The beatings will continue until morale improves.
–Pretty much everyone. Pretty much everywhere.
If you haven’t read it, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal is quite an interesting book and is worth your time if you’re remotely interested in the subject matter. Basically, it’s about achieving (and using) states of altered consciousness, or “flow state,” as they call it, and the impacts (both positive and negative) this can have across a variety of areas.
There’s undoubtedly an awful lot to unpack, analyze, research, and, frankly also to question and debate related to the specific content that’s in the book. For this article, however, we want to focus on a specific comment about the impacts of training systems that was made to the book’s authors by the then commander of Seal Team Six.
According to the book, the Commander spoke at-length with the authors about the cost and effort required to build an elite-level operator for Tier 1 operations (improving training efficiency and operational performance through exploiting altered states of consciousness is the link to the book’s subject matter). However, another very interesting thing he mentioned, quoted almost in passing in the book, is that one of the increasing areas of focus with respect to evaluating training is related to the cost, not in terms of money, but rather what he termed human collateraI. In other words, the broken bodies and souls left behind that are required to achieve that level of operational performance using our existing selection, training, and evaluation systems and methods.
This collateral is something “warrior culture,” to put an overly broad label on it, tends to overlook most of the time. In some ways, the collateral damage is something we actively embrace—even seek out and value.
“No pain, no gain.”
“If it hurts, you’re still alive.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
And, of course, there’s genuine method to the madness here.
Though some folks out there may not like it, what warriors do, fundamentally, is fight. This typically involves spending lots of time in really unpleasant conditions, many of which are specifically intended to destroy both the human body and the human mind, while also doing everything conceivably possible to kill, maim, and otherwise incapacitate or destroy other people in the process. It’s unpleasant. It’s dirty. It’s messy. It’s brutal. And it’s not for the faint of heart, weak of mind, or uncommitted.
Sending people into combat is fundamentally about putting human beings into conditions that are designed to utterly destroy them—physically, psychologically, and spiritually. In fact, that’s the adversary’s objective. So, preparing people for that type of setting has always been something of a challenge, historically approached with varying degrees of seriousness, depending on the nation or organization involved.
The basic principle for doing it “right” is simple though. Isn’t it?
We’ll put candidates into conditions that are designed to destroy them and see who’s still standing at the end. Those are your guys (and, nowadays, gals too). Tough as nails—ready to fight. That’s how it works—right?
Of course, in response to these unpleasant, frequently damaging, conditions, the question usually gets asked (inevitably by somebody who doesn’t understand—or perhaps refuses to understand—the operational reality), “People are getting hurt! Do we NEED to do this?”
The author recalls hearing, many years ago, from one of the course instructors about how a pilot mechanical breaching class for the regular Navy was shut down on the spot by the Surface Warfare Development Group (SWDG) program lead. (Since this is for consumption on the internet…this is NOT to be confused with the Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) please).
“There are splinters flying! Someone could get injured! Stop the training!”
The dumbfounded instructor didn’t even know how to respond, “Well, we’re breaking down wood doors. Breaking wood makes splinters. Breaking doors is the whole point of the class…so…?”
The training never resumed (at least not in that timeframe). Can’t have splinters during breaching apparently…
Allow us to be crystal clear that we aren’t making that type of argument here, nor anything like it. There will always be an element of risk associated with training people to fight and kill other people and break things. Sometimes that risk will be significant and sometimes people will get hurt. Occasionally they will even get killed (though this shouldn’t happen, especially in firearms-related training).
Risk goes with the territory and it’s probably always going to be necessary to accept some level of these types of outcomes at a certain point in the training process (depending, of course on the desired operational environment and skillset) if we want to adequately develop the skills necessary for combat and other tactical applications.
We aren’t going to argue against the need for things like risk and stress in training.
Instead, we’re going to suggest an entirely different set of questions:
1) Is there a more effective and more efficient way to get the same (or better) results? And,
2) What happens to the ones who fall behind?
Oh yeah, them.
It’s easy to forget about the refuse—the collateral damage if you will, especially as a member of a training cadre. After all, after they’re gone…they aren’t your problem anymore so who cares.
Perhaps not. As noted in the Stealing Fire book, even an organization as elite and operationally focused as Seal Team Six is now recognizing that perhaps they really should look at what happens to folks as a result of the selection and training process itself.
There is zero doubt, from our perspective at least, that people sometimes (or even often) need to “go away” during both selection programs and training evolutions. However, maybe the “why” and “how” are things we ought to take a closer look at as an industry.
There are, of course, some extreme examples.
For example, in 2016 former Special Forces soldier, former FBI Agent, former security contractor, and Air Force Tech Sgt. Steve Bellino walked into his command and started shooting after failing out of Special Tactics selection during pre-SCUBA.
These types of events are certainly noteworthy, concerning, and demand evaluation. However, it’s the other, far more common, manifestations that we are most concerned with here.
The author recalls an acquaintance who failed to complete the screening and selection process for the aforementioned Seal Team Six. Prior to attending the screening, this individual was widely respected as a leader, possessed extensive combat experience, and was generally considered one of the best, even within his elite peer group. Soon after failing to successfully complete the screening, he left the navy in disgust and moved on to other things.
While this example ultimately ended up with a happy ending for the individual involved and regardless of any specifics related to the events within the selection itself—what a tremendous loss for Naval Special Warfare. And there’s not even a physical injury involved…
The majority of people reading this article probably have seen either from first-hand experience or through watching others. The ranks of our current and former law enforcement and military personnel are littered with people who have been damaged, sometimes even broken, during training—often in ways that go well beyond the physical.
What is the long-term cost associated with the young, hard-charging motivator who shows up to the Academy, or to selection for SWAT, SF, Rangers, etc., and gets the destroyed in the process? Where does he or she go? What’s the overall cost to the organization, not in terms of money, but in terms of its long-term operational function?
How often do we take people who are, in the aggregate, extraordinarily high performers and run them out of an organization (or out of society) that they could provide enormous benefit to because we destroyed them in training? What does this leave us with?
Are we better off with just the people who weren’t even up for trying in the first place?
Here’s another point to ponder: Is this where the collateral damage stops? Does it end with those who just go away?
Consider: if an environment or program is self-selecting people primarily through breakage—what’s it REALLY doing to the people who are still standing at the end?
If 80% are destroyed by the process, does it stand to reason that the remaining 20% are stronger at the end? Or, are they just not yet weakened enough to have broken before the symphony of destruction ended?
How does this type of wear and tear play into the operational lifecycle of that operator, officer etc.? How does it play into the long-term impacts on them after their operational lifecycle has ended? How does this impact longevity within the organization and how does this, in turn, impact the experience base at the senior levels of the organization?
We’ll clarify again. We aren’t arguing against attrition, even extremely high attrition, in selection and training programs. It’s sometimes needed and important. What we’re doing is making the point that battering people takes a toll on them—whether they happen to break during the battering or not. And, while we in this industry might not always like to acknowledge it, the fact is that everyone has a cumulative limit and, ultimately, a breaking point.
When training people for extreme environments, do training methods ultimately strengthen them for the harshness of the environment? Or, do we instead often take incredibly skilled, tough, talented people that much closer to their breaking point, before they even get out the door?
While this is personal anecdote, the author recalls going through multiple selection/training programs that, even just from the perspective of physical skillset development, had a net negative impact and required an immediate, and fairly substantial, subsequent personal investment in terms of time, money, and ammunition, just to bring the fundamental shooting skills back up to a self-satisfactory level before going down-range.
More concerning, from an operational standpoint, are the negative tactical impacts often sustained by students and/or candidates, particularly related to tactical decision-making and information processing.
During another personal experience, an entire class of dumbfounded candidates, most of whom had significant operational and/or combat experience, spent an entire evening sitting around scratching our collective heads and identifying the training scars and mental roadblocks being developed by the specific course of instruction. (In the interests of brevity here, please see our previous article about some of the harm that can result from improperly structured reality-based training for more functional discussion on this issue).
All this being said, there’s no doubt that, as a whole, trainers and leaders out there today are doing the best they can with what they’ve got and what they know. That’s not in question.
However, what if there’s a different approach?
What if it’s possible to do a much better job understanding EXACTLY what we’re doing to people in selection and training AND why we’re doing it, not only physically, but also psychologically and neurologically?
What if we can fundamentally change how we train, NOT to make training easier or softer, but to purposefully and intentionally build students and candidates during training and selection programs in ways that not only optimize operational performance, but that also strengthen them and improve their overall skillsets and resiliency in the process?
As we explain in our 2016 book Building Shooters, stress inoculation is one of the many areas where we believe that brain-based training system design can help us, as an industry, improve significantly.
Our current industry approach is often based around using stressful stimuli to “train the stress response to extinction.” In other words, while this may be a little over simplified, we basically beat people until they simply become numb to it.
Does this really give us stronger, more resilient people at the end? What about the ones who fall behind?
With brain-based training, at least in theory, we don’t have to do it this way and can get even better results. Through informed, structured skillset and stimulus response development, we ought to be able to use same stimuli that currently are presented to initiate high levels of stress and anxiety to instead produce access to procedurally consolidated skillsets and exhilaration at the opportunity to “crush it.”
Rather than using the stimuli simply to trigger activation of the sympathetic nervous system, we can instead use them to present the student an opportunity to excel at performing a well-practiced (procedurally consolidated) skillset and to succeed at solving difficult, functional problems.
(For some hilarious (and foul-mouthed) hyperbole that effectively illustrates the point, see Mat Best’s video about home invasions.)
If we change our training structures to ones designed based on the fundamental functions of the human brain, the ones who ultimately succeed in training at least theoretically should do so with much less emotional noise on the back end and we are absolutely confident they will possess a far more resilient and functional skillset, right out of the gate.
And the ones who do not succeed? They can still be provided an opportunity to depart training with a significantly enhanced personal skillset and, in at least many (if not most) cases, improved personal resiliency and confidence in their ability to perform, either at their existing/follow-on operational job functions or as otherwise productive members of society.
Circling back to the title of this article, perhaps this is something we ought to spend more time evaluating.
As an industry, our assessments during training and our assessments of actual operational performance will always be the most significant indicators of training success. However, maybe it’s worth considering that the effects of the training, especially high-attrition training, on the ones who fall behind may be an important indicator of the ultimate impact that the training program has on not only all its participants, but on the readiness and performance of the organization as a whole.