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Home Articles Spotting the Enemy

Spotting the Enemy

How the Marine Corps trains soldiers to identify threats overseas can save your life here at home

Spotting the Enemy

Patrick Van Horne is used to spotting people with dangerous intentions. He served in the Marine Corps for seven years, deploying to Iraq twice. When he got back, he began training infantry battalions—Marines ready to be deployed to dangerous war zones—through something called the Combat Hunter Program. The goal: teach soldiers how to separate the “sheep”—the unarmed civilians on the ground—from the “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—aka, the enemy.

“In a war in which our enemies do not wear uniforms and blend in with and exploit the local populace, the effort to locate and isolate the enemy can be challenging,” writes Van Horne in the book he co-authored with Jason Riley, Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunters Program Can Save Your Life.

That’s right—learning how to be a “combat hunter” can save your life, which is why Van Horne founded The CP Journal, an online training site to teach combat soldiers, as well as everyday individuals, how to get and stay left of bang (more on what that means, exactly, below).

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The principles Van Horne teaches can be applicable to any situation in everyday life— the regular person with an office job, the college student walking to class, the young woman on a first date. In fact, many individuals who take his online course are “just looking to keep their family safe,” says Horne. And yes, these principles can be applicable to potential victims of domestic violence, the cycle of which starts the first time you meet an abuser.

“This is more than carrying pepper spray or learning how to fight back. It’s how to prevent those violent situations from ever occurring,” says Horne.

How to Get Left of Bang

Horne says he joined the military because of Sept. 11. Before the war in Iraq, soldiers were able to lower their risk through defensive moves—like wearing bulletproof vests to stop bullets, says Horne. “It was only once the enemy started using massive roadside bombs where protecting ourselves was no longer good enough. We had to turn the focus on how we could lower the probability of that attack.”

Ensuring your own safety means reading the situation around you. In the Marine Corps, “left of bang” means the moments before something bad happens. It’s predicting, seeing and getting ahead of the threat. Which means utilizing a critical type of people-watching. We may not realize it, says Horne, but we’re actually doing this all the time.

“People have been watching people their entire life. What we teach is just a different terminology. Learning it is just a matter of trusting your instincts.”

What are you looking for when you’re trying to get left of bang? You’re looking for people who stand out from the norm, explains Horne. In some instances, this can be obvious—individuals who are nervous, anxious or shifty.

“This is what we call uncomfortable behaviors. Uncomfortable people should attract your attention,” says Horne, but only when the baseline is people acting comfortably, he explains.

At a mall food court, a restaurant or a cocktail party—the baseline is most people are comfortable. But when you think about going to an airport or a doctor’s office waiting room, or being trapped in a stalled elevator, the baseline is often people who are at least slightly uncomfortable, says Horne. In those instances, looking for uncomfortable people isn’t going to work.

Four Clusters of People to Spot

Horne explains that while people-watching, we can generally categorize the strangers we see into one of four groups: dominant, submissive, comfortable and uncomfortable. While it might seem like you should always be scanning a room for uncomfortable people, we’ve already covered that this isn’t always true. If the baseline of the room is nervous energy and one person is sitting calmly, aka, is comfortable, that person should stand out.

Actively searching your area is key here, says Horne. “If you’re not thinking about situational awareness, these indicators we’re talking about aren’t just going to appear to you. It does require some focused attention.” Ask yourself, says Horne, what’s normal here? Then, you can define what’s not normal.

Think of it as a “hasty search,” says Horne. When entering a new situation, do you feel happy or nervous? Is everyone else happy or nervous? This will give you a baseline for how to read the room. (You can read more about Horne’s idea of a “hasty search” here.)

Who Stands Out?

If a woman sees a man staring at her in a bar, Horne says that person is displaying dominance. “He could be staring because he’s working up the courage to go say hi, but he could also be staring because he has criminal intentions.”

The goal is not to get you to panic, but rather, to simply identify whom to pay attention to. When trying to avoid potential abusers, noticing dominance is important. Explains Horne: “If you look at a group dynamic, when you observe someone displaying dominance to those around them, it can indicate something’s going on here. Something doesn’t make sense. Often times an abuser is going to be displaying dominance.”

How many times have you talked yourself out of that gut feeling that says a person is acting a little “off” in a group? Horne says this happens all the time, but by providing the right terminology to people, he believes it lends itself to fewer people doubting their instincts.

“So it’s not just that guy looks “creepy,” that guy is displaying dominance. That’s why that person makes you feel uncomfortable. Being able to articulate it, you’re less likely to second-guess that first instinct that you had.”

The 4 Steps to Profiling

In his book, Horne identifies four steps to identify threats based on human behavior.

1. Situational awareness: Read the environment and the people around you. Separate important from unimportant information.

2. Determine what indicators are important and directly related to your safety.

3. Critical thinking: Weed out unimportant information and focus on the important.

4. Make snap decisions with limited time and information.

Making snap decisions can be as simple as just avoiding people who raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Horne says his wife told him about the perfect example of this.

The couple, who currently live in Colorado, used to live in New York City where his wife was a frequent subway rider. “There were times when she would see someone displaying dominance or see someone ‘uncomfortable.’ It’s possible they were late for a meeting or just had a fight with someone, but in any case, she would say, ‘I’m just going to wait five minutes for the next train.’”

For more tips on honing in to your intuition, read, “3 Ways to Listen to Your Gut.”