03 October 2011

Never Bring a Pen to a Knife Fight

There's a long-standing oral tradition within the U.S. military that originates in Murphy's Law--the assumption that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." When dressed in military mufti, any list of Murphy-inspired rules usually starts off with "Murphy was a grunt," then steps off smartly toward truisms such as "'friendly fire' isn't" and "if your attack is going really well, it's an ambush."

Science-fiction writer and "Schlock Mercenary" creator Howard Tayler maintains a similar list and tradition with his slightly out-of-this-world "Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries." Two samples: "A Sergeant in motion outranks a Lieutenant who doesn't know what's going on" and "That which does not kill you has made a tactical error."

Tayler, by the way, gamely posed for a friend of the Red Bull Rising blog at this year's Gen Con in Indianapolis. I know I've identified myself as a fan before, but let me tell you, when I saw this photo in my in-box, I laughed, I cried, I squee'd. It was better than a tactical "Cats!"

Inspired by Murphy and Schlock--as well as some recent news items regarding military writing--I've culled my Afghan notebooks for some similar aphorisms. After the bullet points die off, you'll see what started all this amusing musing.


  • Writing can be therapeutic, but it ain't a therapy. The same goes for drinking and shooting stuff.
  • Write what you know, but not if it's classified.
  • "The first casualty of war is truth." A corollary? "The first truth of war is casualties."
  • Any sociologist or soldier will tell you: The military is a tribe. It is best understood on its own terms, within its own cultural contexts, and by living among them.
  • Food and hygiene are cultural contexts.
  • In casual conversations and military briefings, "Inshallah" means either "God willing" or "if we feel like it." Either one can get you killed.
  • "Soldier" is also a verb.
  • False motivation trumps no motivation.
  • Words are like bullets. They can fragment, ricochet, mis-fire, hit the wrong targets. Remember to breathe, aim, and squeeze.
  • Journalism is the first draft of history. People today think we don't need a draft.
  • The fog of war never goes away—it fades into memory. Clarity is a moving target.
  • If you don't know how to read a uniform, you are functionally illiterate in garrison.
  • If you don't know how to read the terrain, you are functionally illiterate in the field.
  • "Cover" stops bullets. "Concealment" shrouds your actions from observation. Know how to apply each concept, tactically and rhetorically.
  • Those who failed history class are doomed to repeat it in practicum.
  • History is often said to be "written by the victors." More likely, however, it will be written by the quiet guy in the corner. The one taking notes.
  • All of us is smarter than some of us, but over-reliance on networked automation makes us stupid.
  • The pen may be mightier than the sword, but never bring a pen to a knife fight.
  • Not all veterans are crazy, but it helps. According to some, so does drinking and shooting stuff.


The Missouri Warrior Writers Program has issued a call for submissions (deadline: Dec. 30, 2011) for a national anthology of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction by veterans and service members about their wartime experiences regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the organization's website:
This experience includes deployments and those who have never been deployed. Transition back into civilian life is also a topic of interest for this anthology. The contest will award $250 each to the top entries in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. All entries will be considered for publication in the anthology. There is no entry fee.
Click here for guidelines.

Click here for a related Sept. 22, 2011 National Public Radio interview with author Mark Bowden, who will judge non-fiction submissions to the anthology.



A free 3-day writing workshop will be sponsored by the University of Iowa's Veterans Center Oct. 14-16, 2011. Location for the event is the UI Communications Center, 116 S. Madison St. (between Washington & Burlington), Iowa City, Iowa. The workshop is open to all current and former military personnel—whether they were in combat or not, and no writing experience is required.

To register for the event, click here. Enrollment is limited to 40 participants.

For more information regarding the workshop's content, staffing, and purpose, click here.


  1. I always had a line for Murphey's Laws on my mission planning and Op Orders. The "6" paragraph Op Order

  2. Isn't "Paragraph 6" supposed to be "Safety"? Oh, waitaminut--I see what you did there ... That there is downright GENIUS!

    Back in the day, I used to give safety briefings using a puppet-on-a-stick someone picked up on a 24-hour pass in Florida. Twenty years later, I still have people quoting "Safety Shark" back to me.

    I hope you're doing well and engaging all targets. Keep me posted. In the meantime, like Safety Shark sez: "Always swim with a buddy!"


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