Rule #1 of Combat

By | February 20, 2021

[February 20, 2021]  “The quick and the dead” is an archaic yet still popular “rule” to describe the wild old West.  Its meaning is exact; either you are fast on the draw, or you are dead (by the other guy with a gun).  Likewise, in combat, there are rules.  Rule #1 of combat is … don’t bullshit yourself.

I’m not purposefully vulgar here, but there is simply no other acceptable way to say it.  I want to emphasize this rule of combat.  Either you know yourself, your men, and your enemy … or you don’t.  If you overestimate yourself, you’re screwed on the battlefield.  The best leaders I know are careful not to expect too much from their unit’s capabilities and, more importantly, themselves.

“War brings out the worst and the best in people. Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men. War is romantic only to those who are far away from the sounds and turmoil of battle.” – Dick Winters

Dick Winters was Easy Company’s commander of WWII fame; recognized in the best-selling book and HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.” He understood that combat puts enormous stress on the soldier and that to survive and get the mission accomplished, one must never misjudge their own abilities.

While overestimating themselves is more common in junior leaders, all leaders tend to do it.  There is a joke that goes around anytime a new lieutenant is put in charge of a Platoon.  It goes something like this, “Give the lieutenant a map, and he will happily lead us somewhere.” The implication is that junior leaders overrate themselves.

There are, of course, many rules or guidelines to combat.  One of my favorites is Robert Roger’s Rules of Ranging; 28 in all.  Such rules are still used today (you can see the originals here and current ones here).  Reading Roger’s rules, you can see the practicality of his rules.  One of the most well-known ideas in soldiering is never to assume anything.  This is akin to never overestimating yourself.

How did I come up with this Rule #1 of combat? I’m not the first to write this, certainly not.  The idea of knowing yourself and your enemy predates the earliest writings on military tactics and strategy.  Sun Tzu is one of the first to speak to this issue.  His Art of War sets forth a philosophy designed to remove the chance of overconfident leaders.

Soldiers of the past have handed us a gift.  That gift should be passed down to others who come after us.  That is what I am doing today.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Rule #1 of Combat

  1. Jeff Blackwater

    This is great !!! Gen. Satterfield, please consider extending this into a longer series about combat rules. Thanks for your consideration. I think we would find it useful for anyone of us in any leadership position and not just for those in the military. 😊

  2. Tinman

    Cool, I hope you are starting a new series. Keep this one. Lots of material. We are praying for you to keep writing patriotic articles. 🙏👍🇺🇸

  3. corralesdon

    Hey, thanks Gen. Satterfield for another article that made me think. I know others have written this as well but I wanted to extend my thanks for your website. It is the go-to place for me to get a snippet of leadership every single day.

  4. Tom Bushmaster

    Best quote, “The idea of knowing yourself and your enemy predates the earliest writings on military tactics and strategy.” Nuff said, …..

      1. rjsmithers

        There is much written on this also in the Bible, and so perhaps Gen. Satterfield could introduce some of this into this articles. He has done it before and it worked out well and gave us all a better understanding of human psychology and biblical writings.

      2. Lady Hawk

        Yes, and I hope we read more about this in the future from Gen. Satterfield. He does such a great job of bringing all this together.

  5. Purse 5

    Of course, the Richard “Dick” Winters quote is just what I wanted to read. He and his men were heroes to us all but those deeds, like so many of those with him and in WWII, will go untold unless someone puts pen to paper and tells us all about it. I read nearly every book I can on WWII about those who fought on land or sea or in the air. I’m not so concerned about the strategy of the war as want to hear about the fight in the trenches that matters most to me.

  6. Georgie B.

    “The Quick and the Dead” (1987) starring Sam Elliot. I really enjoyed the movie. The plot goes something like this, a mysterious stranger rides into a homesteading family’s life when they are attacked by a ruthless gang. Lots of violence. The bad guys get killed and the good folks win out.

  7. Frank Graham

    Don’t overestimate your skills or those of those you work for. That is, naturally, the biggest problem anyone has and it is magnified when talking about leadership. Big leaders can make big mistakes when they BS themselves. Let’s all take this as a lesson in careful leadership.

  8. Army Captain

    Another spot-on article for us to think about but in this case, I’m not so sure that the numero uno (rule #1) is not to BS yourself. I would think it is ‘being prepared.’ Thus ready to take on all comers. But, of course, underlying all this is knowing yourself, your soldiers, and your enemy.

    1. ARay Pittman

      Another excellent point. Army Captain, great to see you back in the comments forum. We missed your absence.

  9. Rev. Michael Cain

    ‘The quick and the dead’ is more of an observation. Great article this morning, Gen. Satterfield. Hey, thanks.


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