Tactical Patience: Let the battle develop

The Thick of It

About 2/3 through my first deployment to Iraq, my unit went to the middle of the desert somewhere outside of Baghdad to train. It seemed really stupid at the time. We were literally deployed to a war, and to most of the junior soldiers (myself included) the fact that we had been a part of the initial invasion validated us as permanently trained. Training while at war just didn’t seem to make much sense.

As a junior NCO, I thought I knew everything there was to know about being a good tactical leader.

Looking back at it now, I realize just how much I didn’t know. And training while at war  is much more understandable.

As part of the training, we did a live fire training exercise that consisted of a squad attack on a bunker. Our weapons squad was attached, so they’d be using their machine guns to help. At the time, I didn’t really understand how my fire team fit into the bigger picture. I thought that if I could shoot, and my guys could shoot, and we could perform our tasks violently and aggressively, we’d be successful and win.

During the attack, the weapons squad opened up fire on the bunker and my squad leader released me to flank to one of the sides with my team. I’d call the shift fire and lift fire, and then we’d assault the bunker.

I moved quickly and made the calls. The firing stopped, my team rushed the bunker and we knocked out the bunker.

Within a few moments, ENDEX was called. I was pleased with how aggressively and violently we’d moved. We took the bunker quickly and it felt like a success.

In the AAR, the main topic of discussion was why we didn’t let the weapons squad fire up the bunker more.

“Who called the shift and lift fire?”

“I did,” I responded, confidently.

“Why didn’t you let the weapons squad fire more?”

“Uh, I figured it was better to knock out the bunker faster. Shock value, before the enemy knew what was going on.”

“Ok. Good initiative, but bad judgement. You have to have tactical patience. Let the weapons squad prep the objective a little bit beforehand. Don’t just rush the bunker. Let the battle develop.”

That was the first time I had heard the phrase “tactical patience” or “let the battle develop.” During a firefight, there is a tendency to want to move quickly and get things done in a hurry. The chaos, noise, and energy elevates your heart rate, and the fear and physical exertion pushes the action. For leaders who have to make important life and death decisions under these conditions, exercising “tactical patience” can mean the difference between life and death, success or failure.

Tactical patience is simply taking a moment before making an important decision to confirm that it actually is what you want to do. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do in practice.

In the example above, I would have exercised tactical patience if I understood how effective the weapons squad could be in degrading the bunker and felt more comfortable sitting there, waiting, while the bullets flew and noise filled my ears. In those moments, seconds feel like minutes. For the calm observer behind us, watching, he sees a much different picture. Because he isn’t “in” the fight, he’s able to assess from a removed position. A good leader is able to exercise that level of detachment while being in the fight himself – something that comes from a high level of self-awareness and experience.

While tactical patience obviously has great applicability in the military, I’ve found it useful in a number of situations outside its original intended scope. I try to exercise tactical patience before making a major purchase, for example. Something that I’m just about certain I want to buy one moment becomes suddenly less desirable if I’m able to resist the urge for just a day or two. When it comes to writing, I’m often tempted to “just post it” when I get done with the first draft. It seems good enough, after all. When I’m able to resist that urge and show some tactical patience, I find that upon second look I’ll often make some significant edits before publishing.

In college, I had a professor who was a former foreign service officer. He spoke about the constant writing he did as part of his routine duties. For most of his peers, their first draft was their final draft. He strongly encouraged us to start writing early – just get something down – and slowly polish it and grind it out as time goes on. Resist the urge, he pushed, to give a great first effort and submit. Rather, get it down, save it as a draft, and come back to it later. In time, ideas and input that may have not been evident initially might present themselves. Let the battle develop.

Conversely, if tactical patience is misapplied, you might find yourself in a position where you didn’t move quickly enough, or you may appear to be dithering. The same goes with “letting the battle develop.”

Exercising tactical patience and letting the battle develop are two little Army-isms that have helped me get along, both in the military and out of it. With practice, experience, and confidence, they can be used to great effect in regular life.

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