Every Man Has A Breaking Point

Pressure reveals the man.  Take a man, any man, and subject him to extreme stress.  Subject him to sleep deprivation or fear, exhaustion, and the uncertainties of climate and personal safety, and you will see the soul of the man.  This is what I always liked about extreme stress.  It reveals the true essence.  A young military trainee thrown into an extreme environment or hostile fire zone, or a young lawyer taking on his first big high-stakes jury trial, will both reveal their inner natures by their performance and responses to pressure.

A man’s response can’t be faked.  It just can’t.  Some men like to talk big, to pound their chests about one thing or another.  But those who have truly seen the face of the Beast know it is not a joke, not something to be taken lightly. Because the Beast is avaricious, and he feeds on souls.

And sometimes we find out things about ourselves that we would rather not know.  But it is a fascinating exposition.  It is a wonder to behold.  Those who enter these dark arenas are driven by a passionate desire to test their cold steel against the flesh of the world.  It is truly the greatest drama of all.

And you never can tell.  You never can.  That man you see over there, for instance, who seems to be a quiet, bespectacled introvert, may turn out to have the soul of a lion.  Or that peacocking, muscled braggart over there may be revealed to be a man of straw at the moment of truth.  Or vice-versa.  You just never can be certain.

But every man has a breaking point.  Every man.  I remember reading a story in Tom Mangold and John Penycate’s book The Tunnels of Cu Chi some years ago that resonated with me and stuck in my memory.  I want to relate it here.


Jack Flowers was a college dropout who got drafted into the US Army the late 1960s and found himself serving in Vietnam.  Because of his educational background, he was put through an officer training program and was assigned to an engineer battalion.  Over time, he began to feel the stirrings of an unsuspected militancy, and became more and more interested in taking an active part in the fighting.  Two experiences helped push him in this direction.  One was getting called a REMF (rear echelon motherfucker), and another was seeing a dead comrade getting pulled out of a Viet Cong tunnel.

Like some men, he was driven by a secret pride that felt compelled to test the limits of its endurance.  Flowers would soon get his chance.  Against the advice of his friends and family he decided to join an elite group of “tunnel rats”, which specialized in locating and destroying the enemy in its dark honeycomb of underground lairs.  Armed only with a switchblade, flashlight, revolver, and a grenade, a tunnel rat had to go down into the tunnels, seek out the enemy, and kill him in one-on-one combat.

And by all accounts, combat in the claustrophobic tunnels was a horrifying experience, profound beyond words.  It was as personal as the war ever got.  And there was no way to fake it.

The man who had trained and led the tunnel rats which Flowers joined was a smoldering, inscrutable soldier named Sergeant Robert Batten.  He was nicknamed Batman.  And he was both widely feared and respected for his extraordinary body counts and ruthless leadership abilities.  Batten was a legend, and he knew it.  He was a tough, cunning, and deeply aggressive man; someone who might have been a nonentity in regular life but had come into his own during the war.

The Viet Cong knew who he was, and had put him on their “ten most wanted” list.  Captured VC spoke of him with awe.  Batten didn’t like most officers, and he didn’t like poseurs.  Incompetents and fake heroics could get men killed.  Everyone had to pull his weight; there was no rank in the tunnels.  “We’ll get along just fine if you stay out of my way” was his curt statement to Flowers.

The tunnel rats were a highly professional unit.  There were many Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, men coming from cultures for whom the martial spirit of Old Spain had never really died, men who were not squeamish about using a knife, men who had never gotten much from life and expected little from it.    There were also many quiet, unassuming hillbilly types, men who were otherwise soft-spoken but who became unglued in the tunnels, relishing in the brutality of man-on-man combat.

Man is a complex and many-layered being.

Slowly and steadily, Flowers built up his credibility with Batten and the tunnel rats and earned their respect.  He knew he could never ask one of his men to do something he himself would not do, so he personally went on many tunnel missions.  He began to lead his unit in fact as well as in theory.  He was even wounded by a grenade on a tunnel mission with Batten.  And his confidence soared.  He was a good “Six” (tunnel rats used the term “Six” as the code word for leader).  He had wanted to prove to Batten that he was his equal, that he was a good fighter, and a good leader.


But Batman was unimpressed.  He sized up Flowers in his own ruthless way, and issued his own verdict.  One day, Batten said to him, “You’re not a killer, Six, and that’s your problem.  You’re pretty good, the best Six I ever had, but you’ll fuck up somewhere.  Charlie hasn’t killed a rat for quite a time.  And you’ll either let him get you, or you’ll get yourself.”  Flowers was stung by the remark but let it go.  Batten rotated out of Vietnam soon after, after having served three back-to-back tours.

One day, Flowers and his men were out on a mission.  A tunnel complex was discovered and someone spotted a VC disappear down a shaft that went straight down twenty feet before angling off horizontally.  They thought they had the VC cornered.  He had to be down there, they thought, crouching in the horizontal tunnel with his AK-47 at the ready.

Flowers was exhausted but pressed on.  He looked down the shaft.  It was a rat hole leading straight to hell.  He decided to have his men lower him in a seated rope cradle (called a Swiss seat) halfway down the shaft.  They would then drop him, and he would hit the bottom of the shaft so he could take the cornered VC by surprise.

One of the rules of the tunnel rats was never to fire more than three shots from a .38 revolver, as this would reveal that the shooter needed to reload.  As Flowers was lowered slowly down into the shaft, his men looked on in grim and fearful silence.  He was soaked in sweat, throbbing with adrenaline, and he kept hearing Batten’s voice.

You’ll fuck up somewhere, Six…you’ll either let him get you, or you’ll get yourself. 

His plan was to hit the ground and immediately get off a head shot against the VC before he himself was hit.  He fully expected to get hit, and, as he was lowered slowly into the hole, he tried to visualize the best shooting position to get into.  Finally Flowers gave the signal and he was dropped into the inky blackness.  He hit the ground and started firing.  And kept firing.  After his men heard six shots ring out, one of them threw down a second revolver.


And then there was silence.  When the acrid tang of cordite cleared, Flowers breathlessly tried to make out what was in front of him.  There was nothing but a blank dirt wall.  No VC with a gun.  Just a cluster of bullet holes in the damp earth.  Exhausted and stressed beyond limit, he had fired all six rounds against an imaginary target.  And the rules said no more than three shots.  Flowers rubbed his fingetips against the six neat holes in the packed earthen wall, and then put his head in his hands.  And in his mind, he heard Batten’s voice.

You’ll get yourself, Six.  You’ll get yourself…

Word of the incident found its way back to Flowers’s commanding officer, and he was relieved.  Not much was said, but it was clear that his men had lost confidence in him.  For the good of the unit, he was shipped out of the area to another part of Vietnam.  There were no goodbyes, no pats on the back, nothing.  He was just gone.  And then Flowers secluded himself and stayed drunk for a week.  He had found his limits, and his war was over.

He had done his job with honor, and tested the hazy boundaries of his own endurance and tenacity.  He had nothing to be ashamed of.  But the merciless struggle leaves no one unscathed.  No one is exempt.  And as character determines fate, so there is no escape from the pitiless rendezvous between man and his destiny.  It makes us and it breaks us with equally callous apathy.

The obscenities of conflict strip us down, flay the protective skins from our bodies, and expose the souls of the innocent to the bitter mockery of the damned.

Read More:  The Parable of Aepyornis Island

47 thoughts on “Every Man Has A Breaking Point”

  1. I thought the Tunnel Rats were armed with .45s?
    Charles II’s escape from England after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester is another episode of this sort that comes to mind. He had to rely on his ability to win supporters, his wit, and his eyes to hide himself (and at over 6 feet tall, he was someone that stood out in those times). The guy ran for his life and managed to just barely escape. And he was only 21 years old. How many of us can say they faced such an episode at any time, especially that young?

    1. Personal gear for the tunnel rats was highly individualized. A few liked .45s, but the .38 revolver was generally preferred due to its less likelihood of jamming, and the fact that it was less loud than the .45.

  2. Cheers QC. Attended my first boxing training session on Friday – my body is still shattered but I respect myself for having completed it. That type of self respect is the foundation of inner game. Also, there is no better teacher than pain.

  3. I really enjoyed this. Limits are a test of character and when I meet them, I try to remember that I face an opportunity to surpass myself.

  4. Great story… I too believe that we all have our limits (and still trying to find them after nearly 51 years).
    So where the hell was that VC hiding? Looks like he too chickened out 🙂

  5. All too true. I have seen so many muscleheads who have folded like Superman on laundry day when challenged.

    1. I’d rather come home exhausted with swollen joints and muscles, dirt under my fingernails, cuts and calluses on my hands, than return home effetely with rippling torso that’s been shaved and oiled- the facies of masculinity that gives out after an half-hour of lifting boxes. “Gym-muscles” tend to fail us in grandiose fashion at the most inopportune of times: as soon as they’re tested in the field of battle. Watch any seven-day-a-week gym-rat try to keep up with the scrawny Mexican immigrant in the tomato fields or picking grapes in the vineyard; watch him try to match the 50 years old, paunched veteran who mixes cement and carries buckets of tar and tiles up a roof in the Florida summer, or the yeoman who doggedly hoes the forest of weeds in his compacted and rocky soil- breaking only to sharpen his tools and wipe sweat from his brow; watch him closely as he grips his hammer and tries to demolish a small wall in six hours by smashing steel against concrete (will he ignore the blisters that form and pop in just an hour? Will he persist in using the force necessary to chip away at the wall after only two hours of feeling the same shock every time metal meets stone- sending the kinetic energy mostly back to the only place it can: the hand, wrist, arm, and shoulder?) Give me the wirey or thick limbed man with dirt around his collar, back built like stacked bricks, and an iron-grip for the ages, rather than the buff bodybuilder whose legs, shoulders, and back seem to quit just as soon as his hands see first-blood; give me the stench of musk over the sterile sweat from a gym; give me strong endurance and adaptation over the illusion of power that disintegrates the moment it’s tested by anything other than a mechanized and predictable resistance.

      1. Excellent point being made here. Lifting weights is only one kind of fitness. There are other aspects such as threshold pain etc. I have seen really skinny dudes working at moving companies and hauling really heavy shit all over the place. In fact, guys who move stuff like refrigerators are going to be a helluva lot slender but have more stength then the meathead who is weightlifitng getting cosmetically buff.
        There is another aspect too: the ability for a man to take the “fight” position when the “fight or flight” situation arises.
        And and this is where martial arts will also give the upper hand.
        Lifting weights is good for stress relief and there is an initial confidence that comes from this, but to be more “complete” requires excercising the other pillars that makes up a man’s strength.

    2. It often doesn’t take a lot to make people crack, either. I’m in graduate school and you wouldn’t believe the number of intellectual tough guys who break down and leave the moment their supervisor demands something just a little too hard. And when you ask them, it’s all just excuses excuses excuses. “My supervisor’s a jerk.” No he’s not. “A graduate degree is useless.” No it isn’t. Etc.
      On the other hand I’ve seen more than one pretty, emotional little girl come in, and you think to yourself, “No way, she’s going to crack the instant the first scathing review comes back trashing her months of hard work.” But no, they inexplicably stay and graduate. Of course we also get the special little snowflakes who can’t handle the pressure. So I agree that there’s no way you can tell until just by appearance.

  6. Having crawled through one of those VC tunnels myself (long after the war ended)… that shit is scary enough without someone who wants to kill you in it. Even if he eventually panicked and lost his men’s faith, pretty impressive anyone could do what Flowers (not to mention Batten) there did.

  7. My friend did 5 tours in 5th sfg. Guess what, he can’t climb a ladder without getting a panic attack, he’s afraid of heights.

  8. Good article, but I find myself disagreeing with some if its …deterministic… ideas. Namely the “either you are or you aren’t” mindset. There is no “true essence”.
    Humans have a great capacity to change and adapt. The “lion” wasn’t born a lion, and the straw man won’t necesarily stay a straw man forever. Yes, adversity reveals character… at a particular moment in time. But whether the character is good or bad, nothing guarantees that it will stay that way. And a straw man can turn into a lion if given sufficient motive. Fire doesn’t just reveal, it also forges.
    Flowers had found his limits, but if given the chance he might have found a way to push them further.

  9. Great story. You never know how you’ll react until you’re actually in the heat of the situation.

  10. that looks like GAPING, FAT, DRIPPING VAGINA of a fat chick…since this is fat week. hahaha.

  11. I think most men become better when put under some pressure, and certainly when they have good examples or a good mentor to help them. Male camaraderie is an extremely powerful motivating force, even when it seems negative (like when Flowers was called a REMF, they were kind of saying we want you up here with or us or not at all).
    Very well written.

  12. Great story. Nice synopsis.
    Read that book back in college.
    Education is wasted on the young.
    Ought to read it again now that I’m a grown man.

  13. Now, that’s a great article. Felt suffocated, claustrophobic, and anxious at the beginning, that made me feel the catharsis at the end, a somber tone and melancholy that always marks true heroism.

  14. By far the best article I’ve ever read on this website. As someone who makes a living in the ancient profession of warfare this resonated with me in my core.

  15. quintus, i’ve been an avid reader of rok for some months but this post is the first one i’m compelled to comment about. thank you. these are things that we men secretly daydream about if we’re honest; well done sir and again thank you. please keep them coming.

  16. …BUT performance under pressure is a SKILL that can be learned, just like Game.
    The first time I saw a marine pass out from heat exhaustion on a hump in camp Lejeune, I got a rush of blood to my head and had no idea what to do. A year later in Afghanistan when we had to treat two double amputees me and the guys just went to work, it was no big deal.
    Experience is the basis of confidence.

  17. It is possible to truly meet your breaking point. I obtained and have kept a very high status career with international travel, earning 250k, while ignoring severe depression for 20yrs. In the end I had had enough and chose to commit suicide rather than become a “failure”. An extremely unlikely event frustrated my attempt and I sought treatment because it seemed like an even greater challenge. It was. I succeeded. Went on “sabbatical” for 8 months, kept my career, only my wife knew. Hardest “work” I’ve ever done. Should have done it 20yrs ago

    1. I would’ve done something about it earlier if I’d been prepared to accept a “lesser breaking point”, but I pushed it right beyond the absolute limit. I would encourage other men to accept their breaking points at an earlier stage and THEN see the struggle to make a comeback as the greatest possible achievement. Icarus.

  18. The last few paragraphs are greatttt. The last one means a lot . Dont be the “damned” guys . For the damned will most likley never even test thier limits . They are left with dreams and thoughts of what it would be like. That is all . Test your limits . Its great fun.

  19. That’s the best article I’ve ever read on ROK. Give me chills and made me want to strangle a communist.

  20. Though this article is awesome, the picture used (of the entrance to the tunnel) is a bit funny, when viewed from a distance from the screen. Reminiscent of the gape of an ex-girlfriend’s anus, after anal.

  21. Being a man sometimes means knowing your limits.
    Testing them, pushing them, extending them, REALIZING them …

  22. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

  23. That is one immersive story, even more so because it’s true. Remind me not to join the army. Ever.
    Can anybody tell me why Americans went to war in Vietnam? I can’t seem to remember.

  24. Exellent story Q.
    But there there are layers to this story we should look closer at.
    You say “They thought they had the VC cornered. He had to be down there, they thought, crouching in the horizontal tunnel with his AK-47 at the ready.”
    Yet, at the same time we are told that “One of the rules of the tunnel rats was never to fire more than three shots from a .38 revolver, as this would reveal that the shooter needed to reload.”
    So the VC had an AK47, and could blast off as many shots as he wanted to, while Flowers was expected to limit his shooting to 3 shots only:
    – So the 3-shots-only rule was for his own personal safety, as firing more than 3 shots would reveal his need to reload.
    So here`s the thing:
    When Flowers thus fired off all 6 shots, his priority was killing the enemy, rather than saving 3 bullets for a rainy day.
    Thus Flowers himself had nothing more to defend himself with, but the act of of using all 6 bullets doubled the chances of killing the VC.
    So: Flowers went “All in”. And as 6 bullets doubles the chances of killing the enemy, Flowers thus doubled the chances that neither he,- nor any of his men, would get killed by the VC.
    So you`re right: Flowers had nothing to ashamed of.
    He broke the 3-shots-only rule, but that rule was designed to protect himself in a scenario where people expected multiple back and forth gun-fire.
    The 3-shots-only rule, only makes sense in a scenario were there is corners or some kind of covers to hide behind.
    While this scenario sounds more like a face to face western-style duel, where you either got the guy at the first attempt, or you did not and he got you.
    So, the story could have had another ending IF Flowers had followed the rules:
    “..Flowers blasted off 3 shots, then stopped and listened for a reply. The VC then emptied his clip in Flowers`face and Flowers went home without a head.
    The VC then went on to become a successful entrepeneur after the war, and lived a life of riley until he died content and happy of old age.
    – While Flowers was buried headless – with his 3 remaining bullets still in his revolver…”
    So Q, as great as the story was I wouldn`t count out old Flowers just yet.
    Flowers sounds more like a man who knew when to follow the rules and when to say:
    “Fuck you and fuck your rules. Cause I`m gonna get this motherfucker if it`s the last thing I`ll ever do..”
    So here`s to you Mr Flowers.
    Fuck them: And fuck their “breaking points”.


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