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Important Lessons From Commanding Killing Machines

Reflections on my tour as a tank/APC commander


Charging down open plains at full throttle atop a 20-tonne steel monster, wind in my face and machine gun in my hand, is at once invigorating and terrifying.

Somehow I’ve managed to do that multiple times and still got out alive. I served two years in the Singapore Armed Forces as an armored personnel carrier (APC) and tank commander — I’m trained to drive, fire and command up to five vehicles and 40 soldiers at once. Often, we encounter life-threatening (both simulated and no duff) situations on mission where a volley of decisions must be made in quick succession, where a slight misstep on the commander’s part may result in the entire crew’s demise. Other times, we are faced with the dilemmas of people-management and the challenges of administration.

I do not claim to be the best commander around; in fact I’m far from it in every aspect, be it command, administration, instruction, or beer-drinking. However, fallibility begets learning, and I have certainly picked up some lessons during my short tour that have brought, and will bring, me through trials both in the army and beyond, including a well-seasoned liver. I hope they prove to be useful, or at least intriguing, to you.

Killing is too easy, and death is too hard

Your son is dead.

There are a million ways to do it. A 5.56mm through the head. A 7.62mm through the chest. A 25mm Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding-Sabot round through the side of the tank, impaling everything in its path with shrapnel and melting everything else. You feel nothing, perhaps even triumph, as you pull the trigger and see the human-shaped target fall.

But what if your soldier died? In front of you? Because of you?

In the past year we’ve seen several sons of Singapore fall. Regardless of the reasons of their passing, one group of people has been placed under extreme scrutiny — their commanders. A commander’s responsibility is twofold: to complete his mission, and keep his men alive. Both should take precedence over his own life.

In the history of the Armed Forces, multiple deaths have occurred due to commanders’ neglect. Some insisted on pressing on with training despite their soldiers complaining of ill health, which led to heatstroke and cardiac arrest. Some made reckless decisions on risky training grounds, which led to vehicle accidents that saw soldiers, or themselves, crushed as tanks overturned.

I remember a sweltering night in December, when my platoon of soon-to-be officers were dismissed from parade and gathered in front of our instructor. Our once-pristine white tees and shorts were yellowed by months of sweat and gravel, and sullied by smudges of diesel we couldn’t wash off in time for parade. But, they were not stained with blood. He looked us each dead in the eye. “Cadets,” he said, “you’ll soon be commissioned as officers. You’ll soon have men to lead. From now on, you do not live for yourselves; you live for them. Train hard, but also pay attention to them and look after them, because their lives are in your hands now.”

“There will be no more room for mistake, because a mistake is a life. A life you took. If your soldier dies, do you think you can look his parents in the eye and tell them, ‘Your son is dead’?”

In my command, I have encountered several close shaves, a few hospitalizations and a suicide threat. I thank God that no lives were lost, and it is a constant reminder that I am not yet a competent leader.

Any soldier can take a life, but few can bear its burden.

3SG Gavin Chan, 41 Bn, Armor (Article)

CFC Dave Lee, 1 Bn, Guards (Article)

CPL Kok Yuen Chin, Tuas View Station, SCDF (Article)

And many before them.

Thank you for your service, and rest in peace.

The Mask of Confidence

The people we lead can handle crises, but they will not accept a flailing leader.

When I was deployed to my unit, the only useful guidance I received was to my bunk. “Here’s your bed,” the administrative sergeant said with a smile. “Ok, see you Monday.” Then he vanished without a trace. It was a Friday afternoon, and everyone in the company had gone home. My partner stared blankly at me. “What are we supposed to do again?” Addended to that question was: Who’s our boss? Who are our soldiers? Is there an introductory speech? Is there a script? Are there washing machines?

Fast forward to one month later. I was shivering with my new platoon in some mountain (classified) at the break of dawn. I hadn’t slept; I spent the night listening intently to the radio comms and studying a poorly-scrawled diagram of our deployment under a tiny torchlight hung from the tent beam. Where is the enemy? When are they coming? Should I wake my men up? What if my plan fails? The quickly-approaching rumble of my first mission rattled my bones harder than the cold morning draft.

We are accustomed to seeing confident people. Celebrities, performers, speakers, CEOs, teachers — we take their chutzpah for granted and expect them to know what they’re doing, such that when they trip up, if ever, they seem deserving of harsh denigration. Yet when we are placed on the same stage, how will we measure up?

Every leader recalls the unavoidable stress to perform. Often things go south at the worst times. Often we have absolutely no clue what we’re supposed to do. I’m not saying that we have to always be in control, because sometimes it’s not humanly possible. However, we must look like we are, for the show must go on. The people we lead can handle crises, but they will not accept a flailing leader.

Fake it till you make it. You may be faltering inside, but it mustn’t show on your demeanour. Your gaze must be strong, even when your hands are weak.

“Wake the fuck up boys. Time to man stations.”

My men stirred wearily. “Are you sure sir? They won’t come so soon.”

Honestly I knew nothing besides the fact that the sun was up. “Are you a psychic or a private? Go get ready.”

The enemy didn’t show up for another two hours. I might have been a crap psychic, but not a bad platoon commander.

Panic. But only after planning.

Overwhelm is not a result of having too much to do, it’s a result of not knowing what to do next.

-Matthew Kimberley

October. The roar of engines rolled down the open savannah like a pride of savage lions. I thought I could just make out a swarm of little pinpoints of light in the distance, tunnelling towards us. We were two APCs, both wounded. They were, from the menacing thunder that shook the ground where we stood, at least five or six, possibly tanks. Probably tanks. Most definitely tanks.

“What do we do sir? Sir?”

The dirt road and the entry to our hidden landing were littered with dead tanks — it’d take forever to manoeuvre out. The overbearing rumbling was jamming my brain; is there time? Should we retreat? What if they pursue? Stay and fight? What do I do? They’re coming. They’re coming. They’re coming.

I forgot that the radio receiver was still stuck in my helmet, and presently it screeched back to life, unceremoniously and without warning, like being hit by a flying street sign while caught in a typhoon. “OI, SIR!” it yelled. “What do we do?”

That snapped me and my eardrums out of it. I glanced around, checked the terrain, and yanked the receiver from the side of my head. “Take your vehicle up that slope to the south 200m, I’ll follow. Park behind vegetation. Ready all your smokes. Keep engines on. HQ this is PC, sir, I need you to prepare arti-fire on my current position, over.”

“Sir, then what?”

“We’re pulling off the escape of the century. And can you NOT SHOUT ON COMMS YOU DIPSHIT?”

As leaders, panic is not just disconcerting for ourselves, but also for those we lead. Panicking is fine. Panicking is human. But before doing something risky, make sure you’re ready to panic, and have a way out when you do.

In my time serving as an officer, I remember falling into ‘panic state’ four times — thrice during field missions and once during administrative conduct. Panic happens when we go beyond our stress threshold. This may manifest differently for everyone; I begin to experience tunnel vision, speak a lot quicker (and higher-pitched), fiddle uncomfortably, or my mind goes blank. However, panic is not hysteria — while in panic state you should still have control, albeit inhibited, over your thoughts and decisions, and you must exercise that control to keep the mission running.

Often when we panic we feel overwhelmed, out of control and our minds switch off. Matthew Kimberley puts it, “Overwhelm is not a result of having too much to do, it’s a result of not knowing what to do next.” The key is to have a good understanding of what happens to you when you panic, then plan what to do when that happens. By immediately knowing and taking the next step, we can overcome that loss of control and keep our heads on.

Think back to when you last remember being flustered or in shock — it could be when you overslept a meeting, or forgot something important, or got into a close shave with an accident. Did you freeze on the spot, or start pacing frantically? Did your mind go blank, or did you start imagining all kinds of things? How long did it take you to make your first informed decision?

Now plan your next step. Have a ‘quick-reset button’ — maybe it’s meditation, or washing your face, or calling your mum. Automatically do something that clears your mind and keeps it from switching off. Practice that until you’re so self-aware that you immediately realize when you’re panicking, and can dive right back into your mission and make the next move without needing the reset to snap you out of panic.


“PC this is HQ, fire’s ready, out.”

Hiding in a thick brush, I could hear the tanks closing in on our landing. Any second now, and they’ll overrun our old position. “Crew, remember that thing I asked you to prepare before mission started? Here’s what we’re going to do.”

200m away, a company of tanks make their way around their fallen comrades and creep into an open landing. An infantry platoon dismounts and combs the area — no one is found. They park the vehicles in the landing and regroup.

Suddenly, sirens blare in unison — an artillery strike. Soldiers stumble to their feet and run, commanders and drivers scramble to their vehicles to leave. They start up their engines and swing their tanks around, but with three squeezed into the landing, they’re stuck. Then, from behind, the growl of diesel and steel on gravel, two sets of blazing headlights; a pair of dingy APCs burst forth into the landing, every gun on board barraging — cannons, machine guns, even rifles poking out of the trooper’s hatches firing at full capacity.

Before the stunned enemies could turn back around and return fire, their tanks fall one by one. A silhouette emerges from above the first APC, towering over the turret, waving one smoke grenade in each hand like a mad ninja. The rogue pair swerve sharply to the right, into a prepared hidden exit carved out of the vegetation, then everything is engulfed in a pungent grey blanket.

It all happens in a whirl. When the smoke finally clears, all that is left are three more dead tanks, a bunch of wounded infantry, and no sign of the two guerrilla APCs besides the sound of engines revving far to the east.

“HQ, this is PC, we’re out. No casualties. Over.”

— —

LT(NS) Simon Tang aka “Armskoteman”, “Tankee*”, “Letter-nen**”, “Nightmare”

* Not actually a tankee. Name given by people who couldn’t tell the difference between a tank and an APC. Talking about you infantry.

** ‘Lieutenant’.

Originally published at medium.com

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