veterans

The Art of Aggression

A few weeks ago, I sat down to do a podcast with retired SEAL, fellow writer and friend Andy Stumpf. He asked me a good question. And I gave him an ok answer. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since and I feel like I left a lot on the table. I write answers to questions like the one he asked a lot better than I say them. So I thought I’d give myself a second chance at it. Because it’s the most important thing I ever learned. 

I spent 11 of the 15 years I served as a Naval Officer in operational and leadership roles in the Naval Special Warfare Community, the home of the SEALS and Boat Guys (SWCC). I was neither. How and why that happened is a long story. But I think I can sum it up fairly by saying that I added value to the mission. If I hadn’t, they wouldn’t have kept me around. And they wouldn’t have trusted me with the things they trusted me with.

So when Andy asked me, what my take away from my time in “Spec War” was and I told him that it was the power of always staying in the fight, I meant it. But I couldn’t put into words, on the spot, exactly what I meant by that. So I need to unpack it a bit.

It’s fair to start with a disclaimer. No one is making a movie of my life and times in that community. At least not an honest one. You might make one of what I saw though. The perspective from which I saw it, as an outsider, removed enough from the full blooded frog men, yet close enough to operate, was unique.

When I found myself in their world for the first time, it was like I’d woken up on a different planet with different people. They looked like me. But they weren’t. Most of them will humbly tell you that they’re just like anyone else, with some more training. And that the lessons they learned can be applied to just about any walk of life. The latter of those statements is true. The former is not. And what I had to normalize, as someone who came from the outside and was expected to keep up, is the point of all of it. It was the thing I never saw anywhere else before or since.

It was the art of aggression.

The first thing that strikes you when you see a seasoned platoon moving through the “kill house” doing live fire close quarters combat training or scaling a thirty foot caving ladder up the side of a ship, is the speed at which the team moves. There’s rarely an unintended pause. The pace and proximity to lethal forces is startling relative to even other seasoned military combat elements. It requires precision, the type of precision that comes with thousands of repetitions of highly dynamic evolutions. It’s actually not the speed and the precision that’s the art though. You could pull people off the street and if you run them through enough repetitions of something and they’ll get closer than you think to what you saw the pros do. I know, they did it with me more than once. The art of it is something different.

The art is what happens when it goes wrong.

The first time I saw it, I watched a first deployment SEAL fall from halfway up a thirty-foot ladder his team had hoisted over the side of an 800-foot long tanker from the small boat I commanded. He fell straight down with a hundred pounds of gear on him and bounced about a foot off the the platform that covered our engines. By the time I’d gotten my headset unhooked and jumped over my seat to tend to what I was sure was a seriously injured operator, he was already three steps back up the ladder.

I looked around at the rest of the platoon. No big deal.

A few weeks later, I would run that same boat onto the rocks at an island a hundred miles from the mainland on a training operation inserting that same platoon onto the beach. I reached for the radio to call for help. My leading petty officer snapped it from me, huddled the rest of my guys and got to work on the problem. 30 minutes later, when we’d gotten that 14,000-pound boat afloat again, in time to pull the platoon off the beach, he shrugged and smiled.

No big deal.

The next day, as we were walking down to my skipper’s office to give him the details of my “screw up”, my chief looked at me. He could tell I was scared as hell.

“Things are gonna get way more fucked than that LT. I promise. You’re either ok with that or you’re not.”

And he was right. Over the years as I left the boat missions and got into the jungle and the desert on others with different men of the same flavor, one thing was the same. Time and time again, I’d watched my team, and the teams around me get themselves into and out of the worst deepest, darkest holes imaginable. Something always went wrong. For every perfectly executed mission, there was at least one where it went completely sideways. And every time, we got to work on the problem. And every time, we got out of it.

You see it once, and it scares you. You see it again and it does a little less. And then you come to expect it. And then you realize, that what makes this whole thing work is the acknowledgement of the size of the hole you’re willing to crawl out of when the best laid plans go to waste. And that’s the art of it.

The art of aggression is the confidence that when whatever important and difficult thing that you have to do turns into a gun fight, you’ve surrounded yourself with operators you’ve got to kill to stop.

The art of aggression isn’t force or speed or precision. It’s resilience. The important things that we’ll do in this life are riddled with things that could and will go wrong. If you stack them in a pile and place them in your path as obstacles, you’ll never start the journey. And you’ll find it’s best to stick to easy things. And you’ll live the life that goes with them.

But if you welcome that resistance as something you believe you’ve put in the time and preparation to overcome, you’ll find, you start to believe you can do just about anything. And then, you can live a life full of the sweet art of aggression, full of hard and important things.

That’s what living life never out of the fight means.

And that’s the point. Isn’t it?

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7 replies »

  1. That IS the point. Nothing good comes easy. Especially (but not exclusively!) these days.

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  2. This essay thrilled me. I have never been in, nor trained for combat. But, I am a woman alone in a society that does not judge me by the content of my character. Yet, I am a person with a resolute and resilient nature. Here is what I have learned from a lifetime of making choices from that perspective: there is joy in attaining “the art of aggression” and that is what makes any effort, and the accompanying cost, more than worth it.

    There is no direct comparison, of course. I am not a military warrior. But, I think there are commonalities and you have so wonderfully described what I have felt in relativity. Thank you!

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    • Noreen, I think there’s an excellent and direct comparison. As I read the blog, I thought immediately of the many strong women I know who – like you – have had to “persist” in the face of long odds.

      “Toujuors l’Audace!”

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  3. Really well-said. When I went trough the SFQC ( US Army Special Forces Qualification Course) in 1979, the best advice I got from an “old guy” who’d sort of adopted me as a mentor was, “Don’t ever quit; don’t ever slow down; and don’t ever give up on even the littlest thing.”

    Thanks for the effort to put your excellent thoughts into words.

    de opresso libre

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  4. Hey Sean, this is such an inspiring piece. It should be read by anyone trying to achieve anything worthwhile in life of business. To become a millionaire, preparation is important, but its about how you handle the unexpected – what an art! You certainly put it well this time around. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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