The Value of Experience
The Value of Experience
by: Gabe Suarez
Experience. Without bothering Mr. Webster, we can loosely define it as the sum total of what we’ve done. Experience can lead to knowledge, but not the reverse. When what we’ve done is combined with what we’ve learned, we have that valuable commodity sought by every interested party from sea to shining sea – the expert’s opinion. This is expertise.
My long time friend Jeff Cooper once remarked that of all the desirable (we can hardly make them required) attributes of a "range instructor", one of the most important was experience – personal combat experience. "A range instructor", he said, "should have seen combat otherwise he has no authority upon which to base his opinions. A man without experience can only restate what others have told him, and that is often not sufficient. He must be able to say ‘I’ve done it and so can you’".
But there is more to the issue here. Experience in itself does not provide this "expertise". For example, I personally know several latter-day shootists (now retired like myself) who participated in many gunfights. Yet, their skill at arms was marginal at best. These men had an intense desire to kill their adversaries, and with luck often succeeded. Their methods didn’t win the day. Rather their shoot-first attitude and their very real disregard for their own mortality made the difference. And it didn’t hurt that their adversaries missed more often than not. You won’t learn marksmanship from these guys. We can certainly learn things from these men, but their lack of technical ability won’t give us the complete package.
On the other side of the coin, we have the many pistol artists out there. These men have studied the art of the pistol like Michaelangelo studied painting. Such pistol virtuosos can do wondrous things with a handgun that border on the magical. Oftentimes, these men can teach others these same feats of dexterity. While they can teach speed and "surgical" marksmanship, they cannot tell you how it is to face a live and angry human adversary. They can’t describe the tingling feel of death’s icy clutches as they’ve never shot for a prize as precious as life itself. We can still learn a great deal from these men, but as before, the picture isn’t quite complete.
These two are extremes of course, and there are teachers on either side who are quite marvelous at teaching their specialty. A few even have the complete package of ability and experience.
It’s been common in recent years for some to question the importance of combat experience. Most often, the value of experience is questioned by someone who lacks any such real world experience, and who feels threatened in some way (business, ego, etc.), by those who have it.
Does the fact that an instructor lacks any practical experience disqualify of somehow diminish his ability to pass on information? Certainly not. But neither does that diminish the real importance and value of the combat experience itself.
The big question is simply this. Does a firearms instructor need to have combat experience? As one whose been on a first name basis with Ol’ Jumbo the Elephant, my answer may surprise a few. No, combat experience is not essential to be a good firearms instructor, but it can be helpful.
In our Age of the Lawyer, where right and wrong are blurred by a foggy miasma of socio-political smoke screens, and where you might find yourself a political scapegoat "just because", most intelligent people would rather avoid accruing any such experience. And even for those who make it a profession of going in harm’s way, combat experience is a rare thing. Even one who spends his time in the most hazardous of environments, and who for sake of discussion, goes looking for trouble – professionally speaking – will rarely face more than one or two incidents in his entire life.
In today’s world combat experience is like blue eyes, or freckles…you either get it or you do not, but there’s little you can do to influence things either way.
Experience…true combat experience is illusive, dangerous, avoided if possible, and often very expensive. Are there substitutes? Thanks to modern training methods, and to the few who dare to think outside conventional means, there are ways to obtain some of the benefits of experience. The use of Red-Man suits, force-on-force training, and groups like the NTI, and other reality-based programs go far in taking students to the edge of the abyss for an artificial glimpse at what its like without the risks and ramifications. Students so trained, and thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals, incidentally, have done very well in actual confrontations when their turn came up. Artificial experience is not the real thing, but it is the next best thing.
The value of combat experience lies in the simple fact that it allows you who possess it to speak from a position of authority, and it legitimizes what you preach. When you tell a novice to keep things simple, you can explain about the confusion and terror of incoming rounds whistling their song past your ears from an unseen adversary in the darkness. When you tell them to focus on the sight while shooting, you can relate the unforgettable time when you and the armed robber both shot simultaneously…you did not miss. And when you teach them a Murphy-proof technique, you can explain about the high-voltage adrenaline surging through your veins, vibrating the muscles in your limbs like electricity while you tried to reload the empty pistol as the thick smells of death and gunsmoke hung in the air.
No, experience is not essential, but it is helpful. It is also often a dreadful and expensive thing to possess as many of those who have it will confirm.
Aside from validating what you teach, the true value of combat experience is that it gives you, and by extension your students, a real perspective of the ugliness, the reality, and the finality of combat. A reality and finality that cuts through all the dogma, doctrine, style, disputes, and all the miscellaneous clap-trap that clogs our collective consciousness and journals. It allows you to convey the feel, smell, and texture of an ugly and violent death at the hands of another, at close range, in 2.3 seconds, and the very real difficulty of prevailing in such an environment. But above all, it allows you to say with a confidence born in the crucible of life and death, "I’ve done it and so can you…let me show you how".
About the author:
Gabe Suarez is a retired police officer with 15 years experience. He is a medal of Valor winner and is the author of six widely acclaimed textbooks on Tactical Applications. Currently, he conducts training on topics such as that discussed in the article through Suarez International, Inc. To host a training course contact him at www.suarezinternational.com, or at his office 805-582-2499.