Claxton J. Marsh's "Who Would Win?"
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2002
During a certain era, not so long vanished,
every schoolboy knew the
military exploits of General Claxton J. Marsh.
The fourth most decorated soldier in United
States history, Marsh was both a fearless
warrior and a brilliant military strategist.
Few people, however, know the full extent of
his accomplishments. In between his
military exploits, Marsh became an expert
in biophysics and mechanical engineering,
publishing widely on these topics
in scientific journals.
He was an accomplished harpsichordist,
playing successfully in several international
He won the North American Karate Championship
4 years in a row. His satellite designs are
still used by the Navy.
Taken all together, one could say that
Claxton J. Marsh
was a spectacularly well designed man-and also
a spectacularly competitive one.
It is fitting, then, that his monumental
work, Who Would Win?, deals
extensively with the two topics of design
For Marsh, the concepts of design and
competition are intimately
connected. In brief, the world is a testing
ground for design, a sort of universal
tournament in which different objects, people,
ideas, and systems relentlessly battle
each other for dominance. To read Marsh is to
enter a brutal and breathtaking Darwinian
world, a battlefield existing at all scales
and on all levels, from the molecular to the
galactic, from the personal to the metaphysical.
Reading Who Would Win? one feels
torn limb from limb, exploded from the inside,
flattened into a pancake, rolled and stuffed into a
tube. It is a merciless, exhausting work,
The format of Who Would Win? is quite simple.
Marsh contemplates a series of
battles fought between entities having different
designs. The combatents are brought together
on a hypothetical battlefield, and then a
battle is imagined, the details informed by
Marsh's extensive analysis of the strengths
and weaknesses of the two designs. Sometimes
the entites in question are animals, sometimes
different fighting systems, sometimes ideas
or cultures. Who Would Win? amazes
the reader not just in the penetrating, systematic
analysis of individual battles, but also in
its sheer breadth and novelty.
The beginning of Who Would Win? is devoted
to battles between specific animals. For example,
Section 7, Subsection 9 imagines a battle between
a 1-inch long beetle and 12 ants, each one a
quarter inch long.
The battle takes place
on flat surface, with no auxilliary objects such
as plants. It lasts
until one side
is completely dead. Marsh pits the solid armored
shell and bulk of the beetle against the
speed and versatility of the 12
ants. He attempts to analyze every relevant
variable: strength, speed, communication skill,
endurance, aggressiveness, and so forth.
He replays the hypothetical battle over and over
again, varying the conditions each time. Sometimes
the ants are allowed to communicate, for example,
and sometimes not. Sometimes the battle takes
place on a wood floor, sometimes on teflon or ice.
The last of the 57 subsections of Chapter 1,
Section 7 deals with the general question of
fighting prowess amongst the insects. Marsh is
interested in knowing which species is the
best, ounce for ounce, when it comes to
fighting. Actually, he is after something
more abstract. He imagines a kind
of universal insect, a conglomerate which takes
the best from all the individual species. His
idea is that the individual insects all
exhibit features of the best possible design,
to a greater or lesser extent, and that
perhaps the optimal design can be recovered
from its imperfect and partial expressions.
The end of Chapter 1 Section 7 contains
at least 40 detailed sketches of what,
in Marsh's opinion, is the best possible
insect design. It is a pity that this
review cannot display these beautiful, intricate
Chapter 1 Section 8 does for the small mammals what
Chapter 1 Section 7 does for the insects.
In Chapter 1, Section 8, Subsection 42, for
Marsh ponders the battle between two cats and a raccoon,
the three of which have been locked into a
gravity free sphere, eight feet in diameter. In
other subsections of Chapter 1, Section 8,
are forced into the sphere as well: three chipmunks
versus a beaver, two Doberman Pinschers versus a wolf,
a mongoose versus a possum, eleven
mice versus a squirrel. Marsh pits chickens
against ocelots, hamsters against rabbits,
Tazmanian devils against lynxes. In one
mental experiment after another, these
animals are run through mazes, blasted into
space, placed inside halls of mirrors,
shot through wind tunnels and magnetic
fields, dissected, analyzed, modified,
and spliced together. Again, this
exhaustive and exhausting theoretical
analysis is done with the aim of isolating
the ultimate animal design.
Chapter 2 does for human fighting systems what
Chapter 1 does for animal design.
For instance, in Chapter 2, Section 11, Subsection
23, Marsh imagines a fight
between a blindfolded man with a baseball bat
and a one-armed black-belt in Karate.
Marsh varies the sizes of the men, the weight of
the bat, the degree of fighting expertise,
the level of surprise in the encounter, and
so forth. Given Marsh's extensive experience
with the the fighting arts, Chapter 2 is a
thoroughly convincing account of human
fighting potential, as well as an intriguing
theoretical search for the optimal method
of human combat. It is a shame, however,
that Marsh does not let his analysis
stand on its own but rather
feels compelled to remind the reader,
at frequent intervals, of his own
Indeed, this reviewer found it
jarring to read a passage such as
``The simple lever, initially employed by
Archimedes, operates on the principle that
the torque about a given point P depends directly
on both the force applied to the point X and
the distance from X to P. This principle
can be used to great advantage in defensive
moves if one considers the arm as a lever,
with the elbow as the point P...''
followed immediately by the passage
``When I was in Korea back in `50, there was one
time when I
tore a guy's arm clean off, right at the elbow.
The bastard didn't see it coming...'' Perhaps
these little slips have a virtue after all:
They remind the reader that Marsh is a human
being for all his Promethean knowledge,
subject to the ordinary follies of
vanity and conceit.
Marsh regains his scholarly composure in Chapter 3, where
he compares military systems, past, present and future.
Here we see the consummate strategist
at work, pondering action in a bewildering
variety of theatres. Marsh revisits the great
battles of the past and invents great
battles for the future. Here we see a horde
of ten thousand barbarians attacking twenty-five
tanks, a team of ten robots challenging
a civil war battalion. Nothing escapes his
He compares rifles
to machine guns, clubs to knives, wires
to ropes, plastic explosives to TNT,
computer guided missiles to small scale
soars into the remote future as he considers
battles fought from space ships, battles in asteroid
fields, battles fought
near the surface of the sun.
Who Would Win?
has 41 chapters and 7 appendices, each covering
a different facet of design and competition.
Chapter 4 deals with the clash of
economic systems; chapter 5 deals with
the conflict of ideologies-theism versus
atheism, the scientific view versus
superstition, and so on. Chapter 18 is devoted
entirely to struggle
for dominance between the viruses and
humans. It is an enormous work, a
staggering work, still largely
misunderstood. The book is both famous
and obscure at the same time. Everyone
has heard of it, but very few have
read substantial portions of it.
is filled with the shouts and struggles of
existence, the flashing lights and
colors of triumph, the beauty and glory of
but anyone who has made a serious study
of Who Would Win? cannot fail to hear
from every page the whisper of Death.
It the quiet subtext of the work, the unifying
Marsh himself says
``Death is the silent partner in the
enterprise of design and competition.''
According to Marsh, the world is
completely filled with things,
packed absolutely solid at any given
instant, like sand compressed into a
can and topped off at the brim.
A new thing comes into existence
only at the expense of something
else, which has to fall out of the
can and vacate its
position to make room.
Death is necessary
in order to give new designs an
opportunity to exist. Without Death,
the world would be filled with only
the simplest possible things, eternal
but boring. There would be nothing
of interest in the world.
Each design should have its day in the sun,
and Death makes the new days.
Marsh wrote Who Would Win? at 70.
By that time he had an international reputation
in half a dozen fields. He still
oversaw the operations of armies, still
ran marathons. He must have known, however,
that his time was finite. He must have noticed
the members of the previous generation dropping
all around him like flies. It is obvious:
any man who has walked the Earth more than
30 years knows that he is literally coming
apart at the seams.
The last decades in the life of
Claxton J. Marsh provide a textbook
study of a man's heroic struggle against
inexorable defeat. Marsh played his
harpsichord until stopped by arthritis at 87.
He gave up running marathons
at 78, when his knees gave out, but
swam fifteen miles every morning into his
nineties. An infection
took his sight when he was 94 but he
promptly learned braille. He
gave public lectures
until he was 97 and could no longer
leave his kidney machine.
Open Who Would Win? to any page
and you can
hear the sound of a man
crying out against the limitations of
his own design, a man asking for more time
in the arena.