[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.