Our Own Undoing

Due to unprecedented and consistent prosperity in our recent historical past, the relatively high standard of living we continue to enjoy (even during the slow recovery from the great recession), and the power of productive technology to deliver nearly anything we want at a virtual moment’s notice, American’s have become largely assumptive about their many environments and the relative safety they can expect in these environments. That’s simply not realistic.

To make matters worse, our collective memory about the threats in our communities and abroad is muted by the daily, near constant demands of our many devices – delivering news from around the globe, shout-outs, tweets, and status updates from those in our ever-growing, cloud-based framilies. Our cell phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and tricked-out watches ding and ring without ceasing. It seems our personal news cycles last less than a week in duration these days. And, stories of heinous, barbarous acts of violence both locally and from afar are filed away and forgotten almost instantly – primarily as a result of the competition for our individual and collective attention from a growing list of actors, technologies and devices and across a myriad of sources (advertisers, politicians, would-be stars, news outlets, and reality shows to name just a few). This is not a net positive for our personal and collective self-defense capacity.

What are we teaching?

But, I think the issue that bothers me the most about the subject of situational awareness is how shallow most people tend to define the subject. In my experience, the typically definition or explanation given about situational awareness utilizes the words to define phrase. For instance, “free running” is not running and feeling really free, or feeling free while running (see how I used the words in the phrase to define the phrase?).

In fact, free running is partially defined by Wikipedia as, “the art of expressing oneself in his or her environment without limitation of movement. It is a martial discipline founded by Sébastien Foucan.” If you’ve ever seen a masterful free running exhibition, you’d agree this definition is substantially limited and lacking in its descriptive scope.

Free running is likely best explained by seeing the discipline in action or by practicing the actions necessary to be seen by others as engaging in free running. To be sure, any definition falls well short of describing the actions of free running (if you’re lost, go to YouTube and watch a few free running videos).

Situational awareness is much like examining the pursuit of free running in that to explain or describe the phrase one must take action to understand and internalize the actual meaning. Because situational awareness is such an ethereal idea mixed with specific, concrete directives, it’s best to utilize tools or models that guide the thinking and actions associated with this discipline.

Start with the Colors – White, Yellow, Orange, and Red:

Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, USMC veteran and prolific gun writer and teacher (See Gunsite Training Center) first conceived a color-coded system to define what state of readiness we are experiencing within our own situational awareness and self-defense models.

Cooper describes his system as follows: “Considering the principles of personal defense, we have long since come up with the Color Code. This has met with surprising success in debriefings throughout the world. The Color Code, as we preach it, runs white, yellow, orange, and red, and is a means of setting one’s mind into the proper condition when exercising lethal violence, and is not as easy as I had thought at first.

There is a problem in that some students insist upon confusing the appropriate color with the amount of danger evident in the situation. As I have long taught, you are not in any color state because of the specific amount of danger you may be in, but rather in a mental state, which enables you to take a difficult psychological step. Now, however, the government has gone into this and is handing out color codes nationwide based upon the apparent nature of a peril. It has always been difficult to teach the Gunsite Color Code, and now it is more so.

We cannot say that the government’s ideas about colors are wrong, but that they are different from what we have long taught here. The problem is this: your combat mind-set is not dictated by the amount of danger to which you are exposed at the time. Your combat mind-set is properly dictated by the state of mind you think appropriate to the situationThe color code which influences you does depend upon the willingness you have to jump a psychological barrier against taking irrevocable action.”

Cooper specifically mentions the term irrevocable action to highlight one of the most important issues in situational awareness and the sometimes unavoidable leap to the immediate need for lethal self-defense. To be clear, normal people are not wired to kill other people (or take action that might purposely lead to another’s death).

For instance, Colonel Dave Grossman in his ground-breaking book, On Combat, describes how military training necessarily evolved from shooting square paper targets to human-shaped targets, and to live fire drills with non-lethal, simulated rounds to condition the brain to take lethal action in pre-defined circumstances and settings. This was done specifically in response to the very low rates of deadly fire being attempted during many of the wars and military conflicts throughout our history and through the Vietnam era. Grossman estimates that military personnel, when presented with an enemy target in actual combat purposely shoot above the target up to 80-85 percent of the time (he claims first hand data was reliably collected to make this assessment).

More specifically, only approximately 15-18 percent of the shots fired down-range at enemy targets were actually aimed at the enemy. Why? Colonel Grossman calls this phenomenon the “mid-brain wall.” In short, it’s the part of the brain that is wired to ensure we don’t kill off our own species. It’s a normal psychological response. And, to over-ride the mid-brain wall, we need to practice self-defense and shooting skills in environments and scenarios where purposefully utilizing lethal force against our own species is not only acceptable but preferred (see Google search: Simunition). But, I digress (this is an entirely different subject/article).

The color code model originally taught by Colonel Cooper is as follows:

  • White: You are essentially asleep at the wheel. Unaware of your environment and the potential dangers therein. If attacked in this state, you will likely fail at any attempt to resist or defend.
  • Yellow: You are relaxed but on alert. You are following a specific model or process of observation and orientation to assess your environment (see OODA Loop explanation below). This is the ideal default color when you go about your day.
  • Orange: You have identified a specific threat in your environment and are moving directly to decision and action mode (see OODA Loop explanation below). You may be moving quickly to an exit or to cover and/or concealment. Often evasion or escape is achieved in this mode.
  • Red: Your decision has you in action mode. You have determined that you are imminently and/or actively participating in a violent and/or potentially lethal engagement. You may be fighting for your life. In this color code, you may have deployed a knife or pistol with the express intent to utilize the weapon, or you may have grabbed an improvised weapon with the intent of rendering one or more threats into an incapacitated state. Again, as Colonel Cooper stated, you are not here because you fear for your life, but because your assessments have caused you to “make-ready” for an encounter.

OODA, not Yoda:

Perhaps the most well-known decision model in the military and self-defense communities is the OODA Loop concept (originally developed by US Air Force pilot John Boyd).

The OODA loop is an acronym for:

  • Observe,
  • Orient,
  • Decide, and
  • Act

When this paradigm is purposely engaged, it becomes the directional model for adaptive decision making “in the moment” as realities change and/or as violence emerges. Perhaps the trickiest of the acronyms in the OODA Loop paradigm is the first – Observe (as in awareness).

Many people observe their surroundings. But, in fact, observation itself is useless unless you know 1) what you’re looking for and 2) how to look for it. For instance, as we approach the railroad tracks in our vehicles, we might, 1) slow down, 2) look both ways, and 3) perhaps unroll a window and listen for signs of a train before driving over the tracks. In short, we know what the danger is and how to look for it. The same cannot be said for the myriad of man-made dangers that erupt into violence everyday around the world. Situational awareness skills start with observation, and observation is a learned skill.

Effective observation skills are priceless; because it is this skill-set that often provides the forewarning that something is amiss (and causes the observer to orient himself/herself to the issue at hand). Observation is partly contextual. This means understanding what might not fit in your environment – given the immediate circumstances.

Let me give you an obvious and easy example. Suppose you’re eating lunch at a busy restaurant on a warm, early summer day. Two men walk through the door. Each man is dressed in a heavy, long jacket (are they hiding something under those coats?). Stop. Without any other observations, the fact that these men are not dressed appropriately should get your attention. Something is out of context, and therefore is noteworthy within any situational awareness paradigm.

In this scenario – if you’re actively using a situational awareness process – you should:

Be seated in an area and manner that allows you maximum observation opportunities and a full, broad field of view.

Already know how many exits there are and where each is located within the restaurant.

Be aware of the number of people in the restaurant (approximately or exactly based on training and experience).

Be aware of any law enforcement personnel.

Have already considered what to do if you need to get children and/or family to safety – given the opportunity. Have identified nearby cover and/or concealment.

Have specific words/phrases that you use to make your family aware of the situation and specific action plans associated with the perceived danger.

Indentified/acquired or already have a concealed weapon or improvised weapon that is ready for utilization if needed.

Now, given what you’re seeing and what you know about the issues at hand, you continue to Orient yourself to the situation. Are you a potential target? Is this a robbery? Is this a hostage situation? Is this an active shooter issue? Or, are these two guys wearing the unseasonably long coats just trying to shake a chill after a sweaty workout in an intensely air conditioned room?

For a long time now, people (even experts) have claimed the process of developing situational awareness is more art than science, but that’s simply not true. Today, we know that the human body reacts to the stress of a dangerous and/or violent impeding event in specific ways that are readily identifiable by trained operators. If we apply our scenario with two men in long coats to the science of tactical bio-psychology (more specifically core body language or CBL), we can quickly garner more information that will facilitate faster, more directed, and more certain Observation, Orientation, Decision making, and Action taking.

A Practical Model

Once you know what to look for, you’ll need to make this process more natural and automatic – try using this process:

The Acknowledgement Mindset: Situational awareness begins with a realistic view of your environment. Simply put, we must acknowledge that violence can and does happen. This acknowledgement allows us to avoid the denial that often occurs during the early stages of an attack and may provide the extra few seconds necessary to avoid catastrophe.

Positioning: Situational awareness is substantially aided by positioning yourself in a manner that provides optimal observation and eliminates the need to observe/check your “six” (behind you). Generally, your back to the wall with a full field view is good. Subtle elevation is even better, and easily accessible exits and nearby cover/concealment is also a big advantage. When possible, position yourself near mirrors and/or reflections to get a view of areas not directly in your line of sight (this is especially helpful if on the move).

Context: As you observe your surroundings, everything you see must be put into context. Clothing (seasonal, dress appropriate, sizing, and/or bulges), appropriate social interactions, and normal behavior for the specific situation or event are important indicators. Core Body Language: Watch for more articles from our contributor John Wilson on Tactical Bio-Psychology (and/or core body language). Understanding and identifying the involuntary movements/actions taken by people just prior to violence could save your life.

Talk it Through: To practice, tell yourself out loud what you are doing – even if you need to whisper. Say you’re picking up sushi for a late dinner. As you walk into the restaurant, the dialogue might go something like this…ok, who’s in here (scan the room for anyone that looks out of place), everyone looks like they are here enjoying the sushi, check hands, get a count in the restaurant (or room depending in size), watch the door to notice everyone that comes in (waiter asks for your credit card), rescan the room, everybody seems happy, that’s good, who’s coming through the door, check hands, check waistband, all ok (waiter comes back with your food and you leave) – now you start a new process as you walk through the parking lot. This process is the same process used by people training to become stunt car drivers. Each new driver is required to talk through everything he/she is doing as they drive the course.

Put it all Together

Situational awareness skill, like so many things, becomes more proficient with practice. On your “to-do” list, read in detail about Colonel Cooper’s color code and the OODA Loop. Do some research on how violent crimes are committed, and study eyewitness accounts and victims’ statements. Interview veteran police officers.

Know your enemy, or pay a heavy price, as Sun Tzu warns. Do your homework as they say. Develop and personalize your own situational awareness process, and finally, check out Kerry Kirk’s article this month on intuition (it’s an eye opener).

As always, stay safe and walk in peace…

Leave a Reply


  1. Bobby Hitt

    Good article CJ. It is interesting to me after having lived in the Middle East for 12 years and over time evolving to incorporate some of those tactics in my day-to-day. My norm when walking down a sidewalk was (and still is really) to use plate glass windows’ reflection to discreetly observe around me. If someone was walking behind me I generally would pop into a doorway or do something that resulted in them walking past me so they were no longer behind me. Positioning my wife between me and someone/something I want to observe and pretending to be taking her picture with my phone allowed me to directly watch over her shoulder. When driving and pulling up to a light or stop sign, always keeping far enough back so I could see the rear tires of the car ahead in case I needed room to exit quickly. At the same time, always assessing that stop for an exit if needed. Can I jump the curb there? Will I be pinned in there? That sort of thing. I also tried to maintain the lowest profile possible. I cannot hide the fact that I am western but I can also not loudly trumpet being American in a way I know would draw attention – flashy colors, US flag shirts, and so forth. I grew a beard initially because beards are associated with islam so it could introduce an element of wonder “could this guy maybe be a moslem?”

    Now back in Houston, this past summer we bought a 44 acre ranch 5 hours drive west as a place to escape to if needed. It has all the essentials in place for survival if things broke down; and I keep enough fuel on hand to get me there if there was a problem with gas stations being down.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your article. Hope you are well. One of these days we should meet and lie to each other about how little we have changed since APQC. LOL



  2. Javier Bustos

    Great article. OODA Loop incorporated into mindset is of vital importance. What is misunderstood by some attempting to utilize OODA is it is a constant cycle of split second reevaluations. Col Boyd explained this concept in such detail. He also warned your opponent is using OODA when engaged with you in battle. The victor is the combatant that can process their OODA faster. It is truly an amazing concept which is a necessity for the Krav Maga pratitioner to understand and employ. Walk in peace my friend.