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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. I am a contributor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Friday, September 24, 2010

DO WE REALLY KNOW OURSELVES?

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.

20 comments:

graycladunits said...

Dear Eeben:

Is the small teams commander you spoke a guy named Willem Ratte? He was pretty famous from what I hear. Anyway, I think that soldiers and their officers get to know themselves best by spending time with each other. When the men do this, they begin to observe one another's strengths and weaknesses and have opportunities to express these observations. In other words, the best way to learn about yourself is through having others interact with you and form opinions from the interactions. Strangely enough, the US army frowns on its officers and enlisted men hanging out. Why do you think this is and is it the same all over the world? Was it this way in your day?

I have been away for awhile because my best friend died in Afghanistan and I was looking for work too. I hope you are doing well. I saw your last picture that you put on here. You reminded me of Charlie Watts when he was younger.

God Bless, GCU

John said...

Good Evening Eeben,

Very insightful start for the weekend - Nemesis always rears up to bring down the proud. The level of arrogance at high levels has basically destroyed the west's ability to finish any task it has started for the last 40 years. Our military personnel suffer accordingly.

More to come.

Regards,
John

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It most certainly was Willem, GCU. At that time, we were both lieutenants but he was the Boss – a tough, hard, uncompromising boss who was fair at all times.

There is a difference between mingling with and fraternising with the men. We worked with and alongside our men and that was how it was. In the old SADF discipline was tough and at times harsh but there was never really fraternising. Everyone knew what everyone else’s position was and it was adhered to at all times – at least in the units I served in. Ill discipline was not tolerated and orders were followed to the letter. I don’t think it can be any other way.

I am sorry to hear about your friend. War is indeed a state that takes many a good man from us. It was Marcus Aurelius who said that death smiles at us all and all we can do is smile back. Losing friends is never easy but the best we can do is remember the fun they gave us when they were still alive.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Very true, John. Arrogance, pride, self-centredness – and at times plain stupidity - whatever we wish to call it can cause disaster to men who look to their leaders to ensure their safety.

Is it “mission over men” or “men over mission”? Good commanders look to find a balance between the two.

Rgds,

Eeben

Tango said...

Hi Eeben,
After reading your posting and not being a soldier myself the comment that you made below made me think and got me going back to looking up some history and information regarding the former SADF's role in Angola and SWA.

It seems like every effort you guys put in to ensure peace and stabilty in this and surrounding region's was worth it.
We salute you all !

( That excludes all the politicians involved )

-------------------
"Having had the privilege to serve under one of the best small team commanders in the old SADF"
" 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 found this link /blog which after reading a brief story about the history of War in Angola/SWA by Danie Crowther i would agree and say it was worth it !

http://thecheerfulphilospher.blogspot.com/2010/09/it-was-worth-it.html

IT WAS WORTH IT ..an extract from the story

I was a professional soldier for seventeen years. Most of this time I was involved in the war in Namibia/Angola until long after the implementation of Resolution 435 in Namibia and the Cuban Troop Withdrawal in Angola. I was also intensely involved in the stabilising the security situation in our country during the troubled times leading to the 1994 election.



Almost without fail, whenever I tell somebody this, the reaction is negative. "What a waste of time". "All of it for nothing". "You must feel bad about the way it turned out". "Was it worth it?"



I will answer the last question. Yes it was worth it. Let me say it again: YES IT WAS WORTH IT.

------------------------
Regards
Tango

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you Tango.

I had the privilege of getting to know Danie many years ago. He was badly wounded in Angola as an artillery forward observation officer, but despite this, he was never bitter or angry. Whereas I would do it again if I had to, I still suspect that the politicians at that time chose their friends most unwisely and like the rats they were, they jumped ship when they could.

In the process of jumping ship, men such as Danie did what they could to ensure a semblance of stability lest we find our country totally destroyed. What many people don’t seem to realise is that it was not purely a clash between black and white but a clash of ideologies. In that sense, I also agree with Danie that it was worth it.

Rgds,

Eeben

Herbert said...

Mr. Barlow:

Another excellent article to your credit. Having spent four years on the staff of a US Command and Staff College and having taught courses at several others including war colleges, I can confidently say that introspection and identification of personal weaknesses or vulnerabilities are not in the old curricula. Sun Tzu is read by all; "know yourself" receives short shrift.

I too, at an early age, received a blazing lesson in "know yourself." Decades ago as a young Marine lieutenant in southeast Asia, one rainy morning my blood was boiling over having lost several men in the previous night's grenade fight. Before setting out on our day's trek through more very hostile country, an experienced sergeant marked a spot on my map, saying "Sir, I've been here before. Right at the location I marked is where they will ambush you." "Thanks" I said, "It will be the last thing they will ever do." I briefed my understrength platoon and off we went, me with one boot full of adrenalin and the other full of testosterone. We were hammered unmercifully--multiple machineguns as well as other weapons. We finally fought through and routed the ambushers, but payed a heavy price in blood--all my fault.

Now that day didn't ruin my life (in fact I'm extraordinarily proud of the successful fight the men delivered), but it taught me that I have a serious weakness: I can let my brain get washed aside by testosterone. As compensation I trained myself, whenever my blood got up, to think of two words, deception and surprise. It made me a much better small unit leader, and paid dividends later with larger units. I have to apply it today in dealing with life's daily challenges--it turns out I remain the same guy.

This posting is getting too long. I'll just add that I'm not very optimistic about getting senior officers into introspection and identification of their shortcomings. Afterall, they got to be generals because they probably always received flawless performance evaluations, and I'm afraid that too many actually have believed them. Also, I suspect that most of them have probably never been properly machine gunned--a very humbling experience.

Best Regards,
Herbert

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thank you for your comment and lesson on knowing oneself, Herbert. I think to know ourselves, we need to make what can be perceived as errors in judgement. If we learn from them, as you did, then they were invaluable to us – and I think you have every reason to be proud of how you and your platoon performed that day. It is when people do not learn that I get worried.

When I see the unreasonable expectations that are sometimes set on men and equipment, or hear how so-called advisors have misadvised armies, I get even more worried.

Fortunately, some of the senior officers I meet are keen to discuss matters of all sorts and debate issues. I respect them for that and know that they do it for the betterment of their men.

Rgds,

Eeben

W.C.H. Miller said...

Dear Eeben,

Clearly, it comes back to a fundamental principle that 'knowledge is power' in all aspects of life. Self-awareness and awareness of others. It applies both within one's camp, and to one's adversary.

On a separate note, I would ask if you might read two recent posts at my blog waxinggeopolitical.blogspot.com, and invite anyone you know whom might be interested to also read it.

Regards,
Whit

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Yes, it does come down to that, Whit, but this is so often neglected by all and sundry that I wanted to mention it again.

If we do not know ourselves, we will not know where our soft underbelly is – and therefore be unable to take steps to prevent the enemy from exploiting this. I believe that this is what happened recently in Pakistan, a country that appears to view the US as its mortal enemy.

Thanks for pointing us to your blog. I must admit that I haven’t visited it for some time and will do so know. I am sure many other will follow suit.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I have been rather occupied with issues of some importance, Private, hence my tardiness in attending to my blog and answering comments. Sorry about that.

I look forward to the promised post but I do understand that sometimes anger and bitterness tend to cloud one’s judgement and language. Give it time.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Not knowing much about the gold market, I accept your predictions, Private.

I can only ever hold Willem in the highest esteem as a soldier. I was really sad to learn that he has found himself in a difficult position but I still regard him as a victim of a great betrayal. However, what happened to us all happened and we cannot dwell in the past. How we do that depends on ourselves.

Rgds,

Eeben

Shaun May said...

There is a very good book written by The Arbinger Institute about being in the box and not seeing things clearly

John said...

Good Morning Eeben,

I have read this post, and comments, multiple times and it simply strikes me as one that cuts to the heart of everything we do as senior or mid level leaders.

The needs shown in here, and the ability to ask, are definite items in short supply - our warriors pay with their lives much quicker than those of us who do not apply these questions to ourselves. If we do not ask these same questions of ourselves we will slowly pass - with the additional moral burden that we did not hold our leaders to a higher standard and cost good men their lives who have trusted us to make good decisions. What level of Dantes inferno will we find ourselves in if we do not start finding out how hard we can push ourselves - and not betray those who have put their trust in us.

This may be your best post yet.

Congrats.

Regards,

John

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for pointing us in the direction of The Arbinger Institute, Shaun. I have been unaware of them but will now do some checking to see what they have that we can find of value.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks, John.

I have always maintained that I need people alongside me who strengthen my weak points. If I don’t have that in place, I am sure to make mistakes that can cost lives. And if I don’t question, I will never know the options available to me. But it will also prevent me from having unrealistic expectations and subsequently placing unwanted pressure on good men.

Hopefully, this approach will negate many potential advantages the enemy may have.

Rgds,

Eeben

John said...

Good Morning Eeben,

I was thinking along this post and came to wonder what really drove Hank Wharton to fly for the churches in Biafra?
Something near to a close friend of my family - did he want to fill in some missing part of his life? Had something happened in his past, or was it truly just lucrative money?

Just some random thoughts for the morning. Your durn blog questions keep my brain humming.

Regards,
John

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

He is indeed in a tough spot, Private. Having sand is however no guarantee that one will do the right thing when the time comes.

I am afraid that I will not be available over Christmas as I shall be working elsewhere but the day will come...

Take care.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

It’s good to know the blog gets you thinking, John.

I cannot answer for Hank but I suspect there were several factors that motivated him: adventure, adrenaline, money and a desire to do something for the underdog. It would be interesting to know once you have found out.

Rgds,

Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Wonders never cease, Private. Let’s see what happens next.

Rgds,

Eeben