Self Defence, Retreat and Invitation

“In war it is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune. When you are advancing, this normally follows; if you withdraw, it is neither so obvious nor so easy. Yet it is possible. There are three reasons for retreat: self-preservation, to save your force from destruction; pressure elsewhere which makes you accept loss of territory in one place to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front; and, lastly, to draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”

Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, Defeat into Victory: Battling Japan in Burma and India, 1942-1945


Many tactics cross multiple fields. We can draw upon the experience and advice of successful military leaders and apply it not only to modern warfare and politics, but also to business decisions and even to competitive or consensual violence.

But does this apply to personal safety? Is there value here for the physical element of self protection, the aspect that is often termed self defence? While self defence has some overlaps with

  • consensual violence (accepting a challenge to ‘a fight’ or engaging in physical violence when it could be safely avoided),
  • competitive violence (such as UFC, Olympic TKD, WTF Karate etc.),
  • or the use of armed or unarmed force by individuals in a professional civilian or military capacity (such as Security, Police or Infantry),

it is a different entity.

It is a simplification, but I like to think of self protection as to

AVOID, DETER, NEGATE and ESCAPE aggressive behaviours and violence.

Each of those has many facets. The final one, escape, is the physical one. Its aim is extrication – whether of myself or others. It’s a deliberately vague and permissive term in some respects, while being incredibly definite in others.

The aim is to escape. It is to remove myself (or others) from harm. That harm to me also includes possible repercussions from the use of violence. That is not something to think of at the time: that is something that is addressed beforehand in training methodology and the mentality fostered. This aim is one of self-preservation and it is one of strength. I give myself permission to do whatever I think is necessary to reasonably negate the threat as I honestly perceive it at the time.

Slim’s exhortation to “gain and retain the initiative” is one to which all good self protection instructors adhere. We see it in so many forms. It is keeping others in the OO of the OODA loop for example. The physical means to this will vary from person to person, from instructor to instructor, from system to system.

But how much of what Slim says here applies to self protection?

Retreating for self-preservation is wiser than seeking a battle you do not have to fight nor gain from winning. While you should not have to, choosing carefully where you go out, what route you walk or drive, or leaving an unfinished drink at a club or bar because of a bad vibe or argument; all these are common sense.

Accepting the loss of territory in one area to enable you to transfer troops to a more vital front?

This could be applied to the planning of property defence or burglary prevention situations where you choose to strengthen security/protection/cctv in one area at the expense of another, but this does not apply to most self defence situations.

It is the last item on Slim’s list that is the most interesting to me, and perhaps the most controversial. “To draw the enemy into a situation so unfavourable to him that the initiative must pass to you.”

This is something we see all the time in competitive and consensual violence. One or both participants trying to trick the other in order to gain and retain the initiative makes up a significant proportion of each event.

Does this apply to self defence?

Very rarely.





How or when do you draw someone into making a mistake while retreating so you can escape if you are trying to avoid, deter or negate the threat in the first instance? This is different from pre-emption. Pre-emption is an aggressive defence selected when threat avoidance, deterrence and negation (negotiation) have failed. It may be disguised by innocuous body language, it may be set up by the trick of a gesture or a glance, but it is part of the advance that Slim describes, not a trick of retreat.

In non consensual violence, until aggression or violence occurs an interview process is still taking place. The target is threat assessed. In most instances if the target appears aware of the selection or exhibits body language or verbal indications that they will pose a risk of failure and potential harm/exposure to an aggressor, they are deselected in favour of searching for an alternative easier target.

Luring an attack by retreating to appearing weak through your body language is not a sound self defence strategy in the vast majority of cases.

Few attacks are certain until they commence, and once an attack does commence there is no certainty that by appearing weak beforehand it will be any less aggressive or successful. What criminally/violently inclined person thinks “I’m going to attack/approach this person differently/in-a-less-alert-manner because they don’t appear to be ready for me”? That is a competitive sparring perspective. In most cases a person that has selected a target is alert and watching for signs that things might go wrong.

A faked weak persona is not so likely to lull them into a false sense of security and vulnerability to counter attack as a confident persona is likely to deter them from attack in the first instance.

I am not a psychologist but I would wager that those undeterred from continuing by a strong front are not going to initiate in a manner that leads them to be successfully suckered by a fake weak front. It is a strategy that will have worked on occasion, but it is a poorer strategy than deterrence.

To sum up I return once more to the initial words of this quotation from Field Marshall Slim. “It is all-important to gain and retain the initiative, to make the enemy conform to your action, to dance to your tune.” This goes beyond the physicality of self defence and to the heart of self protection. Avoid, Deter. Negate.

Stay safe!

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