Gen. Slim Gets it Together, Part Two

We left General Slim last week contemplating the string of catastrophic defeats his Allied forces had suffered at the hands of their enemy in Burma and India.

The strength of the Japanese lay … in the spirit of the individual Japanese soldier. He fought and marched till he died. If five hundred Japanese were ordered to hold a position, we had to kill four hundred and ninety-five before it was ours—and then the last five killed themselves. It was this combination of obedience and ferocity that made the Japanese Army, whatever its condition, so formidable.

Worse, Slim’s own troops were reeling emotionally.

Jungle fighting was not like the movies

Nothing is easier in jungle fighting than for a man to shirk. If he has no stomach for advancing, all he has to do is flop into the undergrowth; in retreat, he can slink out of the rearguard, join up later, and swear he was the last to leave. A patrol leader can take his men a mile into the jungle, hide there, and return with any report he fancies. Only discipline—not punishment—can stop that sort of thing; the real discipline that a man holds to because it is a refusal to betray his comrades.

You and I as writers and artists also face an implacable enemy—the force of fear, self-doubt, and self-sabotage inside our own heads. How do we produce a countervailing force? 

Morale is a state of mind. It is that intangible force which will move men to give their last ounce to achieve something, without counting the cost to themselves; that makes them feel they are part of something greater than themselves … I remember sitting in my office and tabulating these foundations of morale something like this:

            1. There must be a great and noble object.

            2. Its achievement must be vital.

            3. The method of achievement must be active, aggressive.

            4. The [individual soldier] must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly toward the attainment of the objective.

General Slim started with small-unit patrolling and ambushes. He sought successes for his troops to build their self-confidence. 

We had now to extend this confidence to [larger] units and formations.  [More ambitious attacks] were carefully staged, ably led, and, as I was always careful to ensure, in greatly preponderating strength. We attacked Japanese company positions with brigades fully supported by artillery and aircraft … [we assaulted] platoon posts by battalions. Once when I was studying the plan for an operation … a visiting staff officer of high rank said, “Isn’t that using a steam hammer to crack a walnut?” “Well,” I answered, “if you happen to have a steam hammer and you don’t mind if there’s nothing left of the walnut, it’s not a bad way to crack it.” At this stage [of the beaten army recovering its self-confidence], we could not risk even small failures.

I love too the characteristics that General Slim sought when he conceived of, or approved, an action against the enemy.

The principles on which I planned all operations were:

1. The ultimate intention must be an offensive one.

2. The main idea must be simple.

3. That idea must be held in view throughout and everything else must give way to it.         

4. The plan must have in it an element of surprise.

These principles are not bad either for planning a book or a movie or any kind of artistic or entrepreneurial venture. And they worked. 

The Arakan battle, judged by the size of the forces engaged, was not of great magnitude, but it was, nevertheless, one of the historic successes of British arms. It was the turning point of the Burma campaign. For the first time a British force had met, held, and decisively defeated a major Japanese attack, and followed this up by driving the enemy out of the strongest possible natural positions that they had been preparing for months and were determined to hold at all costs.

Within eighteen months, General Slim’s forces, despite their “forgotten theater” handicap of lack of supplies, weapons, and logistical support, were closing in on an even greater prize. 

One of the gunners, stripped to the waist, was slamming shells into the breech of a twenty-five pounder [howitzer]. I stepped into the gun pit beside him. “I’m sorry,” I said, “you’ve got to do this all on half rations.” He looked up at me from under his battered bush hat. “Don’t you worry about that, sir. Put us on quarter rations, but give us the ammo and we’ll get you into Rangoon!”

Thank you, General Slim. You’ve just given us the mindset for our next novel, screenplay, art installation, dance, hip-hop album, Thai Fusion restaurant, tech startup, and run for political office.

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23 Comments

  1. Tolis Alexopoulos on January 5, 2022 at 5:33 am

    Thank you dear Steve, once again we return to the notion that in order for a mission to be accomplished, disciplined and moved women or men must act on it fully and at all stages. Strangely, many times we consider their emotions as blocks on the way because they tend to disorientate them. But I believe that all those “unwanted” emotions, while we pursuit our calling, are potentially great allies, maybe powerful if well taken care of, as long as we know how to communicate with them.

    When the general used a steam hammer to break walnuts, unconsciously what he did was showing a kind of respect to the “weak” emotion, the fear of his men, by making them feel safe. If they didn’t fear marching, he wouldn’t need to do all that.

    I could guess that the collective emotions of humanity are the greatest power in the world, since we are “the kings” of life on earth, and together with discipline (which is nothing more than “force for realization”) they can bring us to heaven or hell. Also, logic must marry emotions in order to achieve our full power. Logic, emotions and discipline.

    So easy to express these ideas, but so challenging to stick on them.

    I wish a wise new year to everyone!

  2. Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 7:03 am

    When I am deep in my familiar and comfortable cynicism (I’m a GenXer…it is our normal view of the world), war metaphors seem a bit hyperbolic.

    This past spring I participated in an ancient ceremony that included ancient plant medicine and singing. In short, that experience cut through all cynicism rather viciously.

    Fear, I finally came to understand, was an underlying emotion that drove me waaaaaayy more than I ever realized or (feeing a bit vulnerable here) wanted to admit to myself or anyone else. Even my insistence to understand things was based in fear. If I thought I understood something, then I was turning some degree of chaos into order, and I could then navigate said terrain.

    Truth? There really is no safety. My study, curiosity, reading, thinking, trying to understand is mostly a ruse to trick myself into a false sense of security.

    I spoke with a buddy of mine about this. He’s Annapolis, USMC Infantry Officer, then MARSOC (Marine Special Operations)–basically a bad-ass dude. He agreed with me. Upon reflection he said, “He might be the most frightened individual in the world–everything he did in the military was to try to prove to himself he’s not a coward…”

    Long preface to say that I believe Steve is 100% on the money to use war analogies for creation.

    Tolis nailed it above with combining discipline, emotion, and logic. My cynicism is and has been a shield against the world. It is also akin to only giving partial effort–if it doesn’t matter, why try so hard. All bullshit in an effort to protect my fragile ego.

    Gen Slim’s ‘steam hammer’ approach is similar to ‘Tiny Habits’ by BJ Fogg, or James Clear’s approach in Atomic Habits–it is making the action as guaranteed as possible for success. Either make the habit tiny–or bring overwhelming force to meet the problem.

    The New Year is generally chock full of optimism. Optimism fades and Resistance endures. The force ratio of a battalion to attack a platoon (for those non military folks, that is a ratio of about 12-16 to 1) is the appropriate perspective when facing down Resistance. Don’t give it an fbomb inch.

    This insight into my own fear (fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of unknown…fear of living…) learning to accept it, understand it, and be at peace with it–well, let’s just say I’m beginning this journey. I had the thought that I wish I had served under a guy like Gen Slim–then realized how fortunate I am to have found this site nearly 10 years ago. Steve is my General Slim.
    bsn

    • Waldo Waldman on January 5, 2022 at 7:12 am

      Good, insightful words Brian. I needed to hear this today. Thank you for sharing.
      Waldo

      • Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 6:22 pm

        Thanks Waldo. I appreciate the kind words. Just checked out your website! Impressive!! I reached out to you on LinkedIn.
        bsn

    • Bev on January 8, 2022 at 12:54 am

      Hi Brian,
      I really enjoyed reading your comments about fear and safety.
      Last year something very unexpected happened to me, a very different experience to yours, but in the same way, it widened my perspective on life.
      My business premises, on a nice neighborhood industrial estate, were very deliberately peppered with gun fire. My neighbour’s surveillance camera captured the two cocky young shooters, legs planted in front of my business and spraying a stream of bullets from their semi- automatic rifles into my doors and windows.
      Luckily it was 4.30am, so only property was damaged, there was no one inside the building.
      The police phoned me, and I was totally baffled as we make theatre costumes and have absolutely no dodgy associates, no debts etc. The police explained that it must have been a warning from a rival drug gang, who got the wrong address. Due to a glitch in Google- now fixed – several addresses in the neighborhood brought up a photo of our place when Googled.
      Scary stuff, right? And yet I didn’t react as you might expect. I was just normal-style pissed that we’d have to waste time cleaning up. Although it did give me pause to realize that any one of those bullets would have ripped through my skull and ended my life in an instant.
      The whole experience was just so unexpected, and so unprovoked that I really felt, not just knew with my brain, but really felt that fear is useless, except as a motivating force.
      And that if literally anything can happen, I have the ability to make things happen, to move projects and wishes forward that I had formerly been just coasting along with not really pushing. And it gave me a sense of urgency, that time is finite.
      So this is a much longer comment than I intended to write! I just wanted to say thanks Brian, and of course to Steven, for setting down your thoughts so clearly, so I can pick them up and add mine to them.
      Best wishes for 2022!
      Bev

  3. Kate Stanton on January 5, 2022 at 7:16 am

    Reading Steve’s inspirational posts the last two weeks along with all of the phenomenal responses has me left with this in mind:
    “ 4. The [individual soldier] must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly toward the attainment of the objective.”
    Creators, what you do matters!!! Keep marching along…one foot in front of the other.

    • Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 6:27 pm

      Kate,
      I agree. The creators of the world pull us all forward. Your work matters! Well said.
      bsn

  4. Sam Luna on January 5, 2022 at 7:31 am

    1. There must be a great and noble object.

    This is what floats above my head in big flashing neon letters. It is my special brand of Resistance. Weeks turn into months and before you know it a year has passed before I finally pick the “perfect” plot, story, character that I think will sustain me through a 2-3 year writing process. Yet as Brian perfectly stated above, “My study, curiosity, reading, thinking, trying to understand is mostly a ruse to trick myself into a false sense of security.”

    Bingo. And that is the boulder on my chest that I have to squirm out from under time and time again. Because the truth is anything I’ve written to completion started with me at my desk shrugging my shoulders and plunging into, as Coach put it in DO THE WORK, the “Quantum Soup.”

    • Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 6:30 pm

      Sam,
      Thanks for the nod–as an extreme extrovert, I think out loud. I was the kid who always answered first–not to win (well, not always), but to understand. I have to say it out loud, or write it out loud to understand what I’m thinking. It is nice to know that one or two of the 80,000+ thoughts that race through this melon might be helpful!

      Happy New Year friend. I wish you a prosperous 2022.
      bsn

  5. Mia Sherwood Landau on January 5, 2022 at 7:32 am

    I can relate to your four foundations of morale. That list is my favorite part of this post, and a good checklist for daily motivation.

  6. Brad Graft on January 5, 2022 at 8:17 am

    Great post and follow-on comments. In regards to “Morale”…
    No offense to General Slim, but I think Steve, sitting at his own desk during the writing of “The Profession,” presented (early in this book) a more complete version of the necessary components of morale for a fighting man. Steve wrote:
    “A warrior, once he reckons his calling and endures its initiation, seeks three things:
    -First, a field of conflict. This sphere must be worthy. It must own honor. It must merit the blood he will donate to it.
    -Second, a warrior seeks comrades. Brothers-in-arms, with whom he willingly undergoes the trial of death. Such men he recognizes at once and infallibly, by signs others cannot know.
    -Last, a warrior seeks a leader. A leader defines the cause for which the warrior offers sacrifice. Nor is this dumb obedience, as of a beast or a slave, but the knowing heart’s pursuit of vision and significance. The greatest commanders never issue orders. Rather, they compel by their own acts and virtue the emulation of those they command…”
    Steve’s old post on topic worth revisiting:
    https://stevenpressfield.com/books/the-profession-excerpt/

    I cracked open this passage of “The Profession,” just by chance, when struggling with some critical dialogue, during the writing of my second novel. Steve’s worked provided the needed light…

    • Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 6:39 pm

      Brad,
      I’m so glad you mentioned that you had just ‘cracked’ open ‘The Profession’ recently. I was like, “Holy $hit! How does he remember this so clearly?”

      I need to re-listen to that book, I forgot how much I enjoyed it.

      Those three components resonate deeply with me. They have been clearest to me as an athlete (team sports–that’s the comrades–I prefer soccer, basketball, football, baseball–hell, kickball, tag, kick the can, ditch (team hide-and-seek we’d play as kids) much more than cross-country or swimming. The athleticism isn’t the point as much for me–it is being on a team.

      The desire for good leadership also resonates deeply. I hope this doesn’t get me killed on this platform–but I wonder if this desire tends to be more of a male thing.

      Listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, Modern Wisdom, and the guest was a psychologist. He talked about how men and women bond differently, but what I found fascinating were the different hormones. Oxytocin, the hug hormone, is more pronounced in women while vasopressin is the male bonding hormone.

      Vasopressin is released under duress. Solving problems, doing hard shit as a team.

      Great post brother.
      bsn

  7. Brad Graft on January 5, 2022 at 8:37 am

    Of course it’s no stretch to apply these three components of morale to why this cadre of artists tune into Steve’s blog each week. 🙂

  8. Gerry Lantz on January 5, 2022 at 8:58 am

    Well damn it Steve, you’ve done it again. You’ve seduced me with military metaphors (which typically cause me to “resist”). This piece is solid stuff right down to the hammer and the walnuts! I’m taking the General’s prescriptions to heart as I re-do my website, which is a battle (ouch!) of sorts.

  9. Bing on January 5, 2022 at 10:38 am

    I’ve heard my body is 90% water, I also think my mind is 90% bullshit.
    My job is to compost the bullshit so it does not kill me.
    I love these posts. Thanks Steven.

  10. Janine Williams on January 5, 2022 at 11:45 am

    Inspiring and rings true for me! Not wimping on my big mission this year!
    Thank you Steve!!

  11. Brian Nelson on January 5, 2022 at 6:48 pm

    I enjoy returning to this site later in the day or the next day to re-read everyone’s posts. It is great because there are so many different insights/points of resonance with others that is like reading an entirely different post from Steve.

    Something usually hits me immediately upon reading this blog–and I cathartically spew my words and post before really thinking anything through. My posts are ‘gut responses’–and I actually capture them into my journal as well. I’m writing to myself mostly–but there is something irreversible about the blue ‘submit comment’ that is a bit like cliff jumping.

    Reading the interpretations/thoughts from others broadens my understanding, and frequently is more important and sticky to me than the original post.

    It must have been about 10 months into my first command when I finally realized how lonely it is to be the commander. I was no longer one of the Soldiers, nor one of the Lieutenants. I couldn’t just go hang out with the guys, in fact, when I did ‘photobomb’ my guys with ‘can I join you for lunch?’ — I was actually stealing their joy. They might have needed to complain about something I had done.

    Trying to live as a creator is just as, if not lonelier! There was no Writing Wednesdays for me as a commander–sometimes command and staff meetings–but not the same. The logistician is not in command. The HR director is not in command. They are all on the team…but command is its own cross to bear.

    Just a big thanks to all the creators out there who continually add value to my life with your comments and insights.
    bsn

    • Maureen Anderson on January 6, 2022 at 7:55 am

      I still can’t get over what a respectful, encouraging community this is. It’s great practice for speaking up.

      If you’re anything like me you’ve had a parade of people over the years who didn’t encourage that. I took them so much to heart I still feel guilty if I say much of anything. Showing up here, at least occasionally, helps — as it seems to with so many of you.

      The best part, for me, is seeing what people are up to. Not only what comments Steve has inspired, but what new projects. My name now links to my latest!

  12. Vitalii on January 7, 2022 at 5:27 am

    Dear Steve, greetings from Ukraine. Thank you for the interesting article. Many of General Slim’s principles, such as simplicity, main purpose, surprise, personal loyalty are similar to those of Admiral William McRaven’s Spec Ops Theory. These moral principles allow us to balance the factors that consisting of the “friction of war”, such as the will of the enemy, chance and uncertainty. According to McRaven’s theory, these moral factors are courage, intelligence, willingness to take risks and perseverance.

    Also interesting how you described that non-material force within us, which motivate us to give all our best and makes us feel like a part of something greater than ourselves. I immediately remembered your book “Gates of Fire”. As I understand correctly your foundations of morale are based on discipline, not punishment, which General Slim is thinking about: “A patrol leader can take his men a mile into the jungle, hide there, and return with any report he fancies.” Yes it is, I know it from my real combat experience. The real leader is the one who will change the mindset of people, so that they say like that gunner: “Put us on quarter rations, but give us the ammo and we’ll get you into Rangoon!”

    Thank you, Steve, for your books, articles and YouTube videos, especially “The Warrior Archetype” series.
    I wish a wise new year to everyone!

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  14. fnaf on January 12, 2022 at 12:27 am

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  16. Jurgen Strack on January 12, 2022 at 12:39 pm

    A great read and motivator. Thank you to Steve and all you guys.
    Wishing you all a Happy New 2022

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