Thursday, October 18, 2018

Self-Defense: Focusing On Our Objective

    What is our objective when we defend ourselves? And what if we lose sight of that objective? Can it lead to undesirable outcomes? Before answering these questions, let me divert into issues of military strategy. Trust me, it has relevance.

         I am currently rereading Alexander Bevin's book, How Great Generals Win, which analyzes the tactics and strategy of various historic commanders and pick out key concepts that led to their victory. It is a fascinating book if you like military history or strategy.

       We are all familiar with Carl von Clausewitz's observation that "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." In fact, the purpose of war is to achieve a more perfect peace ... for the victor. This means getting the enemy to accede to your will. As Bevin notes, that "more perfect peace" is generally obtained militarily by destroying the enemy's will to fight.

       Historically, the most straightforward method to destroy the enemy's will to fight was to destroy their military forces on the field of battle. (Any student of guerrilla warfare also knows that destroying enemy forces in battle does not necessarily result in destroying the will to fight). Great generals recognize that destroying the enemy's military forces is not the objective, but a means. Most military leaders, however, confuse the means with the objective, so that their objective becomes that of meeting, fixing and destroying the enemy forces, even if that objective does not advance the overall objective of destroying the enemy's will to fight.

        Bevin provides numerous examples of this shortsightedness, ranging from Hannibal, who defeated the Romans repeatedly in battle but didn't break their will to fight, to Generals Grant and Lee of the American Civil War who recklessly threw their troops headlong into direct attacks on fortified positions, thereby destroying their own armies, to Napoleon, who did the same after becoming Emperor.

        He also illustrates his point with his experience as a young officer while serving in the Korean War and witnessing the battles of "Bloody Ridge" and "Heartbreak Ridge" where the American commander, Lt. Gen. James A. Van Fleet, ordered direct assaults on prepared positions. Van Fleet prevailed in each of those battles but, in Bevin's mind, he did not "win." Each of those ridges were taken at the cost of a significant number of American dead and wounded, and without obtaining any strategic gains--there were similar ridges with similar trenches and weapon emplacements beyond them.

        On the other side were generals like Scipio Africanus, "Stonewall" Jackson, and William Tecumseh Sherman who seemed to instinctively know that the way to defeat an enemy was not to attack him where strongest, but to strike where the enemy was most vulnerable and where defeat would dishearten the enemy's willingness to wage war. Scipio understood this tactic so, rather than confronting Hannibal directly, he understood that Rome needed to threaten Carthage. His attacks on Carthage did something that years of fighting in Italy had not: it forced Hannibal to withdraw from the Italian peninsula.

        Sherman's March through the heart of the Confederacy during the American Civil War is probably the greatest example of this concept. His campaign left a wide swath of destruction that not only destroyed factories, depots, and valuable crops needed by the Confederates to prosecute the war, but so demoralized the Confederacy that it lost the ability to fight.

        So, where am I going with all of this? It's just this. In defending ourselves or a loved one from an aggressor, the objective is to survive the violent confrontation, preferably unscathed; that is, to stop the attack. Where the option to retreat is unavailable--that is, we can't simply run away--self-defense often involves countervailing force of some sort. Obviously, the force needs to be enough to stop the attack--or, as Bevin might describe it, destroy the attacker's will to attack--which may require killing the attacker.

       The good news is that most people of the gun have moved past the stage of fire a shot or two and pausing to evaluate. We know that best practices, as demonstrated by numerous police and civilian shootings, is to use our weapon until the attacker stops.

       But, I fear that there is a tendency or mindset that we have to defeat the attacker or achieve victory over the attacker to accomplish our goal. That is, people of the gun (including some trainers) may substitute the method or means--defeat the attacker by force of arms--for the objective, which is to stop the attack. Going back to the military analogy, they seek to fix and destroy the "enemy forces" rather than destroying the enemy's will to fight.

       This may be a subtle distinction, but it has some important consequences. For instance, it is not uncommon to see video or read about instances where a criminal has broken off an assault and started to flee and the victim or some other defender will start chasing them! Why do they chase them? Because, in many cases, their objective has shifted to defeating the attacker rather than stopping the attack. The attack has stopped, but they feel the need to apprehend the criminal or put him down.

      Shooting at a fleeing criminal is probably the consequence of the same mindset--the goal has become to defeat the criminal rather than to stop the attack. Just a few days ago I discussed an incident where a homeowner heard his wife scream, came to the door to see a black youth running away, and still shot at the youth. That homeowner is facing criminal charges.

      Another instance where this pops up is a defender continuing his lethal force programming against a criminal that has already stopped attacking. A famous example of this is Bernhard Goetz, who, in 1984, shot four thugs attempting to mug him on a subway in New York. When the thugs attacked him, Goetz used his 5-round revolver to shoot, in turn, each of the thugs. And then, apparently because he still had one round left, he went back and shot the first of the thugs again although, by that point, they had arguably stopped their attack. Goetz was initially absolved of wrong doing as to the shooting by a grand jury (but not as to his possession of an unlicensed firearm), but the district attorney appealed the grand jury verdict. On appeal, the court held that Goetz's going back to shoot one of the suspects a second time after the attack had ended was enough to get past the grand jury and take the matter to trial. We saw another example of this recently in Florida when Michael Drejka fatally shot Markeis McGlockton after McGlockton had shoved him to the ground. If you remember the video of that incident, when Drejka first drew his weapon, McGlockton started to retreat, but, after a very slight pause, Drejka shot him. Drejka is facing charges of manslaughter as a result.

       In short, your objective in a self-defense situation is to stop or end the attack or the harm, not win the fight. You may need to win the fight to accomplish your objective, but the two are not the same.

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