As Fierce Gentleman readers know, I read as much as possible. One of the most interesting (and useful) books I’ve read lately is Left of Bang: How the Marines’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life (not an affiliate link). The book is written by Patrick Van Horne, a former Marine officer, and Jason A. Riley, a Major in the Marine Corps Reserve.
I reached out to Patrick Van Horne to discuss the findings in the book, and he was gracious enough to spend some time discussing the book and its’ message with me, which I now proudly share with you.
FG: Thank you very much for taking some time to chat with me.
Patrick Van Horne: Thanks for having me on.
FG: So just in case you haven’t read the book, Patrick was active duty in the Marine Corps for 7 years, deployed to Iraq twice, progressed to the rank of Captain, Platoon Commander and Company Executive Officer with Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, Fourth Marines. I’ll ask you a little bit more about how Combat Hunter came about, but first of all, thank you very much for your service, and what you did for our country — but now, you are in charge of the CP Journal, a veteran-owned small business, and you guys do training for military, law enforcement, and private security and behavioral analysis.
PVH: Yes sir.
FG: So if I could just start with maybe a little bit of a preview of what the book is about. The book is really about situational awareness. Even if you’re not in law enforcement, if you’re a civilian, just as a man in the world, if you want to be confident, you need to have almost a Spidey-sense of what is happening around you, so you’re not blindsided by something. If I’m walking with a girlfriend or a partner, I always want to feel like I can detour us around any potentially dangerous situations and that I have some level of control. And I think for a lot of men that’s one of the biggest fears, is not being able to protect those loved ones. So I was really intrigued by the book and the whole concept of Combat Hunter and so I would love if you would give us a little bit of an overview of how this concept of Combat Hunter come to be?
PVH: Absolutely. So you talk about things like being confident enough to protect yourself, and the people you’re with… one of the things we find talking to people is that there is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. There’s the risk of active shooters, and there’s risk of terrorism, and there’s strained race relationships and there’s income divide and there’s a lot of frustration and tension that’s out there. When we start to talk about situational awareness, the reason we talk about it is just to start to remove some of that uncertainty. So you can be in a situation where you can feel confident that yes, there’s nothing happening around me that should make me feel concerned, or should lead me to get out of this area, and at the same time, when you see something that doesn’t make sense, to be confident in taking action, whether that’s just getting out of the area, calling for help, or letting someone else know. So by looking at situational awareness in the way that we’ll talk about, really the goal is confidence, and just understanding your situation more specifically, so you can take a little more clear actions, and not have to second-guess yourself.
Combat Hunter was a course that was created in 2007 in the Marines. And the cause for the Combat Hunter course really goes back to the beginning of the war in Iraq, in 2003. When the American military stepped off on Operation Iraqi Freedom, we moved farther, we moved faster, we took fewer casualties during the push to Baghdad in 21 days than any other military has ever done throughout history, and really showed the world how incredibly our military could be, when we leveraged our advanced technology, when we leveraged our advanced equipment.
In response to that, the insurgents learned very quickly that if they wanted to completely defeat that advantage, all they had to do was take off their uniforms, bleed back in with the rest of the population, and by doing that they could completely hide from us until it was too late. They could choose the time and place of their attacks. And the Combat Hunter course was really designed to defeat that one very specific advantage, of how we look at a crowded marketplace, or how do you look at the people you’re talking to, or how do you look at your surroundings to identify that attacker, before the actual event begins.
FG: That’s fantastic and I just have — this is obviously a low-level version — but I had a little experience working in nightclubs. One of the things we learned is, you can stop a fight before it starts if you learn to recognize some signs of people that are starting to get in an argument. I just love that concept, and it’s perfectly captured in the title of the book, “Left of Bang.” Tell us, what does it mean to be “Left of Bang”?
PVH: So if you were to think about whatever event you want to prevent from happening — the shooting, the stabbing, the bar fight, a terrorist attack, a drug deal, domestic assault, domestic violence, whatever thing you don’t want to happen — if you’re to place that event, that “bang” on a timeline, that event is Time Zero: it’s directly in the middle of that line. When we talk about being “left of bang” what it means is that we’re operating earlier on that timeline, so we’ve identified some of the warning signs and the pre-event indicators that let us know that “bang” is about to happen. When we’re “right of bang” it means that we have missed all those warnings signs, “bang” has occurred, and now we are simply reacting. And so by operating “left of bang” exactly like you were talking about in the nightclub scenario, if you recognize that two people are about to get into a fight, before the fight beings, you still have options for how you can deal with it! You’re not reacting, you don’t have to put yourself in the middle of two people who are throwing punches or maybe have a weapon. The earlier you can recognize that “bang” is about to occur, you have a number of options at your disposal, where you can handle the situation in the most advantageous way.
But if you don’t know how to look for those pre-event indicators, especially in the military, that’s what caused us to become very reactive — and we didn’t know what we were looking for, we didn’t know how to look for those cues, and in turn the insurgents had the upper hand for a little while.
FG: What are some of the results of this training, of Combat Hunter, in the actual field? What has it enabled our servicemembers to do over there?
PVH: One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’ve gotten is simply confidence. When you think that you don’t have the ability to recognize an attacker, or you think that the only time you’re going to realize there is something happening is the first time you’re shot at, or all of a sudden you’re in a fight, or there’s chaos happening around you, it leads oftentimes to a sense of helplessness. And if you’re to tell Marines or even police officers or security personnel “You’re not going to be able to recognize an attack until it begins so we’re just going to put more body armor on you and put more armor on your vehicles and we’re going to do that so you can survive that first shot, survive that bomb, or survive that beginning part of the attack — and once you make it through those first moments, because the rest of your training is so great, once that attacker has revealed themselves, we’re confident you’re going to know what to do” — that’s a pretty bad message to send down to the people actually operating on the ground, and as we continue to work with Marines and soldiers and sailors who are going overseas, that’s one of the biggest pieces of feedback we get “Knowing that I don’t have to wait to get shot at” it’s something that I can master here at home, improve my ability to do this, even before I deploy, so that when I am in very complex, very stressful situations, I still have the ability to really ensure my own safety by getting to that point of early recognition.
FG: That’s fantastic — I think people should definitely read the book, because there’s a lot of really tactical information in there that I found fascinating — I would love it if you just hit on a couple of tactical points so our listeners can take a couple of things away from this conversation. The first thing I’d love it if you could speak on quickly is evaluating people based on behavioral clusters.
PVH: When we think about what situational awareness is and how we can actually use it to have an advantage, what we really want to get to is a level of informed awareness, where you know what you’re looking for, and you know how to look for those things, that are going to reveal that attacker. When it comes down to what we’re looking for, we refer to these as the “Four Pillars of Observable Behavior.” The first pillar is how we assess individuals. Every single person can be categorized in one of four ways at any given time. Their behavior shows if they are either Dominant, Submissive, Comfortable or Uncomfortable. Every single person in any moment in time is in one of these four groups. So the way you would use something like that is — some of the things you might observe is in Dominance, someone might be using their body language to make their body look larger, Submissive behavior is something where a person’s behavior might try to make them look smaller, behavior you would otherwise call “shy” or “meek” or “timid”, Uncomfortable behavior is maybe some things you would categorize on a person you might call “nervous” or “anxious” or “jittery”, and then Comfortable behavior is “relaxed” and “open” and they don’t perceive any stresses in their situation.
So the way you would use those indicators is to first define what’s normal in your situation. Once you know what that baseline is, you can focus on those people who are doing something that’s not normal. So if you were to think about the nightclub or bar scenario, I would assume the baseline inside that bar is people who are pretty comfortable. So some of those pre-attack behaviors you might see before that fight is people who are starting to display Dominance, things you might otherwise call “aggressive” or “posturing” — and as you see those Dominance behaviors inside of a baselines where people are typically Comfortable, you can quickly go from the crowd as a whole, down to one or two people who are doing something that attracts your attention.
FG: Absolutely — and I think it’s so important that we establish that baseline first, and one of the questions I love from the book is, “What’s normal for this environment?”
PVH: It’s really the most important part. And in the book we talk about how to establish a baseline, so you can look for anomalies. And once you find an anomaly, you can make a decision. The anomaly’s what you’re looking for, but being an anomaly is a relative term. So to stand out you have to stand out from something, and that something is the baseline. So really defining what’s normal in that situation is arguably the most important part of the entire process.
FG: Yeah, and there’s a lot more that people should read — I love especially the part about Status and high-status behaviors, and how you identified even the leaders in the insurgent network even though nobody was wearing uniforms — how there’s a cluster around that status, and that was fascinating as well. Because taht’s just useful in social situations — going out and meeting a new group of people — who’s the leader? I think it’s pretty directly transferable.
PVH: Oh absolutely, we talk about this in the context of recognizing threats, but if any of your listeners are in business, doing through a sales presentation, or a networking situation — the person who’s most influential might not be making their status known. But by looking at how people respond to that person, how they might show submissiveness in their presence, or how that leader might show elements of Dominance, giving direction — by understanding how you can pick out who that decisionmaker is, who that influencer is, who that leader is, that’s gonna help you understand who can help you in whatever pursuit that you have.
FG: Yeah. The other thing I wanted to ask you about was “atmospherics” and I know this is a subtle concept, but I’d love it if you could just give us the overview — how can people improve their situational awareness by this concept?
PVH: So when you think about this concept — even though the words might make it seem complex it’s actually something that you recognize about a situation almost the moment you walk in. If you’ve ever walked into an area and said “I have a bad feeling about this area,” what you’re really picking up on is the atmospherics. What atmospherics are is that everyone in an area displays whether they feel safe and secure or whether they don’t feel safe and secure. So positive atmospherics are a place where people feel safe, meaning they don’t perceive threats present, and negative atmospherics are areas where there’s a stressor or threat that’s present, that has people a little on edge. You think about the areas where you might feel safe: there’s both behavioral indicators as well as some other cues — places people are following the social norms, getting in at the end of the line, nobody’s pushing their way forward, some of the noises you might hear are more conversational than confrontational, it’s probably pretty clean, and as a result people are probably displaying what we’d call the “Comfortable cluster” and you can quickly look at a situation and think, “Okay, I feel safe here.” But when you walk into that bar or you’re walking down the sidewalk and you see someone who’s body is displaying Dominance, maybe preparing for a fight or confrontation, or very anxious, very nervous — those are some of those things that you quickly and intuitively pick up on that will let you know — “There’s something going on here, maybe we should get out of here, or maybe we should choose a different restaurant, or maybe we should park our car in a different lot.”
So even though it may seem complex, it’s oftentimes that first gut feel that you get that this place that I feel safe, or this is a place where we should probably be a little bit more aware of what’s happening around us.
FG: It’s so important — I think a lot of modern men and women — disregard that intuitive hit when you first assess a situation. And it’s almost a subconscious or preconscious assessment, isn’t it?
PVH: Absolutely, and I certainly don’t want to turn this into a science lecture, but those first responses that you’re getting are coming from a part of your brain referred to as the “limbic system” and this is our survival center, the part of our brain is solely focused on making sure we make it to tomorrow. And this is where we get those quick, intuitive senses that “Hey, there’s something going on here.” But as humans, we have another portion of our brain referred to as the prefrontal cortex — and this is where we get things like advanced though, logic, critical thinking and problem solving, and this is how we learn to speak new languages, and because that’s the part of the brain that seeks rational answers — sometimes it’s that part of our brain that suppresses those first initial responses from the limbic system. And so when you hear about people in a shooting who heard gunfire but say things like “I thought someone was moving furniture” or “I thought someone was dropping books on the floor above us” that’s the rational part of their brain trying to find a safe, non-threatening answer to what their body picked up on was very clearly a threat. And so when you get that sense that there is something wrong, you certainly never ever want to question that response.
FG: I think that’s really important and people should really keep that in mind — I think that the world of screens and digital media and also I have a lot of concern about people walking around, they’re in their iPhone, they don’t have a lot of situational awareness — and so I think people need to bring back this heightened sense of awareness a little bit — I think we’d all be a little better if we just paid a little more attention to how we’re going about our day.
PVH: Absolutely, you know sometimes you hear people say that “Oh, those attacks were unpreventable,” or “That crime — I never saw it coming,” and more often than not, if you didn’t see it coming, it’s probably because you weren’t looking around in the first place, but people are always really displaying their intentions. When a person’s behavior stands out from that baselines, it’s showing that they have violent intent. And so it’s just a matter of looking around you and sometimes, maybe even with lower-level crimes, when a criminal is really trying to not get caught and they’re trying to go after that soft or easy target, simply looking around is often enough to ensure your own safety, because that criminal is going to look at someone else who poses a smaller risk of actually getting caught.
FG: Absolutely. I think if you appear to be aware in an environment, and you’re watching what’s going on, anyone who might be considering some kind of behavior is going to realize it’s not necessarily a clean shot for them to do something, because they’re going to see higher awareness in the environment.
PVH: Absolutely, and obviously it doesn’t stop all crime from happening, but it certainly reduces some of the risk that you face every day.
FG: So on the topic of reducing risk, I definitely recommend that people pick up Left of Bang and read through it — also the CP Journal, I think that’s where people can find the actual training programs, is that correct?
PVH: Absolutely, so we’ve adapted and evolved the programs thta were originally being taught to the Marines, and adapted them to a number of civilian applications — whether you’re a police officer, we have a program set for them, we have a program that’s for security professionals, and that’s also the one we recommend everyday people who are looking to ensure their own safety — over the course of the next year we’re also starting to build out our online courses for what we provide training to businesses, whether it’s customer service, or interview, or how these skills affect sales presentations and negotiations. We’ll be getting a lot of that training online this year as well.
FG: Anything else you’d like to say as we wrap up here?
PVH: When my co-author and I Jason Riley sat down to start writing the book, we did it because we were only training about 40 out of every 1,000 deploying Marines in the Combat Hunter course. And the response from the ones who had done the Course and come back home was incredible. They were coming home and saying “There’s something I learned in this Course that saved my life. There’s something I learned here that allowed me to come back,” and we thought it was criminal that only 40 out of every 1,000 Marines were getting this training. Which lead us to sit down to write the book because we just wanted to ensure their own safety. There shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone who wants to learn how to protect themselves, or how to protect their families, from a lot of the predators that are right now in our neighborhoods, in our communities, that are relying on us to be unaware so they can go on with whatever crime they’re wanting to commit. Left of Bang and the site really just exists to help people ensure their own safety and that’s our sole focus and sole goal. So thank you for letting me come on and talk about it today.
FG: Thank you for spending time with us, I think it’s a really important mission, especially in this day and age. Thank you for the work you do, and best of luck in the years to come!
Also published on Medium.