James Holmes

In Praise of Pessimism

“Training is about preparing for intrinsically mercurial situations. It’s about preparing for the worst while hoping for the best.”

Yes, I know this time last week I was admonishing you gloom-and-doom types out there not to take counsel of your fears. Mine is not a universal view. Washington Post pundit George Will jokes that it's good to be a pessimist: you're either right in assuming the worst, or you're pleasantly surprised. I reject that as a general rule for living the good life. Still, a measure of pessimism is prudent if not indispensable when practicing to combat fires, floods, or mass casualties. That's even truer in human conflict.

In a past life the Naval Diplomat served as fire marshal in a major surface warship. In port that meant overseeing the duty fire party. We drilled constantly while responding to any actual emergency that took place, fires and flooding being the most common. While underway it meant making sure ten repair parties were properly outfitted, installed fire-suppression systems were in working order, watertight fittings were actually watertight, you name it. But the job was mostly about the human dimension. Hardware is important. Skillful, motivated people are more important.

Even so, it's easy to fall into bad habits when designing and executing a training regimen. Scripted training projects the trainer's assumptions onto reality; it unwittingly tries to predict the future. But you know what they say about assumptions, while history is extraordinarily unkind to attempts at prophecy. Disasters are predictable only in their unpredictability. Fires erupt and spread in strange ways. People get hurt, potentially depriving a team of its leadership or of specialists in certain functions.

Accordingly, it behooves trainers to hold exercises at odd times, to change the exercise conditions in midstream, and, perhaps most importantly, to simulate casualties among the leadership so that more junior personnel get the opportunity to exercise leadership and improvise under strain. In short, training is about preparing for intrinsically mercurial situations. It's about preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. In short, it demands a pessimistic outlook.

Incidents in which there's an adversary are doubly difficult. Stressful events have a way of defying the best-laid plans, whether through ill fortune, friction, or the intervention of Murphy's Law. In the case of military operations, law enforcement, or counterterrorism, human drive and determination come into play. Natural disasters or equipment failures are indiscriminate; an adversary actively tries to make things worse. An interactive clash of wills is a tough problem because the opponent keeps innovating in his effort to win or cause mayhem. Scripted training does even less good under such circumstances than it does when the "enemy" is an impersonal force like a fire.

Realistic training, then, ought to assume the worst. If the worst doesn't befall us, let's reserve the right to be pleasantly surprised along with George Will.