Q&A: Shooting Strung Up Humans Is An Ineffective Training Method




Until what age would a responsible adult wait to give a kid real bullets to shoot? The kid is training to be an elite assassin/met/hitman and begins target practice at age 5 with nonlethal laser guns that mark where on the target they hit and are gradually introduced to recoil to prepare them for real guns. Not long after switching to real bullets, they switch to living targets (the organization training them buys people who have been sentenced to death and uses them as targets).

Stringing people up for target practice and putting bullets in them is a pointless exercise, especially with children. It won’t make them better at killing people, or less likely to hesitate. All you get is a shattered psyche and a nervous breakdown not long after they reach adulthood. That, or they’ll be a sociopath and lack the necessary emotions to be good at the social engineering. Unlike the fantasy sociopath, the real life sociopath has a great deal of trouble functioning when among neurotypical people. If a child soldier was your end goal then this method will work great, and they’ll be broken by the time they’re twenty. That’s a lot of effort to put into someone just to break them before they make their first kill as a working assassin.

This is probably the best advice on assassins you’re ever going to get, so it’s best to internalize it:

Assassination is one percent shooting, ninty-nine percent preparation: anticipating moves, devising approaches, recruiting sources, finding the perfect opportunity so the bullet’s almost an after-thought. Usually that’s when a target’s on the move, when there are too many variables to control them all… There are ways to lessen the risk: an armed escort, taking an unpredictable route to your destination, having back-up in a trail car. But ultimately, as long as the assassin knows where you’re going, they have the upper hand. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

When it comes to writing children and their training, the trick is understanding they’re children. Unless you want to have an “elite” assassin who is a “one and done”, their teacher must be very careful with the pace.

The point of an assassin is not to be good at fighting. They are good, but that’s an extra component. Assassins are covert-ops, and they function like spies. The difference is in their end goal, but they aren’t like a regular soldier or even special forces. If you’re going to structure their training then it isn’t about killing off their emotions or making it easier for them not to hesitate. You’ll get that recruiting young adults from rough backgrounds and broken homes. What you need with an assassin is preparation and, like with Batman, that prep work is what elevates them to elite.

Assassins use people the same way spies do, they assume false identities, they make contacts, create assets, observe the situation, scout locations, all in order to find the best way to their target. They don’t just sit in a watch tower waiting. They’ve got to learn about the person they’re going to kill. This includes their schedule, and where to find them. They need to plan their method of attack. They might walk into the target’s house when they’re not there or even when they’re sleeping, hack their computer, stand over their kids in the middle of the night, look through family photos, steal their datebook, stalk them on social media via some internet cafe, and go through their trash.

Whatever helps them figure out how to make the kill, and pass the blame off on some other poor schmuck in the target’s life.

They need to be able to use their emotions, learn how to turn them on, learn to shut them off, and distance themselves from what they’re doing. They are actors. They need empathy, they need compassion, they need to understand their emotions so they can manipulate others. This can’t be forcibly taught by asking them to shoot people strung up for target practice. That teaches all the wrong lessons.

A basic rule of covert ops, is let someone else do your dirty work. Let someone else find the guy you want to kill. It’s a great technique… as long as you’re not the someone else. – Burn Notice, “False Flag”

If you’re going to train kids to be assassins, then combat training comprises about 25% or less of what they need to be learning. The ancient order of Assassins, from where we get the term, were for the most part what we’ll call “one and done”. The expectation was they’d die in the attempt to kill their target or afterward, which is exactly what happens with most assassins. They may make their kill, but they’re going to die on the way out. This is why the preparation component is so important. Beyond just making the kill, the assassin must have an exit strategy.

When working with individuals who begin as children and whom you plan to keep using, you need to ensure they’ll be functional adults at the end of their training. This is why starting with adults is generally preferable. They’re fully developed, they have the ability to make choices, it takes less time to train them, and you can push them a lot harder. With kids, one must go slowly. We’re talking a time investment of nearly two decades per assassin.

Focusing on your would be assassins killing people in order to kill off their feelings is nice and sexy, but that’s not great for long term health or sanity. If you’re going to spend lots of time developing assassins, you want them to keep working for at least a decade rather than burning out or having a mental breakdown to compromise your organization.

Most kids in this situation don’t get to do any murdering until the final test. This is the first of two, usually. One test happens in a controlled environment and then when they succeed, they get sent out in the world with their first contract.

Depending on the motives and methods of the Organization, that first kill will be them killing a comrade they trained with (the way of true sadists is with their roommate) or running down some person provided for them by their trainers. Or, both.

The first contract happens under the supervision of another more experienced assassin (or two), who will take over if the new assassin proves unable to finish the job. If they succeed at that, they may then serve as an apprentice to this other assassin for the duration of their apprenticeship and learn about functioning in the real world from them. This is the culmination of their training though, and they’ll be somewhere around sixteen to eighteen by the time these events occur.

Children need to be given the opportunity to grow up before they’re put on the fast track to killing. Children are still developing as people, both their minds and their bodies. You can’t force them to do anything. You encourage them with rewards. You push their bodies and their minds, develop their self esteem, provide breaks in their physical training with the education they’ll need to be able to pass themselves off as an actual human being. This education is going to comprise most of their training and act as a way to give their young still developing bodies necessary relief time. For extra motivation and fun, you provide them with games like you would any other child.

These games are going to be structured training, putting them in a controlled environment where they learn and practice their new skills while having fun. One example is Viking children throwing spears back and forth as a childhood game, which graduated to them catching Roman javelins as adults and throwing them back. There are plenty of games we have today from tag to capture the flag that will work when training children and adults.

Fifteen to twenty years of training is a long time, the purpose of a prolonged training period is not to break your trainees by moving too fast. Instead, you want to push them so they are slowly breaking past their internalized physical and mental limits. When you’ve got a character pushing themselves past what they believe is possible, tapping into their desperation, anger, fear, to force themselves beyond their physical exhaustion then you’re at the more advanced methods of martial training. This is the extreme end purpose behind conditioning like running, sit ups, push ups, etc. This is not just to build up your body, but also your mind. Conditioning teaches us how to work through our exhaustion, when we’re tired and want to quit, and find the fortitude within ourselves to keep putting one foot in front of the other. How to find that last spurt of energy, even when we believe there’s nothing left.

You can’t start a child in extreme training, especially since this extreme training isn’t a learning component. This is a pushing component. You can build them toward it, but you need to train them up first. Training them in the physical techniques and all the boring stuff which goes with it. You also need to include the necessary spy school stuff such as infiltration, surveillance, pickpocketing, breaking and entering, chemistry, general education skills like reading, writing, arithmetic, languages, politics, etc, all while slowly pushing them harder bit by bit beyond where they’re comfortable.

You can teach a kid how to make poisons, for example, without actually hurting their mental development. There was a ninjutsu master who talked about how when he was a child, his father would take him around to houses in the neighborhood while the owners weren’t home and he’d have to break in. (Also go through their things, memorize the original positions, and then put the objects back exactly as found.) Supervised at all times, of course, but this is also something you can do with a child that won’t cripple their emotional development.

Even when they do reach the point when they’re ready to make a kill, a responsible/clever organization or handler is going to be there to support them through it which further binds the trainee to their trainers. These children are valuable, and they know it.

Guns will comprise a (comparatively) small part of their training. They don’t take that long to learn how to use. We’re talking a couple months here at most, and after that its just drilling.

You can give kids real bullets at almost any age, so long as they’re not shooting another human being. You want them on the gun range and under supervision with an adult who knows what they’re doing. There are plenty of parents who train their kids kids to shoot, either for hunting or for other reasons. The trick is understanding the supervision component. This is going to be the same in any martial system where children are given live weapons to handle. Supervised at all times is what a responsible adult does, and drilling weapon safety as the first lesson before they ever learn to point and shoot.

Again, killing is potentially damaging to the human psyche at any age, even when we know that the person who is being killed is objectively “bad”, an enemy, or we feel they deserved it. Some people genuinely are fine with it, others aren’t. The difference is in the individual, however these people are all adults. An adult can rationalize killing, they can understand it, and they can make peace with it. A child can’t.

The biggest mistake in fiction is treating children as little adults. Children lack an understanding of permanent consequences, and they cannot rationalize in death in the same way an adult can. They lack the tools to process these complex emotions because their brains are still developing. You can’t treat them like adults because they’re not, and if you do you’ll break them. A broken child or broken adult is too unstable to be a good assassin, much less an elite one.

Even then, killing a “bad person” who “deserves it” is the wrong motivation for an assassin. Assassins kill for money, they kill for country, or they kill because they’re told to. You can get the rogue assassin who has turned on their organization and is seeking redemption as a vigilante, killing the people they think are bad. Still, that’s not how most assassins function and certainly not the ones who survive for extended periods. The organization might hold to some higher principles, but at the end of the day their killing has nothing to do with a moral good. Righteousness from a world of black and white will break someone who must function in shades of gray.

An assassin needs to be able to make the choice of who will die. They must decide how they will die, and if anyone outside of the contract they’ve been given must die. They have to do a lot of groundwork before they ever fire a bullet. They may need to do unsavory things like arrange a kidnapping, or murder the spouse or children of some target’s family. They may be hired to target children. Their job is to identify and create the situation where they can make their kill.

Learning to accept that part of who they are can be difficult if the writer is looking for a way to morally justify their behavior or excuse it. Assassins are, at the end of the day, like every other hired gun.

They’re a hired gun.

Assassin is a nice way to phrase it, but they’re just mercenaries skilled at targeted killing and social engineering. That’s what these kids are in training to be: killers for hire.


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Q&A: Shooting Strung Up Humans Is An Ineffective Training Method was originally published on How to Fight Write.

@howtofightwrite does this also extend to children trained for less shady professions such as being bodyguards or knights? What about stories set during previous periods in history when child welfare wasn’t really a huge thing nor were laws about it enshrined in a constitution?

We’re talking about elite warriors, not warm bodies you shove into battle when you need numbers. Even then, if they’re not physically mature then they won’t be particularly useful. Child soldiers exist because as children their age makes adults hesitate. They’re also abused kids indoctrinated into a cultish group who’ve been forced to kill their parents, and are often sent in high on drugs. They’re warm bodies, treated as disposable objects, and they are expected to die before they ever reach adulthood.

The human psyche hasn’t changed that much. When you try to force a child to be an adult or endure adult levels of martial training that will produce excellent warriors, you break them. They’re children, there’s only so much stress their bodies can handle.

An elite warrior is not a disposable object because they cost a lot of resources, also money. This is especially true in ancient times, when resources were much more difficult to come by. The amount of food alone necessary to sustain a single warrior is astronomical, and it has to come from somewhere. If you’re snatching up all the kids to train as warriors, then killing them off, there’ll be no one to grow your food. If you kill off these kids in training, then you won’t have warriors.

This is a problem.

The goal of training an elite warrior from childhood is to get one as early as possible, so they’ll have a leg up on the other warriors they’ll meet on the battlefield. They’ll have the skills they’d have at thirty at twenty without the experience, but they can get that. Then, if they survive, the experience will make them even better. The logic is if you train someone longer then they’ll end up better because time + experience is the most important factor, rather than the training itself. The luxury is time. The problem with sending in children at say ten, is that children are still children. A child no matter how well trained lacks the mental faculties to compete on the same plane as an adult, much less the physical maturity.

Knights were pages at seven, squires at fourteen, and knighted at twenty-one. They might see battle between fourteen and twenty-one but as an apprentice to their knight master, they acted in a support role.

Why in the world would you think a child training to become a bodyguard would be regularly abused and forced to kill people? That’s not the purpose of a bodyguard, and that’s not what bodyguards are trained to do. Bodyguards were primarily ex-soldiers, chosen from among the ranks of soldiers, similarly trained combatants, or they were mercenaries. They were warriors who proved themselves in battle or by other means, and thus could be relied upon.

The answer is yes, this extends to children trained in less shady professions and in places where child welfare was less important. A person you invest somewhere around ten to twenty years into training is not a disposable object. This also covers martial arts programs, by and large. The answer to your question is apprenticeships. You did get children who were given work, but primarily as support. They worked as gophers, a means of information gathering, and acted as traps for the unwary target. Lots of these kids were expendable though. The closest you’re going to get is Sparta, but Sparta existed in a period before what we understand about modern militaries and it was kids abusing other kids.

Despite the fact that lots of writers are in love with the idea, we don’t abuse children in order to make them better fighters because it doesn’t work. Unless the intent is to break them in the way child soldiers are broken or when they’re disposable, as child soldiers are. You’d get young peasants pressed into service and sent onto the battlefield when a lord marched to war, but those forces were predominately warm bodies. You’d also get children serving on warships in the British navy as young as twelve, as officers if their families had money to purchase a commission and as cabin boys but they were also apprentices learning the trade.

The problem is you’re thinking about this the wrong way, thinking about value the wrong way, and training the wrong way. That’s because you’re unfamiliar with the process, and you think it means the teacher is “going easy” on them.
You can ask kids to do lots of dangerous things without compromising their mental stability, and you can push them hard in their training. The limits are important to their development, because if you push too hard into exhaustion then they can’t work the next day. You want to avoid injuries because those injuries mean the warrior, whether a child or adult, can’t train until they heal or risk losing them to one they won’t recover from. That’s a loss on your investment. If they can’t train then they’re eating up your resources until you can get them back on their feet.

Child labor means a child is a disposable asset, and this should be apparent if you’ve ever spent much time looking at child labor. Child labor is used because you can pay kids less, give them dangerous work an adult can’t do (size issues), and there’s always another on the street if they die in the attempt. A warrior you intend to have in service for a long period of time is not disposable. This isn’t about welfare or kindness. This is about producing the best result, like any other form of apprenticeship throughout history.

A well-adjusted warrior is a better warrior. If you’re going to spend a lot of time investing in a person’s training, you want to use them at the end of it. Brutal training too early inevitably results in strained limbs and broken bones which mean the child can’t train, may never be sent to battle, or dead which is a waste of whatever time you’ve put into them. You have to feed them, clothe them, shod them, care for them, provide for their training, provide them with their training gear, and potentially provide them with gear at the end of their training. This takes a lot of money and a lot of work, from a mercantile perspective a warrior who has been training for a period of fourteen years, even a lackluster one, will still be better than the sixteen year old who just got a spear shoved in his hands and put on the battlefield. They may not be perfect, but they’re still elite in the terms the time understands and they’re loyal to you.

If you’re a martial arts master and training a single student to pass on your techniques to, you’re going to treat them even more carefully. Now, this isn’t careful as you understand it. Their training will still be dangerous, and will grow more dangerous as they age but it will be paced to their growth. Like every apprenticeship, more will be given to them when they can handle it. They will be pushed to the upper limit of their breaking point because the teacher usually has the experience to know when to stop.

Time is effort and it is investment, and costs a great deal of money. A single soldier in the US military costs the taxpayers a million dollars. If the military killed half the soldiers who signed up during training they’d be out of a lot of money, and a lot of soldiers. If they killed those soldiers during special forces training, they’d be out of a lot of money and out of distinguished elite soldiers that could be put to a better purpose. I’ll point out, US soldiers get trained for about six months.

Why have them kill your own people when they can be killing your enemies? Shooting hapless civilians dragged off the street isn’t going to make them better soldiers or teach them how to fight against enemy combatants. That is, at best, an initiation ritual. It better be your enemy’s civilians though because that’s not going to win much favors at home. There will always be more non-combatants than combatants, and numbers are the major killer.

You’ll see kids primarily used in rebel groups, they’re used the same way a spy uses a child as a means of gathering information or going places an adult can’t and they’ll see combat but that’s because there isn’t anyone else. Rebels are also where you’ll historically find the most female combatants in a single place because, again, there aren’t any other options. These aren’t elite trained combatants though.

The other problem with abusing the kids you’ve trained for war is you still need them to choose to fight, much less fight for you. They need to be somewhere close to physically mature by the time they fight, or they’re going to be warm bodies. You can force them on pain of death, but that’s not a particularly great motivation.

Here’s the thing:

Martial training is 1% actual fighting. That one percent is split between sparring and war games with like .005% getting to kill your buddies, if that. The rest of the time is spent drilling, conditioning, drilling, conditioning, training on uneven terrain, training with a partner, and rest breaks. That is how mediocre warriors are made, and the greats do what they did except with more enthusiasm. This is true regardless of profession.

Time, energy, patience, and practice.

The difficult training always comes when they’ve reached the end of their apprenticeship and are ready for what comes next. They’re going to get to the killing when they graduate, so there’s no need to rush them towards it. You don’t ask a blacksmith’s apprentice to make a sword on his first day.

Martial training is the exact same way. You get to kill when you’re ready to kill and not before.

Outside of that, an elite warrior is just someone who got on the battlefield and started killing their way to the top. They could have no training at all, and just got good off not wanting to die. No amount of training beats practical experience, though it can help prepare you to meet the experience when it comes.

Wasting resources is stupid, and that’s why smart people don’t do it.

The idea of abusive training comes from a school of thought where if you put someone’s life under threat they will work harder, and the method of motivation used doesn’t matter. The training is actually mostly normal outside the 2% of the time where these adults are being threatened, and if they’re children then their lives will only be threatened when they’ve reached the level where they can actually comprehend what’s happening. You need them to mentally comprehend it, otherwise you’re a psychopath for no reason.

You scream in someone’s ear when they’re practicing their shooting so they can perform the action while under pressure. The boot camp training is a bonding experience, their lives are never actually under threat though they may feel like they’re dying. This develops a communal standard that brings the army together.

Writers mostly take this concept and dial it up to ridiculous levels because it’s more dramatic that way. It doesn’t make them better fighters though. You only get to kill off kids when you have a ready supply, and even then you only kill off trainees when you’ve got the luxury of the few like with assassins. Even then, you’re killing off someone you spent twenty years investing in. Killing them kills off a resource you don’t get to have anymore.

This is about being smart, not child labor laws.

You can ask a child to shoot a gun and they’ll be perfectly fine, you can train them on that, and constantly drill them. Hell, you can put them in an arena and get them to shoot each other with paintball guns when they’ve reached an age where they can do that. That’s at like… ten to twelve. You can’t ask them to shoot a person with the gun, at least not when expecting to get something useful out the other side.

This is how training children actually works. You teach them, drill them in the techniques, and build their foundation. You can teach kids the fundamentals of how to kill someone without traumatizing them, you can ask them to practice the techniques, you just can’t ask them to do it.

No one trains with live weapons because they’re not morons. This is why practice weapons are a thing. It’s like saying, “my knights were jousting at tourney with battlefield lances.” Why? No one did that.

The Boy Scouts are one of the paths you can choose to prepare a child for a military career, and the skills they learn are valuable enough to bump them to E3 when they enlist. You can get great warriors without asking them to kill a dude every week.

Think about it as getting your money’s worth if it makes you feel better. Kids serve better in logistical roles until they’re old enough, by then they’ve experience from watching and can hit the ground running. You’re going to get the exceptions who do fight early and are successful against adults, but they are not the rule. Even then, you can’t count on every single talented child to be able to perform the same way.

The point of training children to fight is so they’ll be better fighters at younger ages when they reach adulthood. If you blow them before they get there then why did you bother? And, if you, the author, don’t respect the work put into them by those who trained them then you’ll lack an understanding of how to use these characters. If you can’t understand the value of a character, you won’t recognize the value or inherent challenge in killing them.

This is why the vast majority of fictional badasses out of these training systems are morons. Sure, they lopped a dude’s arm off in training but that other guy over there still had all his training buddies when he graduated. Guess who got to practice against more body types, variations in fighting styles, and was continually challenged more often by more people? You know who’s better? That guy. (And he’s got friends who have his back.)

This is where Feel Good Violence bites you. It seems like it’d make you tougher but it doesn’t, and a lot of history will show you why.