The Color Code of Awareness: Developing a Combat Mindset

Used by soldiers and CIA agents alike, The Color Code of Awareness will help you see danger before it strikes and may just save your life.



In this article I describe a mindset used by our soldiers, special agents, and law-enforcement personnel that heightens your awareness and allows you to see potential threats to your safety ahead of time — providing a window of opportunity to prepare for or prevent potential conflict.

The Need to Pay Attention

Unfortunately there are not a lot of areas left in our world where you are immune to threats to your personal safety. With increases in crime such as theft, rape, and assault, it is in our best interest to pay attention.

In nature, predators seek out easy targets — the weak and the sick ones. Similar to the animal kingdom, human predators also seek out targets of opportunity — especially those who are unaware and oblivious to what’s around them. For this reason, it’s necessary to take on a state of mind that can help you stay alert to potential threats at all times and be able to intelligently react should you be faced with one. There’s no better metaphor for this state of mind than the Color Code of Awareness.

The Color Code of Awareness

The Color Code of Awareness has its origins in the U.S. Military but the adaptation as given here was originally put forth by the late Jeff Cooper, USMC(ret) and founder of Gunsite. This is not to be confused with the government’s form of color code which corresponds to the amount of danger to which you are exposed to at a given time. Instead, this refers to your current state of mind and willingness to take action regardless of real or imagined threats.

Condition White: the Unaware Masses

The Unaware

The next time you’re out and about take a look at the people around you. What are they doing and what do they notice? What you’ll begin to see is that most people are completely oblivious to their surroundings. This is Condition White. Whether they are sitting on a park bench completely engrossed in a book or walking with their gaze focused on the ground three feet in front of them, their attention is drawn somewhere else and they lose sight to what’s around them.

The Addiction of Thought

In fact the biggest monopolizer of your attention is your thoughts. Most people are addicted to thinking. You become a slave to the incessant ramblings of your own involuntary internal dialogue. In fact, the only difference between you and those ‘crazy’ people you see muttering to themselves on the street is that you are not muttering out loud.

The mind is a powerful and necessary tool when used in the right context. But like with any tool, we need to be able to put it down – or in this case shut it off – when we no longer need it. This is especially true in order to be aware and safe in our immediate environment. It’s those who are caught up in their thoughts that make perfect targets for potential predators.

Absolute Vulnerability

Condition White is where you will get surprised by your friends or a stranger that “happens upon you”. In white you are unready to take action to prevent injury or death. And it’s in this state that the only way you’ll survive a lethal attack is if your attacker is completely inept. Avoid this state at all times.

Condition Yellow: Relaxed Alertness

Learn to Always be Aware

Condition Yellow should be your normal everyday state of awareness. It’s in this state that you’ve accepted the fact that your life may be in danger at any time and you may have to do something about it. There is no specific threat but you are alert to any possibility.

You are relaxed and alert. You walk down the street with your head up and you’re looking around. You notice the late model blue Chevy pickup turning the corner, with an older gentleman driving. Your aware of the group of teenagers talking in a tight circle in front of the convenience store. You see a young couple crossing the street, heading your direction holding hands. When you leave for work in the morning you look around the neighborhood noticing anything out of the ordinary.

Lose Your Mind and Come to Your Senses

Most of all, your not caught up in your thoughts. Your mind is in the moment and although yellow is a relaxed state and you could stay in it indefinitely, it is still an active level of awareness — very different than white. You are actively taking mental notes of those things around you. In yellow you are aware of your surroundings and your mindset is such that “I may have to defend myself today”.

Condition Orange: Focused Alertness

Noticing a Potential Predator

If during Condition Yellow, something or someone triggers your attention indicating a potential threat you would immediately enter into Condition Orange. It doesn’t mean there is a threat only that there could potentially be one. The only real difference between the orange state and the yellow state is you now have a specific point of focus.

For example, you’re manning a store and in walks a guy who slips his hands in his inner coat pocket — your radar goes up, you enter Condition Orange. Or your heading to your car in the mall parking garage and you notice someone standing by a column up ahead instead of heading to his car or the mall entrance, you now have a point of focus and you are in an orange state. It need not only be a person that triggers this, it could be any indicator that is out of context with what is expected, such as a light being off that you know was previously on, or an environmental choke point such as a corner block or an upcoming side alleyway.

Perform Evasive Maneuvers to Determine Intention

When you’ve entered Condition Orange, you begin to make evasive maneuvers if possible. If someone in a car behind you triggered orange, you would simply turn at the next light. It’s as simple as that. If they are still behind you try turning at the next left. Then right again. If they are still behind you it is a strong indication that you’re being followed. In the case of the man next to the parking column, you would change your trajectory or give him wide berth. If it’s a dark alley up ahead, try to keep your distance.

Create a Mental Trigger and Formulate Your Tactical Plan

As you are performing your evasive maneuvers you’ll want to quickly set up a mental trigger and formulate a tactical plan. “If he does x I will do the following”, or “If x happens when I reach that alleyway, I’ll do this”. That ‘x’ is the mental trigger that springs you into action. Your tactical plan could be anything from more extreme evasive maneuvers to drawing your weapon on someone to a lethal response. If the trigger never comes (either because that person or indicator is not a threat) or because of your awareness they decided they better not do anything — you would deescalate to yellow again. Remember, most predators want to have the element of surprise. When they catch on that you’ve caught on to them, they generally seek easier prey.

Condition Red: Ready to Act

Locked and Ready

In Condition Red you’ve determined that the threat is real and although you may or may not be in the middle of a conflict you are READY TO ACT. You’re mentally prepared to carry out your plan.

The difference between Condition Red and Condition Yellow may at first seem unclear. In Condition Red, not only have you determined that the threat is very real, but more importantly you’ve made a mental decision to act if the trigger from Condition Yellow is tripped. It’s a very subtle but important difference. You not only have a plan on what to do and when to act (Condition Yellow) but you are prepared to carry out that act. This is especially important when the decision that you made requires a lethal response. Let me give you an example that illustrates the difference:

The Two Officers

There are two police officers on duty. Someone approaches them stating that around the corner there is some crazy guy waving around a gun. As they quickly move to the corner and yell “Drop your weapon!” in a flash the man begins to draw his gun on them and the first officer shoots him right away while the other is standing there looking surprised. What happened?

The difference is that the first officer mentally tells himself, “I’ll tell the guy to drop his weapon and show us his hands. If he complies we’ll arrest him, if he begins to draw his gun on us, I’m shooting him. End of story.” This officer is in Condition Red. The second officer makes a similar plan but is not quite certain of his decision to act on it. The plan was made, but the decision to act on that plan wasn’t set in his mind and therefore he was susceptible to suprise and hesitation. He was still in Condition Orange.

Condition Red is all about knowing that if your opponent steps over that mental line in the sand (your trigger) you know what to do and YOU WILL DO IT. No hesitation. No questions asked.

A Personal Experience

To illustrate the color code in action I want to share a personal experience. During my college days I would work the summers at my best friends pizza store as a delivery driver. Sometimes we were called to deliver pizza to certain “project” areas that were notorious for crime. Whenever I worked in those areas I would always be in Condition Yellow. On one particular evening I was called to run an order there.

After delivering the pizza to the house I was sent to, I was walking back to my car with the empty pizza bag. Now mind you, at that time we had these lit up signs that were attached to the roof of our cars for advertisement which stood out as a perfect invitation for warm food and lots of cash for the shadier elements of our society. Anyways, as I was heading back I noticed in the distance two guys walking toward me, barely illuminated by the poor street lighting. I entered Condition Orange.

I began to make a small trajectory change in my direction of travel that would lead me around them. They also corrected their trajectory so that we were again heading on a collision course. At that moment the transition from yellow to orange to red was very quick. I made a plan, by wrapping the pizza bag around my arm to act as a shield if they were carrying knives and I subtly pulled my knife out of my back pocket, flipped it open and hid it behind me. I had made the decision that if they jumped me I would stab them both, violently and quickly.

As they were nearly on me, I recognized the taller of the two in the light of the street lamp. Someone that I went to Junior High with. I said, “Jameal, is that you?” They both immediately stopped in their tracks, and Jameal recognized me exclaming, “Erich! You’re so lucky! We were going to jump you and take your money.” At that moment I showed them my knife and what I was intending to do. They were both even more surprised. The condition immediately went back down to yellow.


Because of the threats to our safety so prevalent in our day, the need to pay attention is huge. Martial skill is only half of the equation. Because if you’re not mentally prepared, you’ll be stuck flatfooted when required to act.

How do you win in combat? By being mentally prepared to win. And the Color Code of Awareness is the perfect tool to gaining a winning combat mindset.


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