I did something stupid.

I hadn't quite been in Iraq for two months and was still very much a rookie. Lawrence (Kane) wants me to write down the story because there might be some lessons about presence in there. I'm reluctant for a couple of reasons and the reasons are important:

  1. Lots of things that sound cool happened because there wasn't a good choice. That doesn't mean it was a good strategy. Rats don't swim very well—they only abandon a ship because sinking with it is worse.
  2. Because something worked once, especially when the stakes were high, does not make it a good idea. The fear with anything that makes amateurs' eyes get all shiny is that they might try to do it. I wouldn't do this again if I had any choice.
  3. I especially hate telling this story because though amateurs might think it's cool, every professional will read this and automatically (and correctly) label me as an idiot. I don't like being labeled an idiot, especially by people I respect.

But, Lawrence twisted my arm, so here goes...

The Records area at Rusafa Prison Complex in Baghdad is enclosed by a chain-link fence and was almost always crowded. It's a stressful place, with inmates being processed in and out, Iraqi military, police, corrections, advocates, politicos, and sometimes families of the convicts are present and a small handful of American advisors. It was especially crowded that day. Suddenly I heard a loud argument. I couldn't understand what was being shouted, but it was getting really loud.

I quickly discovered that two armed Iraqi gentleman were about to go at it. And no one was doing anything. Not the Iraqi officers and not the other Americans, all of whom were backing off.

This is what I do, right? I'm a freaking jail guard and my primary job is to prevent fights.

There were a ton of other considerations as well. First and foremost, I only spoke about fifty words of Arabic and almost all of them were either formal greetings or commands, neither of which was appropriate for this situation. You do not yell commands at people you want to calm down. Second, I had no formal authority—I was an advisor and mentor. Third, I had no idea what the argument was about. And, I didn't know who the guys involved were. They could have been department ministers, tribal leaders, or just about anything else. That means that I didn't know what would happen if things got messy. Would it stay personal or get really big?

Other than the language barrier (and the weapons), this is what corrections officers deal with all the time. This is the regular job. Usually I can call for backup first and know it is on the way, but not today...

There were two other factors that I thought were very important. The biggest was that if things got really out of hand, we were all screwed. I could handle two people. But if one pulled a gun and the other responded and a few friends got involved and the armed security guys got nervous, there would be a bloodbath inside a chain-link enclosed area. The second was probably less logical, but important to me. The Iraqi officers we advised were under a lot of pressure from criminals, militias, and secretly loyal members of the old regime. They were not paid very much and were constantly being threatened or tempted by bribes. One of our primary missions was to teach them to stand on principle, to the right thing. It was dangerous and took a lot of guts for them to avoid corruption, more so because they were coming off thirty years of totalitarian rule where anyone who showed a spine was summarily executed.

It was probably illogical, but I thought it would be tragic if they saw all of the American advisors back down from a dangerous situation.

So I stepped in. Got between the two fighters, squaring off with the biggest invading, invading his space, smiling slightly but with eyes calm, talking softly and low-pitched.

It takes a lot to invade an Arab's space; culturally it's much closer than Westerners'. He started moving when I put my chest against his arms and pressed with a step. All of this happened while I had a hand poised in the place he couldn't see behind his arm, ready to control the leverage point on the back of the elbow and spin him if I had to. DON'T EVEN CONSIDER close range de-escalation unless you have absolute confidence in your infighting skills and can take an invisible position of advantage.

I took a step forward, he took one back. In a few seconds, he was outside of the enclosure.

Then the other guy got in a beef with someone else.

I'd chosen the biggest, but he evidently wasn't the one starting the problem. So I used the same method to get the other guy out, diffusing the situation.

My boss's boss and I had a private talk within the hour.

"You do not, for any reason, go into a group of armed Iraqis."

"Yes sir.

"You do not, except in self-defense, lay hands on an Iraqi."

"But I didn't…yes sir."

"You do not, ever risk your own life just to make a point."

Right here, he had me. That's the lesson I want YOU to take from this incident and the whole book. I don't care how cool it sounds. Risking your life for anything other than saving a life is ego. It's "BS" and it is childish.

Presence is the lowest level of force—not force at all if you think in terms of mechanical power—and it comes just from being there. If presence works, it is a perfect solution: no paperwork, no one gets hurt, and you don't even have to talk to the guy.

Even if presence does not work by itself, it makes every other level of the force continuum a little easier. An order given by someone who looks like an officer or a mother works better than a pimply teenager trying to take control. You will feel the difference between a wristlock done with authority and one attempted with a lack of confidence. Using a stick like you know what you are doing is more likely to get a threat to back down than if you look like you are not sure how to hold it.

Even at the lethal force level, there is a qualitative difference between a professional about to use a gun as a tool and a scared civil- ian trying to hide behind a weapon.

There is no downside to developing presence. That said, because it is so subjective, it can be damnably hard to develop. What follows are a few small hints on a very big subject...

The Intangibles

We are going to get all metaphysical for a second and talk about stuff that everyone knows but that we often pretend is too mystical to acknowledge.

A big part of your presence is who you are. An asshole carries himself like an asshole and almost everyone can sense who and what he is. Curious people look like curious people. Someone with a good heart makes other people relax, even if the people relaxing can never really explain why.

Some can fake it—conmen are famous for it, but even conmen don't run games on certain people. It just does not work.

In what follows, take that into account. A smaller person intimidates differently than a bigger one does, even if they are equally competent. Men cannot pull off the "mom vibe" that can sometimes be even more effective than physical intimidation. Not all tactics work for all people. Bad things do not happen around some people because they have the kind of aura that makes people want to be good around them. Take Rory's wife Kami, for example. Folks seem to need her to approve of them and some big, rough, tough bad men call her "ma'am" and will be happy to do whatever she says. It's been that way for over twenty years.

Conversely, people tend to be good in Rory's presence because they sense that he will come down on them hard if they don't. Lawrence is adept at keeping drunken frat boys from doing incredibly stupid things, oftentimes without needing to say a word.

That is the very definition of presence in a force continuum— people often quit being bad when they see other people.


There is one more intangible concept that is tied up with presence, the martial arts concept of zanshin. Humans can sense the intensity of another human being. That intensity derives from both awareness and experience. The more you have been through, the greater your intensity, your presence. The more alert you are, the more you sense and perceive, the greater your presence.

But intensity is almost never the same as tension. Kids trying to look intense give a bug-eyed stare. Truly intense people tend to be calm, relaxed, and watchful, sometimes elaborately relaxed when everyone else is on the edge of panic.

Experience will come with time, but you can always practice being more aware.

The above is an excerpt from Scaling Force: dynamic decision-making under threat of violence by Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane, pub date 2011, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-250-4.