germans had already done it in the '30's and were very effective.

The machine gun is the killer- some armies didn't like that- and want everyone to be a marksman- but it is unrealistic.


Thrust June 23, 2010 at 5:22 am

Mack is right on. True combat is the defining moment for a man….any man, and at any age of history. Every worthwhile combat force yet conceived and fielded has consisted of potential heroes and potential cowards….human history is replete with examples. And the color and markings of the uniforms, and whether the combatants even wear uniforms, has proven time and again to be of little consequence.

With regard to the Tarawa operation and the U.S. Marine Corps, my understanding is that above-average guts and fighting prowess were prerequisites on the part of those Americans. These facts are not in dispute, and those of us who were not there, whether we are old or young, should bow our heads to those few still with us who were.


Chimp June 22, 2010 at 5:47 am

Regardless, they were there.


Thomas L. Nielsen June 22, 2010 at 1:54 am

Ditto on the notion that this phenomenon is service independent.

Indeed, as a side note, this is seen not just in combat, but in any sudden high-stress situation, such as a major accident, natural disaster, etc.. Some people freeze up, some stand around waiting to be told what to do, and some take action. The smart thing to do for the latter group, which is usually a small percentage, is to mobilise the "standing-around-waiting" group and get them moving and acting.

And the bastard thing is, I believe it to be patently impossible to predict ahead of time which group you'll be in.

Regards & all,

Thomas L. Nielsen


Greg Grant June 22, 2010 at 11:00 am

Thanks MUTT, you hit it on the head.



theboogyman June 22, 2010 at 11:19 am

I once heard after 16 weeks of active combat duty, 98% of troops are combat casualty's, mental break down. 1% go psychotic, and 1% are hero's.

true or not, i like this formula.


Unger, M June 23, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Great, I'm the psycho


mmfal June 22, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I would like to know what percentage of men are "freezers" now compared to during the previous big wars now that military service is voluntary. Also, on a semi-related note that some of you might find interesting, someone was telling me about a study that said that fewer people are freezing now and some military psychologists attribute that to the fact that today's soldiers are exposed very early to violence through movies and video games. Some food for thought. :)


SGT June 22, 2010 at 8:03 pm

wouldnt doubt that, violence is what some men are enlisting for nowadays… to live a call of duty lifestyle. cant wait to see the looks on their faces when they come and get their details from ole SGT


Thrust June 23, 2010 at 5:28 am

What you've heard is correct: young American men aren't nearly the reluctant killers on the battlefield that they were only two generations ago. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, USA (Ret.), has done extensive and validated research on the subject. Fascinating phenomenon….check out http://www.killology.com.


jsallison June 24, 2010 at 11:59 pm

If anything I'd say that a volunteer military would likely exhibit a skewing of the curve by self-selection. Having said that I doubt it's possible that folk can reliably predict their response to 'seeing the elephant'. I do think that a Venn diagram with a circle bounding risk-averse and another for risk-tolerant, with a third for risk-seeking would provide some surprising overlaps. My gut tells me that the Killers will predominantly come from the risk-tolerant, as will the Fillers. And the Fodder will populate mostly from the -averse and -seeking.


BILL D June 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm

It doesn't matter what branch of the service they are in-the are wearing the uniform of the United States Military and fighting for our country and it my book that makes every one of them a HERO.


Russ June 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm

I don't like the name calling between services, I'd like to hope that put in that situation I could remember Corps/Regiment before self.

Civiians dont seem to get the Military's attitude of not letting down your current mates but also not making your predicesors ashamed


jsallison June 25, 2010 at 12:02 am

Folk that do surprising things in combat tend to do it, not for God and country, but for their buddy, right over there. Or they do it because it needed doing and they happened to be there.


MpowerdApe June 22, 2010 at 10:06 pm

one of my favorite battles to read about, ive read almost every book there is and i never miss a new one. Wukuvits brings some new perspective. its a good read.

tarawa was no battle, it was a "riot" with machine guns.


M.G.Halvorsen June 22, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Tarawa was a F***ed-up mess. Because the brass didn't listen to people who had LIVED there and were familiar with the tides AND the reef1000 yards out, good men died while wading to shore from that distance, enduring everything being thrown at them but the kitchen sink by the Japanese. the ones that did reach the beach and the seawall were pinned down by such intense fire that the miracle of the Marines not only surviving, but wresting Betio from the Japanese. is one of the most horrible tales of casastrophically poor planning; and was only redeemed by the heroism of the Marines and Sailors (yes, Jarheads, we Swabbies were there TOO!). Being a former "Gator-Navy Sailor, I feel privileged to be able to use that word,"Jarhead", and y'all an call me a "Squid" all you wish. And If you weren't there don't EVER question their heroism…Every one of 'em!


bobbymike June 22, 2010 at 11:35 pm

There was a study trying to ascertain just how many actual trigger pullers there are in an average platoon. A military historian (I can't recall who) tried to quantify troop quality in WWII and the Germans came out on top. One of the main factors being more individual soldiers pulling the trigger creating fire superiority for an equal number of troops. The Germans rarely, if ever, lost a battle when they were on equal footing and many times with fewer numbers were still able to win because of the above.

My intent with the above is not meant to offend just something I read somewhere.


blight June 22, 2010 at 11:51 pm

The issue is more that the Germans were pushing mg42s at levels where Americans were fielding the BAR. Thus, clear fire superiority. And where m1919 was fielded the germans were fielding mg42s as well.


jsallison June 25, 2010 at 12:05 am

A German infantry squad was a life support system for the squad's machine gun.


ron stillwell June 23, 2010 at 2:02 am

i read the same book in high school 63-67. and remember his thoughts on men in combat. to me he was talking about all men in combat .i can't remember all , but i thought he was talking about the men in all branches of the service. i never thought he was comparing the army to the marines. at one point he refered to the battles in the aleutian islandswhere the armys loses were very high . he was wondering if american fighting man had guts to fight and win the war in the pacific.we can look back now and see that they endeed had the guts to fight and win. i am a combat vet myself viet nam 69 -71


Parry June 23, 2010 at 9:01 am

Tarawa was a brutal battle that the Marines fought hard to win. The author has left out something that is very important and every marine know what i am talking about. There was one type of man that had no choice but to care out his duties on tarawa and that was the Navy Corpsman with every marine unit. Marines go no where with out their “DOC” period. May of my brothers lost their live saving Marine on Tarawa and some even recieved The Medal of Honor. the author is correct that there are 3 main type of combatants shut downs, want to be hero’s, and the gun bunnies. when i say bunnies it is not to mean sweet and fluffy but many and movers. modern training has help reduce the shut downs but these types will also be around in small numbers. battles are won by the meat and potato guys slugging threw and completeing the mission and 9 times out of 10 “DOC” is one of these guys. To the marine i had the pleasure and honor to serve with Thank you.


Mike June 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm

The Romans used this test: The ones whose faces lost color under extreme danger were more likely to stay the course, whereas those who turned red would also run when the going got tough. (Read this, in of all places, online version of Pravda). Separately, I read somewhere that in Korean war, the North tested for approximately 5% of captive troops who were likely to repeatedly try to escape or worse. Separated them to a different place. Minimal guarding needed for the remainder. I'd be interested in whether anyone has read similar or knows the actual reference citations for either of these propositions.


Paul M June 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Maybe everyone is talking about SLA Marshall's "Men Against Fire", and John Keegan's "The Face of Battle". This idea about the three different reactions to combat is the main idea in both.


Jacob June 23, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Considering my outright suicidal behavior in team shooter games online, I'd probably fall into the second category >_>


jsallison June 25, 2010 at 12:07 am

Not necessarily, no actual danger. If it was that predictable we'd be predicting it.


Jack Else June 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm

Good stuff on this topic can be found in Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's "On Combat" and "On Killing". An excellent very recent book is Sebatian Junger's "War." I would also highly recommend Eugene B. Sledge's "With the Old Breed." And of course someone has already noted S.L.A. Marshall's and John Keegan's indispensible books.


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