What we can learn from fighter pilots

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Off the catapault

It’s not something you would think of, but when it’s comes to personal conflict and politics, we can learn from fighter pilots—fight your fight; don’t fight the other guy’s fight.

Fighter pilots know you never engage an enemy on his terms. Whatever advantages an enemy jet may have in aerial combat are things you avoid. Play to an opponent’s strengths, and you get killed. To win, you have to fight on your terms. You have to get the other guy to play to your strengths, you have to get him into a position where he’s vulnerable.

In a minute, we’ll get to how this concept applies to civilian life, but first, let’s explore the origin of “fight your fight, don’t fight the other guy’s fight.”

The idea goes back at least to the day when David challenged the Philistine soldier, Goliath, who was not only a giant but heavily armed—body armor, a coat of mail, helmet, sword, spear and shield. David didn’t opt to kill his opponent with a slingshot to make history. He purposefully chose to attack from a distance because he was no match close-in. Fighting Goliath on his terms almost certainly would have meant David’s death.

The strategy applies to sports. Remember the match up 26 years ago between James Buster Douglas and Mike Tyson? Every sportscaster was predicting a quick fight, with Douglas hitting the canvas. In addition to being cast the underdog, Douglas’ mother had died just a few weeks prior to the fight. He was outclassed and not mentally ready to fight. It was supposed to be a 90 second fight.

But Douglas wasn’t listening. When he got into the ring, he jabbed and jabbed and jabbed and kept Tyson at a distance. Douglas didn’t let Tyson get close. Douglas fought his fight and eventually knocked out Tyson. Everyone was stunned, everyone except Douglas.

Too bad Sen. Marco Rubio never got this lesson. Trailing Donald Trump by a large margin in the primaries and probably tired of being called “little Marco,” Rubio tried to go toe-to-toe with Trump in a verbal slug match. Rubio might have felt energized in the short term by making fun of Trump’s little hands and little, uh, whatever, but the thrill of hitting back didn’t last long.

You can’t go toe-to-toe with a man like Trump. He’s a brawler, a street fighter, and he revels in being vulgar and condescending. He has no shame, and his force of personality allows him to bowl over anybody in his way. And he’s relentless. Just last week, he resumed his attacks on Fox newscaster Megyn Kelly. The only person who could engage Trump in brass knuckles name calling and win is a Trump clone.

So, what happened to Rubio? He regretted challenging Trump head on.  “My kids were embarrassed by it, and I, you know, if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.” Worse yet, the attack didn’t work. Rubio lost his home state of Florida to Trump. Would Rubio still be in the running had he not challenged with Trump with verbal exchanges?  Probably not, but he might have exited the race with his head held a little higher. Rubio made the mistake of fighting Trump’s fight.

Gov. John Kasich, on the other hand, has been fighting his fight. He stays on message. He talks about what it takes to lead and govern a nation, about what he can do and doesn’t waste time mocking Trump. Kasich needs to get Trump in an environment where he has to answer questions and can’t rely on personal attacks to gain ground.  That’s the fight Kasich has to fight, and the strategy is keeping him alive.

Author Malcolm Gladwell provides an alternative view on TED about David and Goliath. We’ve been looking at David as the vulnerable fighter and Goliath as the nearly unstoppable force who was killed by chance. We’ve got it backwards, says Gladwell. It was the Goliath who was vulnerable.

Goliath likely suffered from a growth disorder, Acromegaly, which can result in gigantism and poor vision. Think about it. Goliath didn’t charge toward David. Goliath was led to the battlefield by his shield-bearer and bellowed, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the fowls of the air.” Heavily weighed down by armor and weapons and, perhaps, unable to see well, he wasn’t very mobile. If he couldn’t fight close-in, he was vulnerable.

Maybe Trump is a modern day Goliath. Trump’s strength is limited to his ability to belittle and degrade. If you fight his fight—take a look at Rubio—you lose. With his wife coming under attack, it’s a lesson Sen. Ted Cruz had better learn.

But Trump’s strategy isn’t fail safe. If he gets cornered and peppered with hard questions and isn’t allowed to bob and weave, his weakness—his vacuous nature—will show. Maybe it’s a matter of confronting him in a brokered convention. Blinded by his own ego, Trump may well finally stumble and falter. It’s a matter of finding a way to cause him to fall under the weight of is own narcissism.

Fight your fight. Don’t fight the other guy’s fight.


Jack D’Aurora writes for


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  1. Bruce Lackey  March 28, 2016

    Marco took the bait. He is inexperienced and will learn. Kasich is fighting the smart, good fight and I admire his ability to stay out of the demeaning talk.

  2. Brian Murphy  March 28, 2016

    I like the analogy to aerial combat. You may also do well to apply your experience as a pugilist in thinking about strategy in this nominating war. The “Republican establishment” has tried unsuccessfully to constrain their nominating process to a sort of Marquess de Queensbury set of rules while Donald Trump has been, to put it mildly, not similarly inclined. The establishment shares a tired and somewhat class-based understanding of what a candidate may and may not do or say. Unlike the other candidates who adopted assorted traditional postures, Trump launched himself entirely outside the orbit of conventional dialogue. Trump understood the enormous vulnerability of the poll-based, drone-like, stale-mate inducing, ineffectual bobbing and weaving of conventional political discourse. Trump is not just using one strategy among many in the book: he has never looked at the book.

  3. Paul R  March 28, 2016

    You can also apply this approach to the various candidates’ statements about the wars of the Middle East, and about their views of Islam and Muslims. Trump and Cruz both (in different language and in different ways) fight the fight that ISIS wants fought – a Crusade against Islam, a net win for ISIS and its allies (their basic means of recruiting new fighters and financial backers). Both Democratic candidates, and Kasich on his lonesome as a Republican candidate, refrain from inflammatory statements and call for closer cooperation both with Muslim-Americans at home (as the FBI tells us that numerous domestic threats have been thwarted by early information from the American Muslim community) and with Muslims abroad (as every Islamic nation in the area is to some degree opposed to ISIS, and ISIS’s Muslim opponents cross the Sunni-Shi’a divide). We are, and need to continue, fighting OUR international fight – an inclusive and cooperative and multicultural fight – in order (as we now seem to be, according to recent reports) to win; and we need to condemn the strategy of hatred and fear promoted by Trump and Cruz, a strategy of fighting the fight that our enemy wants.

  4. Jay Sumner  March 28, 2016

    Nicely done, Jack!


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