When Sun Tzu wrote about the need to know both the enemy and yourself, his words held an importance many nowadays seem to simply ignore.
I am extremely fortunate in that I still get to meet many senior military officers from across the world and one thing that strikes me as odd is that very few truly know “themselves”. Of course, they know what training they and their men have had and mostly know how to use it but they are not always fully aware of their capabilities if their real or perceived combat scenario were to change suddenly.
As an ex-soldier, I am fully cognisant of how rapidly we can develop tunnel vision and neglect our abilities to think laterally. Sometimes, we need to think outside the box. At other times, we need to ask...and listen.
Asking appears to be something many of us shy away from lest we be seen as unable to do our tasks. But, when lives are at stake and the choice is either success or failure or victory or defeat, there can be no shame in asking.
By “knowing ourselves”, we should be aware of our weak and strong points. Whereas we seldom want to admit we have weak points, it is too late to come to this realisation when the pressure is on, the lead is flying and we have run out of options. At such a time, pride will be of no value to us.
If we truly know ourselves, we will know our true capabilities. Having had the privilege to serve under one of the best small team commanders in the old SADF, I recall once being loaded with 15 magazines for my AK, a 100-round belt for the PKM, 20 40mm rounds plus the launcher, 2 bunker bombs, the VHF radio as well as the HF radio – along with my food, water and shockpack. With my knees buckling, I made it known that I would be rather useless when we hit contact with the enemy. My commander looked at me and with a smile said that he was very well aware of that but as he knew every man in the team, he knew what they could do. I was the green one and he needed to first find out what I was capable of. It was a lesson I would never forget.
I have also learnt that we should be realistic about what we can and cannot do, what we are capable of and not capable of. It is this “knowing” that prevents us from making unrealistic demands on the men under our command, setting unrealistic expectations or even having unrealistic expectations of our weapons systems.
But this knowing goes further. There are many different ways to solve a problem. Sometimes, we are well prepared by our military schools but more than often the theoretical war does not match the real war. Situations and terrain change rapidly and frequently as does the enemy. There is no standard template-plan that we can simply superimpose on any given military problem. We need to think beyond the box but sometimes even our boxes are small and limited.
Additionally, we need to know the enemy we are facing, his weapon systems and capabilities, his tactics and techniques – and his weak points. We also need to know how and why he fights. Only then can we devise workable strategies and actions to counter and defeat him.
Fortunately, many of the senior officers I meet are keen to get new thoughts and ideas. They want to discuss and dissect previous successful and less successful operations. They pose theoretical scenarios and discuss them. They want to debate the pros and cons of tactics, techniques and procedures. There is a desire to learn and make new “discoveries”. These discoveries of “new methods” breed a deeper understanding and analysis of any given situation. They do not let ego and pride get in their way. Expanding our knowledge of ourselves and our enemy aids in flexibility to situations as well as being able to rapidly adjust to new situations.
(This does of course presuppose that those giving the advice know what they are talking about and are doing so with the intent to help. Sadly, I have come across some advice-givers in Africa who very definitely have alternate agendas).
Often military strategies are devised on guess-work and totally removed from reality. Those who are on the ground must be able to adapt and change to meet the unexpected and still achieve mission-success. What happened to the adage “Time spent on planning is never wasted?”
Like many of my contemporaries, I have seen senior officers held hostage by their pride. Many insurmountable problems could have been solved, had it not been for misguided pride and poor planning. At times such as those, there is a fine line between pride and stupidity.
Whether it is pride or just plain stupidity and arrogance to underestimate the enemy, the terrain, and overestimate our abilities and so forth is in this context irrelevant. The fact is that sometimes we don’t really know ourselves and we end up tripping ourselves – and giving the enemy an advantage he will exploit.