Harris Faulkner: In war and in life, success depends on a plan

My father made many narrow escapes during his time in Vietnam. I described one earlier that occurred in Vũng Tàu, where an artilleryman fortunately came to his rescue. But there were other times when he was left strictly to his own devices. Occasions like the one I’m about to recount were the scariest.

He told me that he had just dropped off combat soldiers and ordnance near an outlying airfield where U.S. ground troops were positioned. He was hoping for an uneventful return to camp along the Saigon River when he spied Vietcong snipers in the tall trees along the banks of the water. He was in an eight- or nine- cylinder Beaver with a radio engine, which for those of you unfamiliar with various kinds of military aircraft is a pretty conspicuous sized plane under the circumstances. He knew going in that it wasn’t exactly conducive to keeping a low profile but it was necessary to transport the heavy load of men and equipment he just delivered.

By the time he caught sight of the enemy he was already under heavy fire. All he could see was a blaze of gunshot heading directly for his face. Although the snipers were armed with rifles, they weren’t just shooting bullets. They were shooting marker rounds and those rounds were coming in red hot. They were literally on fire. Miraculously, not a single one hit him.


He was barely in the air at this point, since he had just left the runway. He made a split-second decision, thinking his best option was to continue at a low level across the river until he could climb to a more viable altitude. But that, as it happened, was not the best strategy. With his vision obscured by the barrage, he changed course again, dunking the plane and following a tributary, which luckily had no cables to block his advancement. When he was sure he had passed danger, he guided the aircraft upward and away. He could see the Vietcong scurrying for better placement in the trees, but he was already gone by the time they were newly positioned.

You’ve got to plan, prepare, execute, and assess missions countless times before you can let loose that battle cry and really mean it.

When he arrived safely back at the base and exited the plane, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground. He hadn’t been hit, but the plane clearly had been. It was riddled with holes. The crew on the strip rushed to get him to a flight surgeon for examination, but all he wanted to do was analyze what went wrong for the next time.

One thing every Army pilot knows is that there is no such thing as a routine mission. My dad explained that he could’ve run another one exactly like it the day before and had an entirely different experience. Because war is fluid, new risks are presented with every flight. Weather conditions change, enemy troops are repositioned all the time, and the artillery they are armed with varies with the particular unit you encounter. This is why the military demands that every mission be devised to include planning, preparation, execution, and assessment stages. In any given situation, it wants its troops to have a process for working through all the options and getting the job done.

My father’s story made an indelible impression on me for several reasons. First, because he survived the attack. Second, because he thought quickly enough to attempt more than one escape route. And third, because it taught me that it’s rare for anyone to just wing it and be successful, even when it looks like they are.

As my dad said then, "You might wonder why you have to go through all this elaborate devising if the moment a plan is initiated it’s subject to change. But this elaborate devising is necessary to get you familiar with all the assets and options available to you. That’s what the training is all about too. It’s how you get good enough to make those on-the-spot decisions that ultimately accomplish the mission."

I walked away from that story with the understanding that success is far less likely without devising a complete mission plan — one that includes a well-thought-out game plan, lots of training, the agility to come up with a contingency on a moment’s notice, and the sense to take away a lesson from the experience for future reference.

Americans are fascinated by the idea of instant success. We think of certain actors, musicians, athletes, and business moguls as overnight sensations when, in fact, they’ve often worked for years honing their craft in less visible places before finally arriving in the spotlight. We, as a culture, also vest a lot of faith in positive thinking to help us achieve our goals. Although this will carry you a distance during the toughest leg of your journey, positive thinking alone will not lead you to victory. Every soldier I’ve ever met knows that you’ve got to do more than just run out onto the battlefield screaming, "We’re going to win!"

That right there is a declaration, not a plan for success. You’ve got to plan, prepare, execute, and assess missions countless times before you can let loose that battle cry and really mean it.


"Devise your mission" is one of my most essential rules to remember for this reason. It provides a blueprint for winning that’s based on substantive planning and training. It focuses you on the necessary and very specific steps you must take to achieve excellence and fulfill your mission. Because it’s also realistic, it conditions you to anticipate the challenges along the way, and your possible reactions. If you have already begun to implement all of the rules preceding this one, you are definitely ready to devise your own personal mission plan and make whatever you have been dreaming about a reality.

Excerpted from Harris Faulkner's new book, "9 Rules of Engagement." Copyright 2018. Published with permission from Harper Books and HarperCollins Publishers.