The most important skill to be acquired isn’t what you think it is

Image credit: The Sun (News Corporation Ltd)

Nearly fifty years ago, some members of a small and then-obscure part of the British Army began thinking about how best to combat the growing wave of domestic terrorism that had been spreading across Europe in the preceding years. The IRA in Northern Ireland was waging its campaign against civilians and military targets alike; the Red Brigade in Italy was kidnapping and murdering prominent targets, and Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group was likewise instilling fear into ordinary Germans. Smaller groups were playing copy-cat, and the Palestinian terrorist group Black September would go on to wreak carnage at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

The mass media, always eager for revenue-boosting sensation, tirelessly reported on every incident at length, thus instilling fear in the general population, the overwhelming majority of whom would never in their lives even be within miles of a terrorist incident. The threat induced by terrorism therefore wasn’t from the acts themselves but from the society-wide hysteria the mass media created by its sensationalist reportage. In the face of civil panic, politicians felt they had no option but to introduce ever-more draconian measures, none of which made the slightest practical difference whatsoever.

Set against this backdrop of unpredictable terror, some key sergeants in the British Special Air Service set in motion what would become known as the Counter Revolutionary Warfare group, later renamed Special Projects group. While all other soldiers were practicing for conventional war, the innovative men of the SAS, largely freed from the bureaucratic shackles of what they referred to as “the green army,” set about developing the tactics and techniques that would later be used during Operation Nimrod, known to the general public as the Iranian Embassy Siege.

In late April 1980, members of the KSA, who were campaigning for Arab sovereignty in southern Iran, entered the Iranian Embassy building in London’s fashionable South Kensington district and took 26 people hostage, including a British policeman and some BBC reporters who’d been at the Embassy seeking visas. After normal hostage negotiation tactics failed, resulting in the death of an Iranian official whose body was dumped on the street, the SAS was authorized to make forcible entry and free the remaining hostages.

The SAS then proceeded to make a textbook assault on the building using the various tactics and techniques they’d been developing in secret over the preceding years. Although by today’s standards both equipment and tactics were rudimentary, they were astonishing at the time. And they were highly effective: all but one of the remaining hostages were freed unharmed, and five of the six terrorists were killed. No SAS troopers were killed, though one suffered severe burns as a result of having to use hastily-obtained equipment (abseiling kit) that was unsuitable for the purpose.

As television crews managed to capture a few elements of the assault, the world was thereafter inundated with television and movie versions of the successful SAS operation. Teams of men in “black kit” (actually dark blue) wearing respirators and brandishing close-quarters weapons became a staple of action sequences and have remained so ever since. Millions of young men have fantasized about performing such deeds, and not surprisingly the number of regular Army soldiers attempting Selection increased dramatically thereafter.

Today nearly every Western military organization has its own version of the SAS. And almost all of these Special Forces organizations include counter-terrorism training in their repertoires. By way of example, all SAS squadrons rotate through counter-terrorism training on a regular basis in order to ensure skills are honed and new tactics and techniques developed. For years the SAS made use of a configurable building on the grounds of its old Camp, colloquially referred to as “the killing house.” Today, a far more modern and underground facility is used at the Regiment’s new headquarters. But the principles remain the same: train soldiers in the techniques and tactics required to execute successful operations that involve close-quarters combat.

While ordinary people fixate on surface-level details, however, professionals know that the real picture is somewhat different. The key to success in close-quarters combat certainly involves acquiring a high level of skill in a wide variety of weapons and tactics. Precision shooting requires hundreds of thousands of rounds fired in simulations that are as realistic as possible. Tactical reloads and the clearing of weapons jams while dealing with multiple hostiles are practiced until muscle-memory makes them automatic even under conditions of phenomenal stress and confusion. Soldiers learn to engage targets accurately while sliding, falling, and rolling as well as when nicely planted on two feet. They learn all about double-taps, trigger reset points, and transitioning from one weapon to another in a split-second.

But this isn’t the key to successful close-quarters combat. While video games and fictional accounts all focus on the magic of blasting away at obvious targets, the real world is rarely as simple and unambiguous as our entertainments would have us believe. If simply hitting targets in the right places was all that mattered, Special Forces wouldn’t need to train as extensively as they do.

So why do Special Forces train their members so exhaustively?

In civilian life there’s little obvious penalty for panicking and making hasty decisions. We may panic during a financial downturn and, by collectively dumping stocks, create a recession that wasn’t actually necessary at all. We may fire employees, convinced that we have to conserve cash flow, and thus collectively create a recession that wasn’t necessary at all. We may be stampeded by mass media sensationalism into fearing for our lives every time there’s a plane crash or terrorist incident or novel virus, but although we will then go on to do very silly things that create far more damage than the supposed threat, we won’t feel responsible for the consequences. Even in our domestic lives we almost always escape direct responsibility for our actions.

That, however, is simply not true of Special Forces operations. A soldier who fires before properly verifying the target can be prosecuted for the death of the unarmed civilian or colleague who was on the receiving end of their mistake. At the very least, the soldier will carry the knowledge of that death with him for the rest of his life.

And that’s why Special Forces units train, train, and train some more. They can’t afford the hasty fear-induced panic that ordinary civilians embrace so readily. The ultimate lesson of close-quarters combat isn’t how many targets you can “slot” in the shortest possible amount of time, nor the clever techniques you use for target acquisition and target degradation. The ultimate lesson is to maintain a clear head so that half a second or so is taken to verify the target prior to pulling the trigger. That half-second literally makes the difference between life and death.

In the civilian world, most people are complacent with a “Panic! Fire! Um, ah…. what do you mean, aim?” mentality. That’s why we so reliably inflict pointless harm on ourselves and inflate beyond all reason what are in reality relatively small threats. It’s why we rush to embrace “solutions” that are too often much more harmful than the threat they purport to diminish.

Special Forces soldiers can’t afford to think like that. Professionals have to learn how to remain calm and coherent during times of stress far greater than any civilian will ever experience. They know the most important thing isn’t shooting wildly into the dark; it’s taking the time to understand the situation and then (and only then) reacting appropriately. Very often, two rounds properly placed on the right target are infinitely more effective than a “pray and spray” approach that uses hundreds of rounds to no effect whatsoever.

Even if blasting away would feel really good and look wonderfully purposeful to those who sit staring at their television screens, sometimes it’s far better not to shoot at all than to create havoc where none was really needed.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store