Just Enough Violence to Get the Job Done

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fight forums lit up this morning with effusive praise for UFC middleweight Brian Stann’s classy actions during his first round win against Alessio Sakara in Stockholm last night. Stann delivered a devastating combination of punches, elbows and knee strikes that floored his Italian opponent in the first few moments of the fight then finished him with three rapid fire blows from within his guard. The knockout was impressive but unsurprising, given the reputation of both men as stand-and-bang fighters.

What made the fight distinctive enough to elicit admiration from a broad spectrum of MMA’s notoriously mercurial and bloodthirsty fans was Stann’s self-imposed stoppage after Sarkara was clearly knocked out. Video highlights show the dominant middleweight landing three crashing blows to Sarkara’s head. As the Italian’s eyes roll back, Stann immediately sits back on his heels and crosses his gloved fists to signal the referee to stop the fight. (See the highlights here: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mma-cagewriter/brian-stann-knocks-alessio-sakara-then-stops-fight-124227139.html )

For those unfamiliar with the rules – and culture – of the UFC, a fighter is not only allowed to continue striking a downed opponent until the referee stops the fight, he is virtually obligated to do so in order to maintain an image of ruthless aggression. Such violence is perhaps gratuitous and certainly damaging to the defenseless man on the receiving end of the punishment, but it sells tickets and plays well on highlight reels. In the violent world of the Octagon, image is everything.

In contrast, Stann’s disciplined display of good sportsmanship was so unique in a televised event that UFC President Dana White – no pushover himself – tweeted rapturously after the fight, “Brian Stann is one of the classiest people on Earth!” Indeed. Where does one develop such unusual qualities of magnanimity and mercy? For Brian Stann – and for thousands of other men and women – part of the answer can be found in the disciplined training and honorable culture of the United States military.

Me, Brian Stann, Phil Keane, and Patrick Joseph in front of the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines memorial - April 2007

Contrary to Hollywood’s Rambo-type combat portrayals (or worse – the recklessness of The Hurt Locker) and in spite of real world anomalies like the Marines who killed tens of civilians in Hadithah in 2005 and the Army Sergeant who murdered 17 in Afghanistan in 2012, US service members typically act with great restraint even in the worst combat environments.

Much of the Marine pre-deployment training that Brian Stann and I underwent before our two tours in Iraq was devoted to subjects such as Escalation of Force, Rules of Engagement, Detainee Handling, and Combined Arms Targeting in an Urban Environment. Marine Corps Martial Arts instruction emphasized character traits like compassion, honor, and humility. Our professional training as infantry officers mandated a comprehensive knowledge of various weapons and their effects, along with collateral damage estimates and the minimization of civilian casualties.

Because we were fighting a counterinsurgency, where the enemy blended freely with the populace and often launched attacks from behind the cover of human shields or from within the sanctuary of religious or educational structures, Brian and I learned the art of proportional engagement and disciplined restraint. Even in the darkest days of 2006, when we were suffering an average of one Marine or sailor killed every 2 weeks, the professional discharge of our duties could be summarized as “Just enough violence to get the job done.”

One incident will serve to illustrate what I mean.   

In a previous blog titled “What’s It Like” I described the traumatic death of a Marine from an Improvised Explosive Device. I intentionally omitted one detail from that narrative.

Immediately after the IED’s explosion about 30 yards from the house that I had occupied with a squad of Marines, I raced to the roof to gain some situational awareness before leading a team to the blast site – and to the friendly casualties that I knew must be there. Still fumbling with the chin strap to my Kevlar, I exited the dark stairwell and was greeted by the shout of a Marine at the edge of the roof. Gray-brown dust and smoke drifted ominously past the Marine as he looked over the Rifle Combat Optic of his shouldered weapon and tracked a rapidly moving object across the street.

“There he is, that motherf—er!”

In four steps I had reached the Marine and could look over his shoulder at his target. A heavy-set man in an olive-colored pullover was fleeing through the dirty straw of a courtyard. To my astonishment he leaped in one bound over a low cinderblock wall and continued running in the opposite direction from where the explosion had happened. I had never seen an Iraqi man move with such obvious haste and adrenaline-fueled dexterity.

“It’s the trigger man, sir!” Another Marine had his weapon up and I felt the rushed excitement of impending, inevitable violence. We were going to kill this man. He had detonated a bomb against our fellow Marines and now he was running away and we were going to kill him because he was running away and the decision needs to be made now yes or no because if I don’t make the decision then the decision is yes and…


The Marine with an eye squinted against his RCO whipped his head around at me in disbelief.

“But he’s getting away, sir! I’ve got him!”


Something didn’t feel right. There was no weapon on the fleeing man – no radio or cell phone. It was possible that he was a trigger man and had detonated the bomb…. But it was also possible that he was an innocent man who just happened to be near an explosion and was running as fast as he could away from the violence. Just like I would do if I were him, I mused.

“We don’t have anything on him. He’s running away from an explosion, but that doesn’t mean Hostile Act, Hostile Intent, or PID.” I listed our most basic rules of engagement as justification for my gut decision. No Positive Identification. We assumed that he was a bad guy – hell, he looked like a bad guy, with a greasy beard and evil eyes – but I wasn’t willing to take a life based on an assumption.

The Marines were deflated but obedient. Mr. Olive Green Pullover made good his escape. I took a team to secure the blast site and help put one of their friends in a body bag.

The next day, a local informant identified the insurgent who had planted the IED. It was the man in the olive green pullover.

Just enough violence to get the job done doesn’t always feel satisfying. It takes discipline and character and action divorced from emotion. I often question my decision on the rooftop that day in Iraq. But after much consideration I always arrive at the same decision. I go with my gut.

A sister unit captured the trigger man a few days later and he was sent to a central prison in Baghdad. I wish that he was dead. But sometimes those are the regrets that you live with from disciplined decisions.

Where did Brian Stann gain the character and discipline to stop himself from inflicting unnecessary violence on an inert opponent? The same place where he learned how to control his passions and conduct a war with courage and honor.

About Nate

A 2003 graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and former Marine infantry officer, Nate is the Chief Operating Officer of Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans get jobs. He holds a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Nate lives with his wife and dog in Alpharetta, Georgia.
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3 Responses to Just Enough Violence to Get the Job Done

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Wow. That’s all I can say. So proud of you both. Thanks for sharing, brother.

  2. bydaveholman says:

    Hi Nate! Long time no see. I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I hope you’ll keep writing about your experiences and insights. I admire your restraint on the rooftop. It’s a terrible situation to be in- to made made judge, juror, and executioner in a split second. I’m sure it was one of many such times. Based on your story, I’m not disappointed with the outcome of the man’s capture and imprisonment. Indeed, bringing a murderer before justice and legal proceedings is perhaps the most fitting “revenge” for his bombing. Instead of creating another “martyr” with “eye for an eye,” perhaps it’s one tiny step closer to rule of law and peace. Keep up the good work! -Dave Holman (Your XC buddy)

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