Approaching the entrance to the Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT) building, I am greeted by a sign with “GOOD AMERICANS WELCOME” printed below an image of a waving American flag. I have come to the south side of Nacogdoches, Texas to interview Master Sergeant Paul R. Howe (U.S. Army, Retired).
My ex-mil wife advised me that arriving 15 minutes early for my 8:00 a.m. meeting would be considered on time by my host, so I knock on the door promptly at 0745. My nervous energy overrides my sleep deprivation. Having never met Paul Howe before, I prepared for our meeting by staying up late the night before re-watching the movie Black Hawk Down and the Panteao Productions video, Make Ready with Paul Howe: Combat Mindset.
I had already seen both, and had particularly strong memories of the combat mindset video.
In Combat Mindset, Howe draws on his experience as a retired Delta Force operator who was involved in the “Battle of the Black Sea” in Somalia (recounted in Mark Bowden’s book and dramatized in the movie Black Hawk Down). Combat Mindset is the only video from Panteao that comes with a warning on the cover: “This video contains graphic content, which some viewers may find disturbing.” Disturbing indeed.
After a brief introduction, Howe turns to a video of people being executed on a roadside in Nepal. Graphic images are shown of an individual having his head cut off with a knife and thrown down, cutting to follow-up footage of his headless body bleeding on the ground. Others are shown lying face down and being shot in the head with an AK-47. Next comes a video of two Mexican drug cartel members captured by a rival cartel. The video shows the two men being made to speak directly to a camera, and then sitting on the ground leaning against a wall, one of them has his head cut off with a chain saw while the other turns his head to avoid watching it. The second man then has his head hacked off with a knife. Although he does not show video of it, the viewer who knows Howe might mentally splice in video images of the dead bodies of American soldiers being dragged by Somali civilians through the streets of Mogudishu after their Black Hawk helicopter crashed there.
To say Howe is intense in this video would be a major understatement. So I am surprised when I am greeted at the door by a mild-mannered, soft-spoken Paul Howe, who is setting up for his tactical rifle course the next day. With graying hair long enough to comb, a baggy untucked button up shirt, and cargo pants, Howe is – as he describes himself in his book Leadership and Training for the Fight – “a ‘kinder-gentler’ middle-aged ex-action guy” (p. xii).
Howe welcomes me to sit down inside his classroom and takes a seat on the other side of the desk where he entertains my questions for the next 90 minutes. Among the topics I am eager to ask Howe about is the Combat Mindset video.
In his book, Howe defines combat mind-set this way:
“An aggressive combat mind-set is possessed by people who can screen out distractions while under great stress to focus on the mission and are willing to go into harm’s way, against great odds if necessary. Hemingway might have described it as ‘grace under pressure.’ Simply put, we must maintain our focus and composure and not allow fear or stress to cause us to make stupid mistakes.” (p. 11)
In our conversation, he frequently distills this down to the “willingness to push forward” in the face of danger.
I confess to Howe that it didn’t make me feel great to watch the graphic videos in Combat Mindset, especially the second time around when I knew what was coming. He responds reassuringly, “No, I don’t feel great, either.” In explaining the impetus behind including them in the video Howe says,
“Either you’re willing to overcome that uncomfortableness you feel or you’re not. We’re talking about you pushing forward against another person with a gun and taking their life. . . . If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s reality . . . Do we need to understand it? I think so. Can we keep it in a certain place in our lives? Yes. We don’t have to dwell on it. But you have to get over the shock because you’re going to put a front sight on somebody and pull the trigger until they fall down. And if their gun is in their hand on the ground and they make a furtive or aggressive move, you’re going to shoot them in the head. That’s what it’s going to take. I would rather have you say, ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m fine with that. You’re not a wimp. What you are is you’re not willing to commit to the combat mindset.”
Although he doesn’t make the point as graphically, Massad Ayoob also stresses the need to mentally commit to what you are doing when you are an armed citizen. In his MAG-40 class, Ayoob ask students, “Can you make that decision? The Decision?” To see, Ayoob suggests you go hunting or kill your own food. “If you can’t kill a sheep in the slaughterhouse, if you can’t kill a deer in the woods, how are you going to use lethal force against another human being?”
In this sense, the combat mindset is foundational. As Howe writes in Chapter 1 of Leadership and Training for the Fight, “Combat mind-set sets the stage for all components of this book” (p. 11). In his church/school guardian training courses, he addresses combat mindset immediately after the safety briefing and before covering firearms basics.
At this point in our conversation Howe asks me, having watched the Combat Mindset video twice, “Are you going to surrender now to somebody if you have a gun and the ability to fight?” I answer truthfully: I hope I am better off, but part of it makes me question, am I going to be the one who runs forward or not?
“And that’s what I want to know,” Howe responds. “I have friends that would never run forward. They’re still my friends. . . .They’re just not the right person.”
Which leaves me to consider different applications of the combat mindset. Unlike Delta operator Paul Howe, as a regular armed citizen, I am never obligated to run forward, to put my life at risk for someone else. But there are certain people for whom I would do so, without question: specifically my wife and kids.
What about innocent others, though? Reflecting on this question takes me back to Suarez International’s Pistol Gunfighting School that I previously observed. Gabe Suarez preaches to his students, “modern day civilian warriors,” that their mental conditioning for combat must be such that when everyone else is running away from the gunfire, they will run toward it. The appropriate response to a terrorist/active shooter situation is not, “Oh God, now we’re all going to die.” Rather, Suarez suggests, “You want to say, ‘Thank you Lord for putting me here to stop the slaughter of kindergartners.’”
I left the Suarez’s class wondering what I would do in the terrorist/active shooter scenario he asked his students to imagine: “When you are called on to change history. . .” My conversation with Paul Howe raised this question again, and two years later I still don’t have a clear answer. Which is why my own friends kindly informed me at dinner one night, “Honestly, David, if we’re going to a fight, you’re not coming with us.” Upon hearing me recount this story, kinder-gentler, ex-action guy Paul Howe reassured me, “I don’t have a problem with that.”