Never throw the first punch and Fire only if fired upon are two pieces of pseudo-tactical advice thrown out so often that people now merely parrot the phrases without ever thinking about what they mean. When examined at the most basic level the advice is often given by those who will not actually be involved in the anticipated conflict. Parents tell their kids "never throw the first punch" and Military Officers issue orders for their troops to "fire only if fired upon".
In both of the previous examples, the parent or the military officer, neither party is likely to be in actual physical jeopardy when their advice is applied. Nonetheless, telling others to exercise restraint, even to the point of putting them in harm's way, is on the face both reasonable and civilized. You see, in a perfect world where the first punch doesn't maim you and the first incoming rounds don't kill you, exercising restraint puts one on the moral high ground. But, is this strategy valid or does it simply embolden and enable the aggressors?
The Shield and the Sword
"The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental." That is one of my favorite quotes from renowned American author John Steinbeck Jr. and one I have related innumerable times during training courses.
In those few sentences, Steinbeck sums up the basic mental strategy of combat whether with a fist, a sword, or a gun. As simple and straightforward as it may seem, Mr. Steinbeck's uncomplicated advice is lost on far too many that would issue orders and or give instructions for dealing with conflict.
No soldier would go to war with only a shield in their hands. No matter how stout the shield, the enemy would eventually overwhelm it. With the shield defeated and no sword in hand the soldier would have no options but defeat and failure.
Several years ago I was hired by a mid-sized hospital to run their security department. The hospital administration had budgeted for soft-body armor to issue the guard personnel. Whether by conscious or unconscious admission, they had acknowledged the fact that security personnel were indeed at risk of injury and death by an assailant armed with a firearm. Conversely, the administration had written very specific language that security personnel were "forbidden" to possess any type of "weapon" up to and including firearms.
First of all, for the uninitiated, hospitals, particularly Emergency Departments, are dangerous places. Hospitals rank at the top of places of businesses where workplace violence is prevalent. By issuing the security personnel soft body-armor but forbidding any type of tool or weapon, the hospital administration apparently expected the guards to simply absorb all of the offending bullets until the attacker ran out or got bored. I mention the previous example not because it is an anomaly, but rather because that kind of short-sighted, feel-good thinking is all too prevalent.
This same hospital administration asked me to teach personal defense techniques to the staff with the caveat that they must be "...only defensive, you cannot teach them anything that might hurt someone." I respectfully declined the offer.
The thought process of today's civilized American is that defense is acceptable and moral, but anything overt, proactive, or an action that is deemed "offensive" is unacceptable, immoral, and all around "bad". Of course, this flies in the face of reality.
First Punch Failure
Going back to the "never throw the first punch" advice, we are assuming that the first punch thrown isn't going to knock you senseless, unconscious, break your jaw or nose. As a fighting strategy, I would NOT recommend giving Chuck Liddell the first punch in a fight. MMA fighters aside, neither would I recommend letting the 250 pound belligerent drunk punch you first before you decide to act. That first punch might be the last and only one they need to deliver.
The idea or advice that you should never draw your gun unless you know you are going to shoot is still floating around out there. This advice causes the person in danger to move far too slowly when dealing with a threat and also makes them pause and second guess themselves. Both of these issues can prove fatal in a fast moving violent attack.
The folly of "only fire if fired upon" is that it assumes the person(s) shooting at you is (are) incompetent or will deliberately miss you as a gesture of fair play. It only takes one, single bullet to ruin your day and life. Unless you are the Captain of a battleship, letting the enemy fire first is a bit more risk than I'd rather take.
Translated Mental Attitude
While you may never be in a position to either throw the first or second punch or return fire, the mental attitude that defense is acceptable, but proactive action is wrong still pervades, even in the subconscious.
The lawful citizen, those with families and careers and reputations to uphold, will cling to the strategy of defense as their default for all matters or problems they encounter, not just physical combat. These 'civilized' and 'enlightened' people when faced with troubles and threats, rather than moving forward to deal with them will step back and take the defensive pose.
Consider this, when our ancestors' live-stock was threatened by wolves they went out to find the wolves and killed them. They didn't bar the doors in a vain hope that the wolves would get bored and go away. They took action because action was the appropriate response.
In our modern, enlightened society, rather than band together and hunt down the wolves in a most proactive way, most of your friends and neighbors would do just the opposite. They would try to hide from the wolf. Many would go so far as to kill the weakest of their calves and leave it as an offering for the wolf thinking that it would appreciate the gift and go away. But the wolf doesn't appreciate weakness or sacrifices. The wolf won't get bored and leave. Quite the contrary, when faced with no opposition the wolf becomes emboldened. The wolf invites other wolves to join him.
The Failure of the Defensive Mindset
While the shield is indeed a tool of defense and one that has some use, you cannot rely upon it exclusively. A professional boxer may have the best guard in the business but unless he throws a punch now and then his guard will eventually be worn down and even a mediocre fighter can defeat him. The greatest Defense in the NFL is of little use if the Offense cannot put points on the board.
The defensive strategy is merely a stop-gap. A strong defense is put up to give a person time to unleash their offense. When you choose defense as your only option it becomes a recipe for eventual but certain failure. The "Defense Only" ideology put the defender in a constant state of reaction versus action. From a completely practical standpoint, the defender by definition is constantly in a reactive mode and at a distinct disadvantage.
Many citizens look out at the landscape of this nation and wonder how it has come to this sad state. How is it that we are constantly losing ground in the fight of good versus evil? When faced with the pressing problems of the modern world, one can put up their shield and hide in their castle. However, given enough time, the enemy will eventually defeat the shield and breech the castle walls.
When is the time for an offensive strategy? Only you can answer that for yourself. However, first you must truly have a proactive mindset to put an offensive strategy in motion. If you, like so many others, have bought into the defense is good/offense is bad mentality, your doom and defeat are eminent.
Paul Markel © 2013
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