Basic Training, Infantry AIT, Airborne School, Ranger School — these are some of the many schools listed when people try to express to others their proficiency in tactical skills. If a potential employer reads “Ranger School,” then it is inferred that the job candidate has a high level of tactical knowledge. It’s true, to a certain degree; Ranger School teaches a lot, especially when it comes to smaller units fighting a conventional war, and SERE School teaches real skills that would apply to someone trapped behind enemy lines.

However, it’s mostly described this way because it gives people a measurable amount of success. They can say they passed this school or excelled in that school, which is an easy way to define their skill sets to others in a clear way that is easy to digest.

The truth is that real gunfighting skills, especially in the realm of urban combat, is not learned in a schoolhouse environment, nor should it be. Schools can lay a basic foundation, even for complex tasks like building explosive charges or fast-roping, but becoming an expert in these skills comes when the soldier or Marine is at their unit. Special Operations units train day after day in various training events, with varying difficulties. If they’re not deployed, they spend an ungodly amount of time practicing these skills over and over, next to the same people they’re going to be deploying with.

Navy SEALs honing their skills in 2016 | U.S. Army photo

Schools are rarely longer than a few weeks long, maybe a couple of months — and you’re usually studying more than one task in these schools. All in all, it’s simply impossible to become an expert at just about anything in just a few weeks. Even putting combat experience aside, this is why tactical gurus who refuse to actually join the military can never compete — they are like tourists, visiting the tactical realm with each pricey course or class they pull out their wallets for. You just can’t make something muscle memory to the necessary degree in that short of a time span.

Take room clearing, for example. If you had to choose:

  • A school where you learn the basics of room clearing, alongside strangers with different SOPs and different objectives in their own units that they will soon return to.
  • Months and months of training, starting with ready-ups and glass houses, leading to organized training events and culminating in shoot houses and live-fire exercises in urban environments — all with the same people you are going to deploy with.

Room clearing is a good example since, at least in the Ranger community, there hasn’t been a good, proven school that magically teaches you everything you need to know. Like many realities with combat, so much depends on unit SOP and an overall cohesion between shooters on the ground. But most of all, a few weeks in some school cannot beat the ruthless days and nights spent practicing a skill over and over again, even if it’s something simple like clearing a malfunction in an M4.

These skills are also incredibly perishable, so practicing them over and over again is imperative to mission success, and unless you’re going to return to the same school over and over again, you can expect those skills to diminish quickly over time. Even in the Special Operations community, too many get complacent with skills they deem basic and beneath them — basic first responder medicine, for one. The best of the best practice putting on tourniquets just as often as the new guys, and they apply that work ethic to all their skill sets.

There are plenty of Rangers that haven’t yet gone through Ranger School (but have a couple of training cycles and deployments under their belts) that I would gladly take over someone with all the schools in the world and little to no experience with an actual Special Operations unit. This is not to diminish the value of these schools, just to put the focus on where it belongs: in the day-to-day grind, the inglorious daily mag changes and the relentless nights of running through a shoot house again and again and again. “I just practiced it a whole lot” doesn’t sound as sexy and you don’t get a certificate to brag home about, but it’s how you get good.