What Combat Demands from Every Individual

This Memorial Day, I was thinking about combat. Actually, I started thinking about how to train Soldiers to win in combat. But that naturally drove me to deconstruct the problem and ask, “What is the nature of the combat experience? How does it challenge the individual? What does it demand of everyone who engages in it?

I settled on three traits. These are not sufficient to win in combat, but they are necessary.

  1. Fitness
  2. Focus
  3. Fortitude


A U.S. Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team fires his M4 carbine at insurgents during a firefight June 30, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. The vehicle he is using for cover is a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, Task Force 1-82 PAO)


“You can’t perform if you can’t breathe.” Many forget that combat pushes the individual beyond the physical limit. In other words, you likely have not yet experienced the exhaustion that combat will bring. Soldiers must be able to move heavy objects, pull themselves over obstacles, and make anaerobic sprints and continue fighting. As such, PT is not just a team building activity, it’s survival training. Nor should fitness-building only occur during unit PT. Soldiers have a professional responsibility to push themselves (on their own time) so that they 1) improve their physical capacity, 2) understand the nature and limits of that capability, and 3) shield themselves against the deteriorating effects of combat.


We do PT. We go to the range. But when do we train the mind?” Combat is terror, distraction, confusion, elation, and exhaustion…all in one experience. Winning despite these experiences takes mental focus and emotional stability. A Soldier with focus remains calm, controls breathing, moves deliberately, and speaks rationally. This Soldier is open to a changing environment (and a changing enemy), listens to intuition, and isn’t distracted by low-priority tasks and irrelevant information. No single program trains these abilities, but creating complex training scenarios with multiple variables helps. As does spending time visualizing the combat experience. (This book explains how.)


“Courage in pain or adversity.” The paradoxical aspect of combat is that it opposes our immutable drive toward self-preservation. It requires facing and overcoming danger in nearly every action, both for duty and for survival. Combat can easily take individuals beyond their physical, mental, and emotional limits, to an unimagined place of extreme hardship. One can hardly prepare for these moments, but the more fitness and focus a Soldier possess, the easier it is to show fortitude.

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations,
we fall to the level of our training.”
– Archilochos

Questions for Leaders

  • How intensely are you pushing yourself to prepare for the demands of combat? Are you pushing your team far enough?
  • Have you envisioned what your worst day in combat would look like? What capabilities would you need to exhibit? Do you have them now?
  • In what ways could you “operationalize” your daily activity and connect it to combat? How can you better prepare your team to succeed in combat?

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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kenny Lee

    I agree that those three traits (fitness, focus, and fortitude) are all necessary. The Army should definitely change its APFT by adding certain crossfit exercises to better prepare soldiers because they will be useful in an actual combat situation.

    • Aidan Mulkearn

      you’re a dog.

  • Kimberly Parker

    Yea but the smaller people can potentially have their own benefits John!

  • John Samuel Wilson

    Fitness for Combat is “Soldiers must be able to move heavy objects, pull themselves over obstacles, and make anaerobic sprints and continue fighting.”

    In other words our Push Up, Sit Up, and 2-Mile Run paradigm will get people killed.

    Big (heavy) Soldiers with Strength and Power is better than scrawny stick men with aerobic endurance.

    • Kimberly Parker

      Yea but the smaller people can potentally have their own benefits!

    • UnfinishedSentenc

      Total fitness is necessary, not heavy soldiers who can’t get out of their own way when it’s time to move fast. Strength and Power is just as critical as Speed, Agility and Quickness. Cardio-respiratory endurance is also just as important as the others. I agree that the Army APFT is lacking in measuring total fitness – and a return to overhead ladders, run dodge and jump, inverted crawl events would be better. Perhaps using the Rockport test to measure VO2 max could be a replacement for the run or bike test.

    • Chris Russell

      The PU, SU, 2 Mile run is and always has been a great ‘test’ and that’s all it is. Soldiers should be doing a variety of P.T. on a weekly basis and at least a 6 mile run every Friday.

      Incorporating things like cross-fit, combatives, ruck marches and, yes, organized sports, are great ideas and round out the PROVERBS (Progression, Regularity, Overload, Variety, Resistance, Balance and Specificity). Yes, you train to the test because that gives you a great reference point.

  • Chris

    “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations,
    we fall to the level of our training.”
    – Archilochos

    Thanks for this. Several sources claim this quote in different variations for their own.

    I didn’t know it came from a pre-Socratic philosopher.