A World War II Urban Legend?

The other day I was surfing the web and came across any essay about whether video games, etc., cause violence. The essay repeated a claim I’d read before. Supposedly the Pentagon commissioned a study which found that only 25 percent of soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy. As a result, this little anecdote claims, the military actively work on ways to train recruits to overcome their reticence at killing the enemy — a program which bore fruit in Vietnam.

I’ve never seen this so-called study sourced and I am extremely skeptical of its claims. That only 25 percent of those serving in the military actually discharged a weapon during WWII wouldn’t necessarily surprise me, but that it’s implication is that upon encountering the enemy large numbers of American soldiers simply refused to fire back seems to be geared at misconceptions about combat that are exacerbated by media portrayals of war, specifically the war movie.

I’m made even more skeptical by what little I can drum up on the number of rounds fired per enemy casualty in both wars. I couldn’t find any sourced statistics on this either, but the general consensus seems to be that far more rounds were fired per enemy casualty in Vietnam than in World War II — with some folks estimating up to 1 million rounds per dead foe in Vietnam (which, if true, is likely a total of all ordinance rather than total small arms fire). Even for WWII the best estimates I could find were about 50,000 rounds of small arms fire per dead enemy.

One of the major differences between the two wars was the improvement in small arms which made it possible to more accurately aim automatic weapons fire, but even given that based on the information I’ve been able to find, even if soldiers serving in Vietnam were more trigger happy than those serving in World War II, the only net effect seems to have been that they used up ammunition at a greater rate.

I would be extremely gratified if anybody who knows of any solid, sourced information on this topic would pass said information along via e-mail to brian@carnell.com or by posting it on this site.

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2 thoughts on “A World War II Urban Legend?”

  1. Just in case you are still interested in this and haven’t found out, the source for the 25% participation figure is Samuel L A Marshall’s book “Men Against Fire”, published by the Infantry Journal Press in 1947.

    All the best,


  2. John — excellent, thanks for the citation. And I see from some Googling that there was a controversy after Marshall’s death on just how he arrived at that claim. Fascinating stuff.


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