Gunfighter Moment – Aaron Barruga

We Can Do Better At Training Leaders

One of the most important ass chewings I received in the military was at Robin Sage. During the final phase of tactical training in the Q-Course, I experienced a case of senioritis that impacted my performance. As the patrol leader for a routine ambush mission, I apathetically presented an operations order to my evaluating cadre. Because the ambush is the baseline for teaching military planning and tactics, Green Beret candidates are drilled to the point of exhaustion (and boredom) in the science of mission preparation and execution via ambushes. This familiarity led to a presentation in which I tried to demonstrate how confident I was by delivering a halfhearted mission briefing, classic “too kool for skool” behavior.

Critical to these briefings is the execution portion in which every element confirms its specific tasks with adjacent friendlies and the broader scheme of the operation. This requires precise detail so there is no confusion, but is unavoidably dry and boring in delivery. I thought I could speed through this section by using phrases such as “situation dependent” or “context will dictate”. The evaluating cadre let me get about halfway through before he cut me off.

Releasing a sigh, he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “STOP… Everything in life is situation dependent. Stop speaking in generalities like some bullshit chapter from Sun Zsu’s the ‘Art of War’. Everything about a combat operation is uncertain, that is why we attempt to be as precise as possible during planning” (this was an Army ass chewing, so there were of course a lot more expletives). I was kicked out of my own mission briefing and left to wonder if I had just failed the final phase of Special Forces training.

A few months later, I was on an ODA learning SF’s brand of CQB. During breaks, the other new guys and myself would debate the validity of the different CQB techniques being taught. This was ridiculous. The entire time we misused phrases such as “situation dependent” and “shooter’s preference”. We thought we were adding context to our arguments, but were instead failing to clarify our viewpoints. In reality, we didn’t need to have opinions, we needed to keep our mouths shut and learn. Unlike my use of vagueness in Robin Sage to demonstrate confidence, in the shoot house we failed to clarify our statements because we couldn’t substantiate our opinions with any real evidence or experience. This type of behavior is best described as the “contextual fallacy”.

There is nothing wrong with adding context by declaring “shooter’s preference” and “situation dependent”. For some instructors, it’s a passive habit developed through public speaking. However, there is a difference between framing a concept through contextual statements, versus hijacking these phrases so that we can weasel out of critical thinking. Although shades of grey exist in every situation, it is the job of instructors to clarify uncertainty. After all, you are paying them in part to do so. When they utilize the context fallacy, instructors typically get a pass because their non-committal stance is perceived as a zen-like state of mind. This appeal to authority fools the amatuer, inhibits the growth of the professional, and shifts the norms of the tactical community as a whole towards accepting mediocrity.

In fairness, it is exhausting to approach all new information through a lense of robust analysis. But if that information is gathered for the purpose of being utilized in tactical engagements, in which our lives or the lives of others will be put in danger, shouldn’t this signal a decrease in our willingness to dwell in uncertainty? The contextual fallacy also fools us when it is used to critique procedural rigidity and behavior that discourages adaptability. Yes, we must remain vulnerable to new concepts, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of declaring what we know to be more true than false. Wallowing in vagueness by proclaiming “context!” affords lukewarm arguments a safety net that deteriorates one of our most critical skills as tactical leaders, decisiveness.

Decisiveness does not imply a willingness to reject new information, and instead establishes a foundation that allows us to analyze new details. If we fail to take a stance, we can confuse good luck with good tactics, and jump to haphazard conclusions with incomplete data. We must always ask: what is the evidence, how good is the evidence, are there real world examples that disprove the evidence? Well rounded leaders ask these questions and do their best to falsify unvetted concepts. This does not always need to be a lengthy task, but it does require scholarship beyond browsing 15-second Instagram videos. Absent of this approach, we simply collect facts that can be contradictory, confusing, and catastrophic when used in real tactical engagements.

During battle, leaders must immediately recognize patterns under ambiguous and exigent circumstances. Acting with too little information can be dangerous (e.g. getting baited into a larger attack), but delaying action, when in fact recognizable patterns have occurred, is just as dangerous. Organizations that permit the contextual fallacy as an acceptable line of thinking will inevitably produce individuals that are incapable of assuming leadership during time sensitive operations or crisis management. In these situations, rarely will you possess the desired amount of information and resources; yet decisions still must be made and acted upon. This indicates the importance of promoting the development of decisiveness as a part of tactical learning. We do not create leaders capable of adapting to harsh environments by shortchanging them in training that discourages critical thinking.

But what kind of organization would willingly permit the context fallacy? Most typically do not, and the context fallacy is an undiagnosed cancer that goes unobserved until an agency participates in large-scale training exercises such as active shooter. This is best displayed when a team spends fifteen minutes running through a scenario, then fifty minutes arguing about how they should have attacked the problem. Although discourse should be encouraged, all opinions are not equal and hierarchies of knowledge must be enforced. Ignoring these truths ultimately fails to develop new recruits into potential leaders. Worse, if left unchecked in an organization’s culture, few individuals will be capable of differentiating between ideas that sound good versus ideas that are actually actionable.

The context fallacy is so seductive because it allows individuals to bargain way beyond their means and level of experience. Even better, the moment firm opposition arises, they can retreat back into obscurity with no consequences. This behavior is the antithesis of attaining knowledge because it doesn’t require any discipline, and more importantly, it doesn’t allow for failure. An individual simply observes what others are doing, stands on their shoulders to accomplish something, and then if he fails, he doesn’t take any of the responsibility for it. We must recognize that context frames a situation, but the context fallacy should not be used to bailout weak ideas and cherry-picked information.

Aaron Barruga is Special Forces veteran with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Theater of Operations. He has trained foreign commandos, police officers, and militia fighters. He is the founder at Guerrilla Approach LLC, where he consults law enforcement officers on counter-terrorism and vehicle tactics.

Gunfighter Moment is a weekly feature brought to you by Bravo Company USA. Bravo Company is home of the Gunfighters, and each week they bring us a different trainer to offer some words of wisdom.

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28 Responses to “Gunfighter Moment – Aaron Barruga”

  1. cashcow says:

    I don’t comment on SSD very much…mostly here to learn and absorb info.

    But this is some AWESOME shit, and a great way to start my weekend with some deep introspective thinking. For me currently…it’s not in the application of violence, as I am not in that position anymore. But I find it holds true in the medical field as well…especially trauma medicine/TCCC.

    Thank you Mr. Barruga, and SSD for hosting the info.

    • Awesome shit is a huge part of 2017’s business strategy 😀 Thanks man!

      • AlexC says:

        I really appreciate how you highlight your mistakes and failures during your career. Everyone in the military has made mistakes, most have learned from them and become better individuals and soldiers, but few talk about them, share them, or teach them.

  2. miclo18d says:

    On point as usual Aaron! Very good “context” 😉


  3. Bill says:

    Probably the most cogent, insightful column I’ve read here. If you haven’t written a book, please start, now.

    I hate the phrase “police science” and believe that it is as much an art & craft as anything, but nor matter how much flexibility we have in dealing with any given situation, there has to be some hard and fast bright lines that we don’t shortcut.

    • In all honesty, would you guys read a book? Or do people just want digital video content?

      • I hate the trend towards videos. I’d rather read an article and be able to pour over it than watch some dude spending 45 minutes talking about nonsense.

        Sometimes you need videos to explain movements and concepts. Most of the time these days it’s dudes jacking their jaws so they can get off on hearing themselves talk.

      • Bill says:

        For material aimed at cognition like this, a book is the route to take. I’m sitting next to a can of page markers and highlighters.

        Video has it’s place in psychomotor skills training, but watching a video or webcast of someone lecturing is slow death.

      • Mr.E.G. says:

        Book, please. We get a lot of guest commentators on this site and others, but quite frankly, they’re not strong writers. You are a damned good writer, so it would be a shame for you to not put your thoughts into print.

        In fact, I can tell you what I would love to read about. I would like a good book about the basics of combat fighting. I’d like it to cover general small group strategy and tactics, explore a variety of terrains and scenarios, have drawings, and break it down by role.

        For instance, “Here’s how I would recommend a group of five guys storm an apartment complex.” And I’d strongly prefer that it not include phrases like, “Call in air support,” or, “use your laser designator.” Haha. I’m sure that helicopter exfiltrations are a normal part of being a Delta Seal Ranger, but I just want to learn practical things that I could put to use should North Korea invade or at my local laser tag facility.

        In other words, whether I want to be a ninja or a racecar driver, there are all manner of books at my disposal tell me how to do it right. They would tell me things like how to scale a wall or how to execute a proper late apex maneuver in a hairpin turn. But the more detailed versions of these books would go so great as to give a turn-by-turn guide of some specific track. That’s where the magic is at, and the tactical world needs something along those lines.

        The reason I want this is because I’m a civilian who wants to be able to hold my own along with the best of them. I have no practical need to know these things other than a desire for self improvement. And, sure, I’ve taken more than a few training sessions, which have taught me how to engage a target (or a few), change magazines, shoot from behind cover, shoot on the move, transition between different weapons, scan for and identify threats, etc., and I’d be bold enough to say that I’m fairly decent at these things. But I still have no idea how to do this stuff in conjunction with other people. I don’t know how you decide which guy each memeber of your team shoots at when you approach an opposing group. When you’re moving down a street in an urban environment, do you walk down the middle and have different members of your group scan a different area or do you hug a wall? When you’re going from room to room in a house, is your gun raised and you’ve got a good cheek weld on or do you keep the muzzle pointed down so no one grabs it when you go around corners.

        Lastly, I want to know what someone who is legitimately skilled (like you are) would do in these scenarios. I’ve read several Mossad Ayoob books and the like, but they’re all too focused on not proclaiming themselves the undisputed masters of shooting and/or concerned about stepping on the toes of other experts who advocate for different styles. I get it, there is more than one technique for basically anything one could do with a gun. But I want to know what technique you would actually use when your butt is on the line. A lot of these experts and teachers seem to forget that some of us won’t have opportunities to try all the preferred methods. Instead, we benefit more from someone just saying, “This is what I do.” That gives us a fixed target that we can train toward.

        If you can do all that with video, I’ll buy it right now. But it seems more practical to put all that into a book unless you’ve got a ton of money to burn.

  4. JKATX says:

    One of the best posts on SSD thus far. Thanks for sharing with us, Aaron.

  5. 907Ryan says:

    Definitely write a book. It’s easier for some, me included, to retain more information. Great information! Thank you

  6. bloke_from_ohio says:

    I like it. I wish I had more instructors/mentors like your cadre. To hell with all the other reasons to be jealous of SOF guys, you all get some really awesome training and have some really awesome trainers!

  7. AlexC says:

    I second the idea of reading a book. Magpul kick-started the tactical video industry, but most education courses have had books as reference material and background knowledge fill in.

  8. Marcus says:

    In the end the most important weapon is the mind. This type of cogitation proves it.

    You can never engage in too much critical thinking. It helps you work through the previously unworkable or sometimes unanticipated. This type of preparation is not discussed enough, and in the end leaves us less prepared. So does the contextual fallacy bear trap.

    Thanks for posting this and I look forward to more.

  9. Tech says:

    The biggest struggle I have against the contextual fallacy while instructing are the ever present questions “what if…” And “how can I when the SOP I’m required to follow says I always have to ?”

    what I always turn to is a conversation about COL Boyd’s OODA loop, which if you have not heard of, I highly suggest researching. The meat of it though, is that what the situation “dictates” is not the solution but the problem, and what needs to be taught in the classroom is how to analyze that problem and develop appropriate courses of action.

    I am also fond of pointing out that a mediocre plan executed violently is almost always better than figuring out the best thing to do 10 minutes too late.

  10. Terry Baldwin says:


    Well said and spot on as always. Thanks!


  11. JKifer says:

    Good stuff and sadly too true, always look forward to your posts on SSD.. oh and your VCQB video was awesome, thanks for the work you put into that, maybe one day i’ll be able to make it out to one of your classes..

  12. xpoqx says:

    Thank you Mr Barruga for consistently delivering qualitity content, not everyone in your posistion is putting as much thought into these segments.

  13. Dellis says:

    Instead of “book” OR “video” why can’t it be “both”?

    It’s difficult to demonstrate “thought” in a video although in written format it can be expressed just as nicely, if not better than in video. I would rather read about the “thought” of something rather than watching someone talk about it.

    Likewise reading about “action”, as in technique is not the same as watching someone not only perform that technique or action but also watch them as they break it down.

    I hate the trend in many videos now that are all about making someone into a celebrity and not an educated instructor, no matter the content. I deal with that in my profession and hell I am just polishing cars!

    Great article, in fact I have read it twice as there’s a lot to digest .

  14. RES says:

    I have been a “long” time reader and admirer of SSD for it’s content and for articles such as this. I rarely sign up to websites but I do so now with a multifaceted approach, one of which I have just written and another is to comment on this article. Aaron Barruga, I am not Military or LE but have association with them in the work that I do. I have a small company orientated around human development and behavior that progresses great leadership, self-awareness and excellence in habit forming discipline, and I have to say that this is the best article in leadership and self-awareness that I have read! The specificity and nuance that you have written this article with is bar none. Thank you for this. I will use elements of this article in my conferences and counseling, as sited by you, to progress my values and philosophy in the work that I do. I have not met you but would be interested in reading further articles or books or listen to a conference you may be involved with.