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One Knife Away

During the opening of One Bullet Away, a Captain explains to Nathaniel Fick the nature of Marine combat:

"Your mindset's all wrong! No good tactical plan grows from a timid mindset...Execute every mission with speed, surprise and violence of action.

"He explained that Americans, especially young American men, exhibit posturing behavior. Two guys in a bar bump chests, get up in each other’s faces, and yell. If a fight follows, it’s about honor, saving face. That’s posturing. Marines on the battlefield must exhibit predatory behavior. In that bar, a predator would smile politely at his opponent, wait for him to turn around, and then cave in the back of his skull with a bar stool."
            -- One Bullet Away, pg. 49

Tactically, the original principle makes sense: move quickly, and destroy your opponent as efficiently as possible. But the example doesn’t illustrate that principle, it illustrates another: attack first, deceive, and use disproportionate force. This second principle is morally dubious.

We've explained why disproportionate violence doesn't work, morally or tactically, here at On Violence and on a guest-post for Permissible Arms. But twenty minutes after I first read this story, it hit me on a more visceral level. I remembered the death of a friend.

Two assailants, one an ex-soldier, stabbed my friend, a bouncer, and he bled to death waiting for an ambulance. The story is almost the exact same, but with a knife instead of a bar stool.

Death is real. I’m losing my tolerance for hyperbole like “cave his head in.” That is someone’s head. It seems like a cute euphemism, until you think about it. We take Violence for granted. Take the Marine Captain in the beginning. He was training Fick in the pre-9/11 Marine Corp; most likely he'd never seen combat. For him, Violence is something abstract, not a real world phenomena.

The worst part of this is that pre-9/11 training like is exactly what we didn't need for the complex counter-insurgency wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. We'll never win a counter-insurgency war with this mind-set.

And at least one soldier took his training back with him into the civilian world.

ten comments

I think you need to sharpen your point a bit. Obviously the example posited by the Marine captain in Fick’s book fails on several levels, demonstrating once again that one must be careful when using metaphors, especially when crossing the significant normative divide between a barroom fight and war, whether conventional or irregular.

While in a barroom fight, it may well be that to “attack first, deceive, and use disproportionate force” are inappropriate as well as perhaps illegal. When extrapolating from this environment to warfare, however, that is not necessarily so.

“Attacking first” may well be appropriate in warfare (such as in a case where your enemy displays hostile intent of an imminent attack etc.). “Deception” (as long as it is not perfidy) is also a recognized and permitted aspect of war. “Disproportionate force” may also be appropriate where there is not reasonable risk to noncombatants that requires a proportionality analysis. Indeed, absent such a threat to non-combatants, there is no legal or ethical requirement to modulate the type and degree of force used against your enemy.

The only applicable “restraints” are the principle of war of “economy of force” (e.g., why waste an expensive artillery shell to kill an individual soldier you can kill with a rifle bullet etc.) and other factors that might militate against disproportionate force in a given situation (e.g., it may have unintended consequences of discouraging similar restraint of ones enemy or otherwise affecting the strategic or tactical “mission.”


@ Jumpin Jarhead – Attack first and Disproportionate force violate the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello of Just War Theory, which I ascribe to.

“there is no legal or ethical requirement to modulate the type and degree of force used against your enemy.” There most certainly is. First, Geneva convention regulate warfare (hollow point bullets, treatment of prisoners, etc) and ethical considerations guide our actions. Just because you can kill every enemy Soldier, doesn’t mean you should. You mention at least three in your next paragraph.


The link to just war theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_War#Criteria_of_Just_War_theory


It depends to a great extent on who you read (the ICRC or other NGOs may interpret the same history and principles far differently than a nation’s own lawyers etc.) and what time period is involved as to whether these are or are not considered normative either philosophically, theologically or legally.

For example, if you look at the period before 1945 there is less support for attacking “first” but since that time, due in large part to the development of weapons of mass destruction, the concept of self defense including the right to act before an actual attack occurs has been undergoing considerable flux. Obviously, this poses nice questions of line drawing as we saw in the extension of this concept to “pre-emptive” self defense or as was formerly terms “defense against a continuing threat, that the US used to justify its attack on Libya following the bombing of a disco in Germany that was traced to Libya. Much of this development (and it must be understood that international law and subset of the law of war (jus ad bellum and jus in bello) is not “etched in stone” in all respects but also develops over time as means and methods of warfare change as well as the larger perspectives on the use of “war” to resolve disputes) has occurred also because the law of war must also be “practical” and “realistic.”

This is so because if it is not, for example if it would require a nation to effectively commit international suicide rather than defend itself (many consider the right of self defense to be an innate human right that cannot be take away either nationally or individually), eventually no nation will even try to observe it as it becomes less and less relevant to the “real world.” That is one reason why the norm seemingly clearly stated in Article 51 of the UN Charter has been interpreted so broadly since 1945 since the Article was written with the previous type of warfare in mind as fought in WWII and not as it has morphed with the advent of various types of WMDs that can be launched intercontinentally and with very little warning or meaningful ability to defend against once launched.

As a consequence, to read Grotius, Vattel et al. without allowing the principles they originally espoused to be adapted to warfare as it has developed and the changing world order of nation state relations can lead misleading conclusions about what is or is not now allowed under the law of war.


@ Jumpin Jarhead – I have a number of responses.

1. Well, I totally disagree with your point. Pre-emptive attacks are morally wrong. They were before 1945, they are now.

2. America’s first “pre-emptive” war was a disaster, tactically, strategically and, most of all, morally. I’d think after the IRaq war we’d be able to put this one to rest.

3. And the post-1945 time period has nothing to do with it. Just War theory makes allowances for troops amassing on one’s borders, in this case, the mythical “inter-continental nuclear missile” is the equivalent to a troop on a border.

4. You use the phrase “would require a nation to effectively commit international suicide rather than defend itself” This is wrong. No nation’s existence has yet been threatened by terrorists with WMDs. The amount of people who die from terrorism each year is minuscule. John McCain used to mention “an existential threat.” Let’s make it clear: America’s “existence” hasn’t been threatened since 1942.

5. Perhaps you meant superpowers threaten each other with WMD’s. Then your statement needs to be reversed: For a nation to defend itself requires international suicide.

6. Of course the law should change over time. This is why I, and I assume you, reject constitutional originalism. The law needs to adapt over time. Our society is radically different than that of our fore-fathers, our laws should be as well.

6. I’m not here to talk about the law, but about the morally right thing to do. That doesn’t change over time. Example: Post-9/11 people argued times had changed and torture/privacy rights/premptive war were morally justified. They were wrong. People too easily decide that their era is somehow special, and their relation to morals is as well. People are way too quick to change long-standing beliefs because of short-sightedness. Water-boarding was considered a war crime in 1944, but today it is morally justified? Insane.

7. Back to the inter-continental ballistic missile. Is a country owning one justification for war? If it is, should we invade Israel? Ok, Israel is an ally. What about Pakistan, should we invade them? Is it Ok for another country to invade another because they have nuclear weapons?

8. The underlying principles of just war, and basically morality, remain the same. Nothing has happened to change that.


I think the primary issue with the hypothetical isn’t the principle as it is applied to warfare, which clearly Eric C and Jumpinjarhead are on two different sides, but the way in which one Marine used it in civilian interactions.

And this is the key for counter-insurgencies and other irregular wars. The high-intensity mindset, where attacking first occurs on a regular basis-essentially the Marine ambushed the civilian in the story and the Marine Capt. was advocating ambushing your enemy-just doesn’t filter over to irregular warfare.

As for deception, again the laws of war go both ways on this. Units regularly try to deceive their enemy with guile, but Soldiers wearing the other country’s uniform in WWII were executed on the spot.


That quote above about predatory behavior makes more and more sense as I considered it. A predator would wait for a moment of weakness and strike with precise force. It’s the nature of a predator. They hunt. Not every soldier is a predator. Nor can the character of every soldier be generalized. But predators are necessary in the scheme of warfare. Whether they can stop being predators at home is a whole other topic.

Morality does not shift simply due to era or circumstance. Eric’s point about torture was apt. Simply because slavery was regarded as an allowed practice at one point in history, that does not mean it was ever moral or right, though men of that era certainly attempted to justify the practice.

While I do not share Eric’s moral rigidity toward preemptive attacks or the art of deception, I agree that disproportionate force is morally questionable. Bring a knife to a fist fight is wrong.


We are not on 2 different sides to my knowledge. It appears Eric is observing this from a “moral” perspective while I am rather (and I think if you research it you will see correctly) a “legal” perspective (that to some extent is based on at least some of the “moral” principles”).

I also note that some posters continue to make the same mistake I noted in the Marine captain’s metaphorical justification. (bringing a “knife to a fist fight” etc.) As I previously noted, while such comparisons may be clever, they are not apt and can lead one to the wrong conclusions about the law of war that exists and operates in the real world. We can debate the “morality” ad nauseam but we also need to recognize that such a debate does not change the “rules” as they are and intellectual honesty it seems to me requires that we distinguish between the two when critiquing real world situations.


I think you make an interesting distinction between what is legal and what is moral. Some thoughts:

1. What is immoral is not nessecarily illegal. I get irked when people say “I have the right to say x” confusing freedom of speech with basic decency. Just because I can call an old grandmother a c***, or a motherf***** doesn’t mean I should.

2. What is legal for soldiers is def. not what is legal for civs. Ex. It is illegal to kill vertebrate mammals in ca, while it is required in a warzone.

3. It is interesting because as a guiding moral principle, I don’t like attacking first, and I hate preemptive warfare. My original draft included a political conclusion, and Michael c told me not to go in that direction.it is interesting, because I think it has to go there.

I hope my tone hasn’t been too abrasive, politics gets me fired up.


My friend after 34 years as a Marine and now (too many) as an apparently lone conservative (though non partisan) in academe your tone is not the least off-putting. In point of fact, I agree with your points from a moral (and for me Christian) standpoint but it is important in discussions of such grave matters as war to make appropriate distinctions between what is moral (and perhaps what we would like the world to be) and what is “legal” (though not necessarily the “smart” thing to do).

I also would note that those posters who are trying to distinguish between “war” and counterinsurgency or other forms of “irregular war” or perhaps more appropriately a now-disused term of “operations other than war” should be careful to distinguish what I think they mean from what is “legal” under the law of war. I assume the distinction they are trying to make has to do with the different strategic and tactical considerations inherent in irregular warfare rather than the over-arching legal regime that applies. Except in certain very narrow aspects, the law of war (and certainly as it relates to the US military in terms of what they are trained and the standards to which they are held accountable under the UCMJ) applies to any armed conflict regardless of whether it is “regular” or not.