Everything I need to know I learn under fire by Kevin Annett

We need a new kind of courage and capacity to act these days, wherever we are. Here is an offering towards that priceless gift.


The shots whizzed over my head as I hugged the ground and desperately searched for cover in the tangled forest. People were hunting me. Cries of unseen attackers came from all around as I tried to think and plan. But everything was happening too quickly. A sudden movement in front of me made up rise up through the foliage and aim my gun at whoever was approaching. We both fired at the same time …

Later, I remember lying on the ground after I had been hit in the chest, feeling some satisfaction that I had also bagged my assailant. And so chuckling aloud, and raising my arm up high, I stumbled from the battlefield as the conflict still raged around me, and shots were fired in ever-intense staccatos as the attackers overwhelmed our position.

“You get anybody?” another green clad warrior asked me back at the camp.

“One” I replied. “But they flanked our postion pretty quick”

The man nodded grimly.

“It’s hard to keep people together under fire” he observed, like the veteran he was.

That was my day, on February 10, 2013: perhaps an unusual way to celebrate 57 years of existence, but for me, not that unusual.

Carol sprung my birthday gift on me that week with more than merriment, knowing me as well as she does. I figure all those years of my childhood playing war with the other kids on my Winnipeg street had something to do with the visceral excitement I felt when I learned that I’d be out in the field that day, engaged in desperate battle using something more than words.

Paintball warfare is run on rules and reasonable conduct, in theory, whereby once you’re beaned by somebody you’re to remove yourself from the war and drag your pitiful ass to the sidelines. But all that nicety got chucked out the window once the shooting started that day: including by yours truly.

After all, you don’t survive, let alone triumph, by following the rules.

After I got shot the first time and dutifully left the battlefield, I thought, this is ridiculous. Screw these formalities.

So in the next round, Carol and I found a perfectly concealed snipering position behind some tangled tree trunks, where we had a full field of fire on the slope where our attackers had to come through if they were to hit our team in the rear. Knowing the terrain and who we faced, we ambushed three of the attackers. I was hit twice in the process, but I never announced that to anybody, and I kept on shooting until we’d smashed their offensive and won that battle.

Under fire, everything changes, and becomes clear very quickly. And real combat emblazons onto you, as does life itself, four basic rules of survival:

1. Know the Terrain and the Enemy

2. Stand on ground of your own choosing by first knowing your own forces and situation

3. Prepare for the unexpected, and

4. Do the unexpected with audacity and boldness, striking for the decisive point

It’s amazing how those rules can get you through any tight spot or unwinnable situation, even against enormous odds. I know they have for me: today, and for many years now.

That wonderful man, the ancient Athenian statesman Solon who created the notion of direct democracy, said that it is an offense for any citizen to shrink from controversy. But even more to the point, Solon declared,

“To know your purpose you must first know the times”

This is not a time of peace. Our world and our lives are at war, as much as mind-numbing techniques and learned conformity try to shelter us from that truth, and keep us dutifully paying the taxes that fund our own demise. War, after all, is any act of force where one adversary tries to force his will upon another, according to another great guy, Karl von Clausewitz.

I won’t waste time trying to unpackage why it is that so many of our fellow men and women walk about in a war, yet imagine they’re safe and sound, and in need of obeying the will of governments and churches and other corporate criminals who are warring against them. So I am not addressing that mass of civilians, but those who like me know the times, and ourselves, and have already raised the standard of battle in defense of all that is under attack.

Anybody who holds to the delusion that we live in something called a democracy where politicians are in charge and will respond to protests and “demands”, have violated the first rule of war: to know the real nature of both the terrain and the enemy. To hold to our delusions in the face of our experience is to be precisely like the young guy I saw in the paintball battle who rushed towards the well-entrenched enemy position without once looking about or estimating the opposition. He lasted about ten seconds.

Old style “activist” groups like Occupy – and I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of so many such one-dimensional “protest” movements since my entry into the struggle in 1973 – undergo the same fate as that soldier boy who ignored the truth of what he faced. They fail because they don’t understand what they’re confronting today: not a responsive “democracy”, but a corporatocracy that is impervious to polite, rational and peaceful petitioning.

If you doubt this, just ask the west coasters now living as legal slaves under the corporate oligarchy called the “Trans-Pacific Partnership”.

Even if a particular crop of “activists” is genuinely aware of their enemy, their tactics are invariably so predictable that they can do nothing but be routinely and easily outmanuvered. The system long ago learned how to contain and manage demonstrations and “demands”. Ritualistic placard waving is about as threatening to those in power as a “letter to your senator”, and is designed, like voting, to channel and neutralize real change.

And yet despite this, so many fervent protestors studiously ignore the wisdom of veteran radicals like Saul Alinsky, whose basic maxim of political struggle – echoing our own Four Rules of War – was simply to always go outside the experience of your enemy in everything that you do.

In short, never do the obvious - especially in the face of corporate enemies who know the score, own the system, and can overwhelm your small guerilla army when you rely on conventional methods of warfare. And above all, never play by the rules of the system, like “seeking justice” in their gangster-run courts.

One Sunday in the spring of 2007, fifty of us in Vancouver seized the largest catholic cathedral in town during a mass. We struck unannounced and hoisted a banner about the aboriginal children murdered in catholic Indian schools. And we did so on our terms, in a way that could not be managed or co-opted. We reclaimed that space and sent a shock wave throughout the country.

That same month, and in obvious response, the government first began talking of issuing an “apology” for the Indian schools slaughter; the corporate media across Canada reported our action and our movement for the first time; and panicking catholic lawyers deluged me with phone calls, pleading for the handful of us not to occupy any more of their churches because, quite simply, their collection plate revenue and achilles heel public image were being threatened.

Our brief action went completely outside the experience of the enemy, since we knew the terrain of battle, and acted unpredictably, striking audaciously and powerfully at the decisive point. Our small force negated the power of its much bigger enemy by striking at a vulnerable point of its system, on our terms: just like dear old Sun Tzu advises in his Art of War.

Brief occupations are one thing, but real power consists not of protest at all, but in permanently undoing the power of institutions by replacing them altogether with new creations of our own, from the ground up. That is called revolution.

We’ve begun to do that now, of course, through our budding common law courts and the lawful Republic of Kanata. The point is, we’re not protesting or demanding anything, anymore. We’re reclaiming and taking back. We’ll be publicly defrocking known child raping priests and expelling them from our communities; seizing the premises of such churches and announcing that henceforth, they’re under new management; and arresting convicted war criminals of church and state, while making the police either stand down or join us.

It’s all about dislocating your enemy on your terms, not theirs. But the final measure of one’s effectiveness in doing that comes down to a question of leadership: a seasoned command with a vision and experience to unite your force in sustained battle. And that presence of a seasoned leadership is exactly what is most often missing among us.

Without it, we are so much unfocused steam that will dissipate at the first blow, or defeat; or even worse, be captured and harnessed by the system into its own engine.

During my paintball battle, for instance, as our Red team prepared to assault the Blues, most of us milled around and asked each other, well, what should we do? What is our plan and strategy? Only when Carol and I laid out a plan of attack and assigned positions for everyone did we come together as a unit.

Life, and politicial warfare, and even spirituality, is always like that. Lead your people, with a vision and a purpose: otherwise, all is undone quickly once you’re all under fire as disunited individuals.

Most of this is common sense; but it is a knowledge only acquired and internalized under the conditions of battle. That’s why everything that really matters is learned under fire.

My paintball battle happened nearly three years ago now, and my seventh decade looms up ahead of me. Gazing back down those years, I don’t see a lot in the way of a career or comfort to point to in my life, nor any of the “accomplishments” all my peers and family expect from one like me. Instead, I hold something more rich and enduring: the legacy of a devoted life from the age of seventeen, and my capacity to persist and endure through every betrayal and defeat, in the manner of any veteran of a long war.

Knowing myself in this way, and knowing my enemy, makes me more than a threat, as it does any of us who consecrate ourselves to our revolution from below. And such a knowing reduces who and what we really face to less than a problem, once those of us thus consecrated  proclaim by our deeds that now is the time for audacity, in this war to the death.

Karl von Clausewitz, perhaps, says it the best:

A people can value nothing greater than their own freedom and dignity, and must defend these with their last drop of blood. There is no duty as sacred and no higher law. The pernicious belief that one can secure these without conflict and by avoiding danger is both false and poisonous. Danger can only be met with virile courage joined with a calm and firm resolve and a clear conscience. These virtues alone form the true leaders of a people and bring into being the martial forces that can win the deepest and cherished dreams of humanity.


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