Review of 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 competitions. 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 and competition.

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, but fascinating.

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, Chapter 1, 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 pictures.

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 example, 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, different animals 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 fighting expertise.

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 analyzing eye. He compares rifles to machine guns, clubs to knives, wires to ropes, plastic explosives to TNT, computer guided missiles to small scale nuclear devices. His imagination 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.

Marsh's masterpiece is filled with the shouts and struggles of existence, the flashing lights and colors of triumph, the beauty and glory of intelligent design, 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 theme. 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.