Martial arts are exactly what they sound like, they are ‘arts’ of a ‘martial’ nature. They can be a hobby, a form of exercise and health maintenance, a beautiful system of movement, like ballet or jazz dance, an approach to meditation, a ‘moving Zen’. 

What they are not is self defense!

This is not to say that they cannot offer physical skills that may be used to defend yourself,  but it really doesn’t matter how hard or fast you can punch when you are ambushed from behind in a dark alley by a knife wielding attacker. I’ll return to this idea later but for now, especially if you are a martial artist, try to swallow the immediate claims of, ‘we do the real thing, our stuff works on the street, etc.’

The problem is compounded by the looseness of language when we talk about fighting and combat, and about the very real differences between martial artists and security professionals, police officers, and soldiers. The latter three groups are the only professionals in modern society that have an obviously legitimate right to use force, ranging from minimal to lethal. These groups also have fairly well defined parameters of action in which the rules of engagement are spelled out for both parties, and a clearly defined context in which defense may become offense without penalty. Civilian self defense is a whole other category with many problems that the other three do not have, legal, ethical, social, emotional, financial.

I once heard a soldier say that hand-to-hand fighting was the consequence of 3 degrees of weapons failure, your machine gun failed, your handgun jammed and you forgot your knife. Soldiers aren’t involved in fighting in the same way as civilians think of it. If it is war, they are involved in combat with a known enemy who is trying to kill them, and use of deadly force is usually the only answer. Police officers are in a different category, they don’t have ‘enemies’, (crime is just business by illegal means, right?), they have to deal with a range of criminals and social problems, and their tools begin with speech at the least dangerous level, like asking a drunken guy to stop screaming in the street. In such cases there is no need to reach for the baton, the tear gas or the gun. But, what if the guy is holding a bat, a knife, a gun? What if there are five of them all walking forwards in a threatening manner? What if it is a hardcore armed bank robber? The police officer still has a set of protocols to follow, he or she has training, tools, backup and, generally, social approval.

Hopefully you can already see that the factor of imminent danger plays a role in the decision making tree. In combat, kill or be killed is very clear and immediate. Trying to make an arrest using the minimum amount of force is much more complicated, and time consuming, when there may not be time. It is not surprising that some police groups opt for ‘Warrior Training’, an understandable but dangerous process, which can cause police officers to perceive criminals as enemy combatants and act accordingly.

What about security professionals? Well they range from risk managers through bodyguards to doormen, and for them, in most cases, self defense is about protecting the ‘principal’, be it a company, a person,or a nightclub’s business.

All three of these groups have to deal with violence but in very different ways. It is legitimate to use preemptive lethal force in war. Can it still have ethical, emotionally and social repercussions?

For sure, there are enough veterans suffering from PTSD to attest to that fact. 

It is far more difficult to draw the line if you are a police officer. When someone refuses to take their hands out of their pockets how long are you supposed to wait before using force to take them down? What if after tasing them you discover they’re not able to understand your language? Will you hesitate next time?

A security professionals’ job is to deal with problems before they arise, they are not there to go to war or to make an arrest. They are certainly not there to get into a ‘fight’. They are there to ensure safe entry and exit from a place, territory or situation. A bodyguards’ job is much the same, just more personal with more specific needs such as evasive driving or kidnap prevention. Here some level of military skillset is very useful but the overarching objective is to avoid engagement not seek it out.

Civilian self defense is none of the above but with ingredients of all. As such, the physical skills of self defense may play a small role in what should really be considered as personal protection, ‘being your own bodyguard’ as a number of modern combative instructors like to say. More like a U.N. soldier doing police duty at a peaceful event that has the potential to turn nasty. When you add in the factor of moral and legal constraints and consequences it becomes a very messy and complicated process only simplified in the fantasies of beginning martial artists.

What I have tried to illustrate so far is the notion that the context and conditions determine how and in what ways martial skills may be used. Note that the word here is ‘skill’ not ‘art’. In most situations you have to have employable skills before you can cultivate art, and that requires implementing those skills in the conditions they were intended for. A woodworker who wants to create a beautiful chair needs to learn to use the tools on wood, has to be able to produce a functional chair that can be sat in, and then maybe start being artistic, develop their own style and approach. It really doesn’t matter how beautiful a chair is if you can’t sit in it, unless of course you don’t call it a chair!

Further consideration of the difference between a technique and a skill is also vital. For our purposes skill is the ability to  apply technique successfully. In other words you can learn a punching technique but it won’t be a skill until you can land it with power on an evasive target. Martial arts train via techniques and body conditioning to develop skill but, with th exception of “scaling force” professionals, the only application is in the sport setting of contact competition, or in stylized exercises such as Tai Chi’s push hands.

 What about those martial artists who want to test their skills? Well, a martial artist may have beautiful technique, even good sport or sensitivity skills, but that does not make them a soldier, police officer, or security professional. So testing their skills will always have a ‘fake’ aspect to it, some tests being more real than others, but all falling short of demonstrating self defense skill.

Some schools of martial arts, particularly the ones that are ‘internal’ (another can of worms where definition is concerned), would say that self defense is not important, the purpose of the art is self cultivation. That begs the question, why use martial techniques and suggest the development of fighting skills if that is not the case? (A subject for another blog?)

I have already indicated that so called self defense is the espoused aim of martial arts, but that, by  only approaching self defense at the physical level, we unconsciously cultivate some serious lack of awareness, deception, and de-escalation  skills. Typically all situations in which surprise, ambush, and manipulation can take place, are the proving grounds of martial skill, and that however good someone might be in a boxing ring won’t help them if they are ambushed in a dark alleyway after a few drinks.

Of course, the body attributes of strength, speed and agility will help, along with having been conditioned to being hit, all of which will help with minimizing adrenaline dump, tunnel vision and hyperventilation. That is why many modern schools of combatives (commercial misnomer) use ambush simulation and body armour to allow people the experience of defending themselves under stress. People who really need self defense skills are those who put themselves on the line on a regular basis, the professionals. They need ‘scaling force’ skills, (thanks to Rory Miller)  ranging from evasion through control into destruction of limb or life. They are the ones who will be on the alert for ambush, threats, deceptions, and so on.

Now if somebody who practices martial arts wants to elevate their skills to something closer to a professional level they will have to be brutally honest about the limitations of their art, but also of the limitations of their mental attitude which equates technical skill with readiness and ability. They need to begin to think about self defense skills as part of the whole package of personal protection.

Yes they need to cross train and pressure test. Yes they need a decent level of fitness and toughness. Yes they need to check if their techniques are skills. But for me, above all, they need to learn a far greater context, and position self defense in its proper place.

You don’t need to spend years learning a martial art for self defense, a year of serious training and then ongoing maintenance should be enough. On the other hand if a person wants to spend 20 or 30 years practicing a physical art that brings them health, pleasure and a creative expression that’s fine unless they believe it is automatically giving them a skill that may not materialize. I hope they are never in for a rude awakening.

One last conundrum, for me at least, is the need to preserve an arts integrity and original purpose whilst simultaneously trying to keep it relevant to the times and the needs of students. Every system has some built in assumptions, some possibly untested beliefs, some strategic and tactical limitations based upon its spatial and temporal origins. Whilst it may be honorable to the founders of an art to preserve it as it was passed down there is a real danger of an art becoming an anachronism and irrelevant to modern times. However there is also the problem of a diminishing heritage due to the poor understanding of students who go on to become teachers. Many of these teachers themselves cannot see the value of aspects of their art so they begin to add and subtract according to their own limitations.

Not everyone is a Jigoro Kano, a Bruce Lee or a Morihei Ueshiba. Some people are undoubtedly martial artists in the truest sense of the words, capable of looking at an art and seeing what is actually hidden in it, the ‘art within the art’, to quote Datu Kelly Worden. However, thanks to the Internet we are seeing a period of redesign, and sometimes complete rejection of some arts, without necessarily having actually mastered or at least understood the real value of the system. Just as different ‘force’ professionals have different skill needs so amongst martial arts there are a variety of applications which sit upon a technical philosophy, and sometimes, as in Aikido, an ethical philosophy as well.

Can aikido provide self defense skills? In attempting to answer this some people end up in the wrong arena, confusing sport fighting with real world needs. Other people cling to the idea that real world violence somehow resembles what they are doing in the dojo. There are even a few fighters who can make a wrist lock work or an arm bar and say ‘look, I can make aikido work!’, the trouble is that something that looks like kote gaeshi done with a lot of physical force is not aikido, even though it may be good self defense.

Throwing a few ineffective strikes into aikido doesn’t make the art more “real”, anymore than a poorly learned nikyo will improve karate. Bruce Lee’s dictum of ‘absorb what is useful and reject what is useless’ is only meaningful if you have the capacity to make that judgement. By the way, the very few remaining films of Bruce sparring are not all that convincing. Replicating his one inch punch is not so difficult when the other guy is standing still right in front of you.

Is aikido suited to the sport arena? Definitely not, although neither is Sayoc with a live blade. Can aikido be useful to security and police? For sure. It provides a fundamental evade, trap and control system. See if you can find Koga aikido references. Good methods and applications. Is that real world aikido? In my opinion it is still cherry picking techniques, honing them into skills and applying them with the mindset and attitude of a police officer. Don’t forget that the force continuum includes the use of handcuffs, pepper spray, taser, baton and gun. Recognize that the social dynamics of laws enforcement and security work reduce the ‘go’ time in decision making for professionals, as well as making them continually aware (code yellow) and surveillant upon possible threats.

There is an enormous challenge to any martial artist who seeks to make their art effective for self defense without sacrificing the integrity and ethics of the art. It is a journey though technique to skill and then to art. It requires deep consideration about the management of the conditions of engagement. It asks the practitioner to consider the attributes and tools at their disposal and a willingness to overcome fantasy and assumption. It does call for ‘eating bitter’, as the CMA community would say, you need to find out what you can’t do, and work on that, rather than endlessly repeating what you can do. 

There is a lot more that could be said, but maybe next time?

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by: seb