When Failure is the Measure of Success

Still from Navy Video by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Patrick Enright/Released



When I was training to be a military diver, the school’s cadre often ran us out to the beach to run in formation through the loose sand of the dunes, because it was said to be good for our wind and leg strength. It was certainly tiring, and the PT would often go on for hours.

What everyone who has served understands is that there is a formula at work in the dark genius of military training, which has had thousands of years to perfect its methods: when enough people “fall out” (stop running due to exhaustion, eg), then the most difficult part can stop. That is, there is always a percentage; cadre would never dream of ruining everyone, if only for morale’s sake. There must be the illusion of survivability.

Few want to be the wounded straggler in the herd, the slow lamb, the one who catches the guard’s eye for punishment. (Malingerers and others with more sense than pride will sometimes take bitter abuse rather than keep up, but they are often dismissed from the program, whether it is basic training or elsewhere. In dive school this was called “an angle descent down Thomas Drive,” the road in front of the school that would take them back to their previous lives, and was seen as shameful.)

Generally, trainees will try even harder when they see others falling out, and end up fulfilling their only real, unstated task—not to do a certain number of pushups and mountain climbers in the hot sand, but to go until there is nothing left, and then beyond that. Young, well-fed troops will get stronger by this and last longer each time, until finally the cadre cannot break anyone. By then the unit will have bonded over the pain, and the cadre will have done their job.

The quota rule is at work in societies too, but it does not make people stronger. They are simply worked harder, for less of a share, until they break. Inequity skyrockets, people die needlessly, division is rife, and the damage and resentments carry into future generations. In doomsday societies, the hand never lifts from the throttle, and the project comes to a halt.

Our dive-school class had a Seabee diver named Hyatt. He was a smart guy with the build of a wide receiver and could outlast most of us. But he had something wrong with his digestive tract, and if we started to feel like beach PT had gone on long enough, we’d say, “Hyatt! Do that thing!”

His thing was to invisibly compress his abdominal muscles, and whatever gray bile was in his stomach would roll out his mouth and down his shirt like liquid oatmeal. It did not cause him any discomfort or distress, though it was distressing for everyone else to see, and he would carry on as if sick, and so would we. Soon enough, we would be running as a class back to the Training Center, because the quota had been reached.

This May Day I think of the wiles and banding-together of the would-be powerless, in order to affect change—a different measure of success.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.