Best Defense

Fury: A hard close-up view of small unit cohesion, both the good and bad sides

I give high marks to the film’s authenticity, which portrays true cohesion.


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer reruns from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on May 19.

By Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Rush, Ph.D., U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense movie reviewer

Fury is the story of one tank crew in the last days of World War II that has been together since the invasion of North Africa, three years earlier. In this 2014 film, which I just caught up with, the crew has just suffered its first death and faces the integration of an untrained replacement soldier. In the story, we see the inculcation of the veterans’ mores, both good and bad, and how their bonds evolve to focus on the team over the individual self.

As a retired combat arms Cmd. Sgt. Maj., I give high marks to the film’s authenticity, which portrays true cohesion. We see soldiers working, sleeping, fighting, and dying in close quarters, as well as the personal interactions, both the good and the bad. We see the grief at the crew’s first loss and Nelson, the new guy, gaining of acceptance. We watch the compassion of covering the face of a dead comrade. SSG Collins, the film’s hero, mentors Nelson, though I disagree with some of his methods. He ensures that the green soldier knows how his weapons work, his duties and responsibilities, that he eats, and that he must kill Germans.

Several times in Fury, orders are received over a squawk box, simply to be obeyed. For the common soldier, grand strategies beyond the next objective mattered little because all he experiences is hardship, fear, death — and only afterwards can he reflect on loss and gain.  “Move, move now!” This film is about the soldiers who comprised the symbols that staff officers moved with such alacrity on the map board; where a ten-centimeter move might mean kilometers of hard marching by foot or vehicle through rain and mud over extremely rugged terrain to an uncertain fate.

As a historian and as an infantryman, I do take exception with some of the depictions within the movie.

The initial scenes of a bulldozer burying the dead certainly happened in the Pacific but it is doubtful that it occurred in the European theater. The German Armed Forces gave “proper and adequate” burial to the dead of all the combatants, and the United States Army followed suit. Likewise, I was skeptical of the deuce-and-a-half truck filled with dead willy-nilly. And the cantonment the tank was pulling into was that of one of the division’s combat commands, which in 1945 would be located far forward of where graves registration units did their work. I would think the soldiers who loaded the remains, being from the same unit, would be more respectful of their handling.

Also, the core story of Nelson, a typist joining the unit after just eight weeks in the army, is implausible. Beginning in 1943, initial training for Ground Combat Forces lasted 17 weeks plus the time necessary for the sea movement to Europe. For those of Service and Supply, it was a minimum of eight weeks, and for most longer. By April, 1945, with casualties low, most of the soldiers who had been wounded and were able to rejoin their organizations did so. My specialization is small unit cohesion, with an emphasis on World War II. In all my work, I have seen no references ever to replacements of this caliber being sent into the front line at this late date.

I also came away with thoughts about cohesion. Long-term association builds cohesion, but it is no panacea, for without good ethical leadership, the cohesion we seek can go bad. Bad acts are often reported by members outside the cohesive group. The execution of the German prisoner in the story is criminal. This is not something done in a crowd unless you know those around you and there is agreement that no one will report. This is an example of cohesion gone bad.

Were prisoners killed in World War II? Absolutely. We know of a case in Sicily that resulted in a court martial. Ask old soldiers of the WWII or Korean War generation and many will say they witnessed such killings, but did not participate. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find it was a sniper in the tree or a machine gun that surrendered only after ammunition was gone, and friends were killed. Or some might not have made it if the GIs were faced with bringing prisoners back through heavy artillery fire to the POW collection point and then having to travel back through the barrage.

Writing as a historian, some facts: In the ETO, Armor MOSs suffered 5,778 battle casualties, with almost 20 percent of that number killed or died of wounds. Studies accomplished by the British Army on tank crew casualties found that on M4s the norm was three out of the 5five crewman survived unless it was a catastrophic kill where the on-board ammunition exploded. Normally though, projectile impact created a spalling effect on the interior of the tank, killing or wounding those in the dispersion area. With the addition of wet stowage to the ammo compartment catastrophic kills had markedly decreased by late 1944.

The following two charts give some details as to casualties in the European Theater of Operations. The first is a comparison of the 2nd Armored Division and 9th Infantry Division, in which both ranked fourth in number of casualties for their respective types. Both are of comparable size, though the infantry has almost 50 percent more strength in its ground-gaining arm. Both divisions landed on the Normandy Beaches within a day of one another. However, the number of casualties are grossly disproportionate.

(Comparison of Casualties between two divisions rated as having the 4th most casualties for their component)
*Company sized ground gaining elements
9ID– 27 Rifle, 9 Weapons , 1 Reconnaissance
2AD–12 M4 Sherman Co’s, 7 M5 Stuart Co’s, 10 Rifle Co’s, 3 Reconnaisssance Co’s

The below chart gives the total enlisted casualties for the four ground forces branches suffering the highest number of casualties in the ETO. The mechanized infantry component of the armored divisions are included under the infantry table.

(Enlisted Casualties by branch, European Theater of Operations)

Combat Arms soldiers in contact always suffer casualties. If lucky there are not many. However, they can be devastating at the wrong place and the wrong time. Learning about the number of casualties in the 2AD during the month of April, 1945, suffering an estimated two percent casualties seems of minor importance until the casualties are broken out to find that this equates to more than 10 percent casualties in each of the division’s 18 armor companies and nine armored infantry companies.

However, casualties never fall evenly — so, while some companies may have lost 10 percent or fewer of their number, other companies may have suffered 60-70 percent; with primary groups disappeared, such as the tank platoon wiped out in Fury. This is the movie’s final take-away.

Summing up, would I recommend the movie? Most certainly, but with a caveat. One can learn from movies such as this. That said, it would be nice for the individual watching to have someone experienced to talk to afterwards.

Dr. Robert S. Rush, during a career that spanned thirty years, served in leadership positions from squad leader through continental army command sergeant major. He served in various infantry units: Ranger, light, and mechanized.  Upon retiring, he attended The Ohio State University and earned a Doctorate of Philosophy degree in military history.  Later, he served two tours in Iraq as command historian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division and Multi-National Corps-Iraq. He is the author of several books, including Hell in Hürtgen Forest: The Ordeal and Triumph of an American Infantry Regiment; GI: The US Infantryman in World War II; The NCO Guide (6-9th Editions); and The Soldiers Guide (5-7th Editions). 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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