WWII Battlefield Casuality Evacuation by Unit Medics

The American View: (Green) Room for Improvement

Train as you fight, and you’ll fight as you trained. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger suggests using an obscure (but brilliant) horror movie to help convince skeptics why effective training often requires uncomfortable, stressful, and difficult simulated conditions.

I wish Jeremy Saulnier’s film Green Room had made it into theatres twenty years ago. It would have been immensely helpful back when I was a military unit commander. I say this because young adults rarely believe us cranky old people when we force them to endure unpopular and difficult training regimens. They often don’t believe us when we explain why the hard kinds of training are crucial while the easy alternatives are counterproductive.

Young recruits do, however, put stock in messages delivered by popular culture. That said, Saulnier’s Green Room has one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard for why training shouldn’t be turned into an undisciplined game. His argument extrapolates naturally for why critical process owners should never try to substitute dissimilar activities under the guise of ‘training.’

Before I explore that, a quick catch-up: Green Room is a gritty, realistic, and unsettling horror movie that was written and directed by Mr. Saulnier. It debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2015, got picked up by A24 Films for distribution, and premiered in theatres in April 2016. I’m going to avoid talking about the film’s plot because it’s not relevant to my argument.

Without giving anything away story-wise, the scene I’m interested came is the second half of the film. Saulnier turned a real-world experience into a neat exchange between two main characters. For context, one desperate character (played by the late Anton Yelchin) attempts to convince the other to consider trying an outlandish plan using this (real world) anecdote about a moment of clarity that his character had experienced while playing paintball games [1]:

‘We were getting slaughtered by these … legit … Iraq [war] vets. Tactics … hand signals … flanking … Just wiped us all out. So, Rick … he was fed up, says ¢£•§ it!” So, the last match, he just tears out there. Full jack*@# … wipes out their whole team.’

Young man driving car at night angry to trafficIf you can’t guess the bleeped-out words there, don’t worry. You’ll pick them up rapidly enough once you experience rush hour driving.

The story resonates for the characters for the same reason that it resonates with real squaddies: it explains that there’s a significant and meaningful difference between professional soldiers and amateurs (be they criminals, terrorists, or whatever). Soldiers leverage organisation, tactics, training, and centuries of hand-me-down experience to maximize their odds of winning battles. Yes, it’s true that an untrained amateur can often gain an advantage over trained soldiers through audacity and disorienting surprise, but that advantage is fleeting and unsustainable.

That in mind, I used a ton of practical, hands-on activities to train my squaddies back when I was a unit commander. I introduced my people to concepts that the regular USAF never bothered teaching rear-echelon technical specialists: activities like how the Military Police clear armed defenders out of buildings, how Infantry advances in urban environments, how Corpsmen triage and evacuate the wounded while under fire. Skills that are needed in actual wartime conditions. Skills that my people would never learn in regular USAF professional development curriculum.

The training events that I ran and the skills that I taught weren’t popular. They were often physically demanding, deliberately difficult, and sometimes scary. I had more than one Airman come to my office afterwards unable to cope. That’s not an exaggeration; one of my specialists broke down sobbing after seeing warzone photos a young Airman her age who had stepped on a landmine. She admitted that she had never realized that serving meant that she could actually die or be crippled in the service of her country. Seriously.

It was because of encounters like that one that I felt compelled to design and deliver realistic training. If my people were expected to go ‘downrange’ in the Forever War, then it was my responsibility to prepare them to be emotionally and intellectually functional once they got there. Early exposure to concepts, skills, and tactics would allow each Airmen to perform confidently so that they could save lives – their own, their squad-mates’, and innocent civilians’.

Arabian family portrait in the old city

I don’t mean to downplay the horrific no-win situations that many soldiers have found themselves in, where split-second decisions in crowded environments had to be made. War is, by its essential nature in Hell. That said, I trained my Airmen that taking a human life might be military necessary, but it must NEVER taken lightly. Death can not be un-done. 

That’s why I categorically rejected every request that I received from my Airmen to have a ‘paintball day.’ I told everyone who asked the same thing: I’ve played paintball games. They can be a lot of fun, but they’re not a substitute for real field training. If people wanted to do that as a recreational activity after work, that was fine by me. That said, paintball games [2] could never be a substitute for actual military training, because it taught players all the wrong lessons.

‘But it’s shooting at people who shoot back!’ one of my sergeants griped. ‘That’s what people do in war, right?’

No. No, it absolutely isn’t. Not even close.

Most paintball games that I’ve played operated under a first-hit-first-out rule set. There were no innocent third parties in the play area. Missed shots that went outside the play area didn’t matter. More importantly, no one suffered any real, life-long injuries – or death – from getting splatted by a glob of paint. These conditions made it natural and optimal for every player to fire wildly, instinctively, and indiscriminately at every sudden movement; whoever got hit first lost. There were no consequences for missing, or for shooting blindly. Therefore, it was always better to shoot immediately without pausing to think.

The absolute last thing I would ever want to train a squaddie to do under stress would be to blindly hose down the area around her with indiscriminate fire. That how fatal accidents and war crimes happen. It’s unconscionable, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, and it’s irreversible.

‘But … so what?’ my disappointed sergeant whinged. ‘It’s just a game, right? Adults can differentiate between games from reality.’

Friends having fun on the couch with video games

It’s easy to tell the difference between fantasy and reality when the game’s violence can’t escape the television to hurt you on the couch.  

Sure, they can. Intellectually. Most sane people have no trouble differentiating the two when they’re thinking rationally. That changes when you put people under stress. People ability to think rationally degrades when you’ve deprived them of sleep and food, dimmed the lights, ramped up the disorienting noises, and crank up the fear. When stressed and startled, people function on learned instinct. They revert to those behaviour and actions that are performed by muscle memory. That is, they run the risk of acting without first thinking.

That’s why I spent so much time dragging my unit through difficult practical exercises. As the old Army mantra goes: train as you fight, and you’ll fight as you trained. I got my Airmen used to wearing body armour while exerting themselves. Got them used to handling their service rifles safely. Got them accustomed to ignoring shouts, screams, and the sight of (simulated) blood. Put them into situations where their hearts were racing, their adrenaline was surging, and their minds were racing … then demanded that they perform with required military standards. I trained them to function under stress with discipline, courage, and (most importantly), with restraint.

So, no. Paintball couldn’t ever substitute for ‘training’ on my watch. It had some value when put in proper context. Learning how to respond to a completely random threat can be valuable … but that’s an advanced level skill. Even with guided lecture and nuance, the danger that paintball game mentality brought to inexperienced Airmen was that it would inculcate a reflexive response to pull a trigger when startled. That was unacceptable.

I realize that this story doesn’t seem to pertain to anything business-related, which ought to be a ‘must’ for a publication like Business Reporter. Zoom out on the subject, though, and there’s a lesson here that directly pertains to both the business world in general and in my own work in corporate cybersecurity in particular: I submit that there’s a direct and inescapable correlation between the methods that we employ train employees and how those employees will react when put under sudden stress. This affects every trained reflex that we wire into our people, from phishing attack recognition to social engineering defence to securing sensitive information.

Many security vendors suggest that cyber defence skills can be adequately trained through canned lectures, complex regulations, or automation that abstracts workers from having to react at all. I argue instead that those are all supporting tools that have value in their own right, but that they’re not training in any sense of the word. They don’t inculcate reflexes. If anything, they’re the exact opposite of ‘training;’ they deal with what happens before and after a cyber incident, while providing the people under fire no help at all in the moment where actions count the most.

Woman finding computer getting virus attackWhen you put a normal person under extreme stress without warning, they usually revert to there last-known-successful response, regardless of whether or not that response is appropriate to the situation.  

This principle goes double for high-stress activities like Security Incident Response. Pre-generated checklists, automated processes, and advanced technologies are all great supporting tools, but they’re no substitute for trained behaviour. Learned reflexes – like following an official checklist rather than ‘winging it’ – have to be trained through realistic exercises, drills, and inspections. People need to be trained early and often what the ‘right’ processes feel, look, and sound like until the required core skills are deeply embedded in each participant’s psyche.

I had the devil’s own headache getting this point across to my young squaddies back in my Air Force days. That’s why I wish I could have sat my guys and gals down in the squadron classroom and screened both Jeremy Saulnier’s film and Ryan Hollinger’s analysis of it back-to-back. Their one-two punch drives home the principle that I was trying to explain: training and organization will always dominate a fight, but only so long as you maintain your discipline and follow your training. Lose control, even for a moment, and someone usually ends up dead.

Does that necessary follow in business circles? Yes, it does. Hopefully it doesn’t mean that innocent people will actually die … Although firefighters, police, healthcare providers, lorry drivers, construction workers, and a host of other professions all routinely risk death as an inherent part of their jobs. Even for white-collar paper pushers, the potential consequences of reacting badly under stress can be severe. Businesses can fail. Lives can be ruined. Jobs can be lost. People can suffer. The only want to prevent a horrible and preventable outcome is to train people early on how and when to do the right thing in the right way. Train as you fight and you’ll fight as you trained. The rule holds true everywhere no matter what kind of uniform your people wear to work.

The good news is that it’s never too late to introduce realistic training to your organisation. Start breaking bad habits and replace them with optimal responses through full-immersion exercises, behaviour-based training, and constant, guided skills reinforcement. The more frequently and coherently you can emphasise learned behaviour, the better prepared your people will be when things go completely to *&#$.


[1] I transcribed the dialogue from YouTube commentator Ryan Holinger’s video essay GREEN ROOM: Why Dumb Decisions Matter. It’s a great analysis, however I recommend you put off watching it until after you’ve seen the film.

[2] And variants of it like Laser Tag.

Title Allusions: Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room (2016 Film).


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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