Martial Arts America, Chapter Four

Martial Arts America, Book Cover


Destroy your attacker using never-before-seen "killing" techniques. Creator of Official U.S. Navy SEAL combat system releases brutal Gun & Knife sections of his Instructor Qualification Fighting Series."

SEAL team hand-to-hand combat and weapons training. The ultimate self-defense system.

— Advertisements, May, 1996    
Black Belt magazine    

Capital 'T'he previous chapter dealt with the issue of preserving an ancient fighting or martial art for the purposes of honoring the art's founder and maintaining cultural roots. There remains, however, another oft-used and outwardly compelling argument for preserving a fighting art: combat effectiveness. Practitioners holding this belief may likewise seek to honor their arts' founders, but not for the reasons already discussed. Their reasoning is that since the techniques of their arts' founders were effective in what is undeniably the most extreme fighting environment, war, surely they must be the best techniques for self-defense. But are they really? This chapter examines this popular combat/preservation connection by posing the following:

  1. Apart from their possible historical or cultural value (already addressed in the preceding chapter), is there merit in preserving "combat" arts and their techniques?
  2. Is an instructor's success with his techniques (combat-proven or otherwise) sufficient reason for maintaining them exactly as received?
  3. Are combat arts and techniques suitable for everyone?

Among martial artists, there is a clear distinction between "self-defense" training and training for "combat." Self-defense-oriented martial artists are not Rambo wannabes; they are craftsmen whose labors produce practical self-defense skills. Often, in describing self-defense capabilities of a system or technique, martial artists will use the term "combat effectiveness." Taken in context, this is understood to mean "street" or self-defense effectiveness. There is, however, a group for whom the term "combat" means exactly that – military or paramilitary skills employed by professional soldiers – and it is this use of the term that we examine in this chapter.1


Combat Effectiveness as the Standard

Combat effectiveness has long been the standard by which techniques and martial art systems are measured. I have a friend, for example, who believes that techniques that are or have been proven in combat should never be changed, precisely because their effectiveness has received the highest seal of approval; they passed the "ultimate" test. He uses his late instructor as an example.

My friend's teacher was a professional soldier – a member of one of our elite fighting forces. His credentials were built on the fact that, while on active duty in Vietnam, he had, in the performance of his unit's mission, many opportunities to use his hand-to-hand fighting skills in actual life-and-death combat. You can see why many view this kind of "trial by combat" as the ultimate test of any technique, and their arguments have a measure of logic to them. I mean, what more can be said of any fighting system than that its techniques are "proven in combat?"

The argument is not new. Many practitioners have used it as their reason for preserving ancient arts. My friend's reasoning sounds somehow different because it is so contemporary, so relevant. Remember, this instructor's proving ground was Vietnam. As such, his skills and fighting methods cross both classical and contemporary lines. They were used successfully in our time and by a Western martial artist who was a practitioner of an old but very effective Asian fighting art. The blend of East and West is amplified when we consider that this modern warrior was himself of Dutch-Indonesian extract. That said, the question remains: is combat effectiveness alone sufficient reason for maintaining any technique exactly as received?

Changing Combat Techniques
Fighting is dynamic; it changes with the environment, with the enemy, with the culture, and with the weapons available to the combatants. For example, before American aircraft and armor could be used effectively in the Persian Gulf War, they had to be repainted to blend in with the desert environment. Moreover, since our equipment was designed for use in greener, cooler climates – not in desert sand and not in that kind of heat – we had to make substantial changes to the hardware if we expected to function and succeed in that new combat environment. This type of change is environmental. Other changes are forced on us by our enemies.

During the American Revolution, British inflexibility cost them the war. Even the best-trained, best-equipped army in the world could not win a guerrilla war while steadfastly wearing their bright red coats and marching in tight formation. The unalterable fact is that when it comes to fighting, we either change and adapt to our enemies' tactics, or face certain defeat. This is true for regional conflicts, and it is equally true for personal self-defense. The following excerpt from Inside Karate magazine (Lowry 1987) contains an excellent example of the kind of changes I am talking about:

Ninja Nodawa

It's common to see methods of attacking an opponent from the rear; slipping up, grabbing him and slitting his throat with a horizontal knife slash. In our era this may be effective, but claims that it and techniques like it are part of a feudal ryu are incorrect. Attempting such a strike against a samurai would have been disastrous since they wore a gorget (nodowa) attached to their helmet or had armor covering the chin to the throat area in order to protect from that very kind of attack. In authentic bujutsu ryu, knife attacks against the throat are invariably stabbing ones and include a corresponding wrench with the other hand, meant to lift the gorget and twist it away.


An example of how an unarmed technique common today would have been impractical yesterday, appeared in an article on ninjutsu in; Black Belt magazine. According to the article, ninjutsu authority Stephen Hayes states that the roundhouse kick is not included in the traditional ninja arsenal of personal weapons. As Hayes explains it, this is because the targets we commonly strike with a roundhouse kick today "would have been armored in the old days, so there wouldn't have been any reason to put a foot there" (Breen 1995, 146).

Karate-ka kicking armor

Each of the two preceding examples point out how some of the techniques we use today would be ineffective in yesterday's combat environment. Doubtless, there are also techniques from bygone days that will not work effectively today.

Curiously, my friend proudly acknowledges the fact that the skills and system of his highly decorated instructor are based on his changes, and his blending of both the art he learned from his father (Chinese kuntao) and the art he adopted later in life (tae kwon do). However, to my friend, the idea of changing the art further – to better fit his individual characteristics and the world in which he lives – is unthinkable.


What's Good For The Goose...

The fact that my friend's teacher was wise enough to effectively blend the arts he had received and organize them into a system that worked for him begs the question, "Is the fact that any individual is successful with his techniques sufficient reason for his student to be forever bound to practice it and teach it the same way?" Hopefully you already have several good reasons for answering "no," but if you're still unsure, consider this. When analyzing the fighting style of any individual, you must understand the interaction between the techniques he employs, his physical abilities, and his personal traits. That individual's unique personal attributes may make the technique effective for him, but not for you.

For example, my instructor – whose shins have smashed through much more than I care to imagine – does not hesitate to do a shin-to-shin sweep. But for someone who sits behind a desk all day, even if he trains several times a week, is such a technique desirable? Are techniques that are used by any master, teacher, or talented individual necessarily suitable for everyone right out of the box? Often the answer is no.

Techniques a big man uses are seldom as effective when attempted by a smaller individual. The principles employed by any fighter may not be as sound or effective when used by another. For example, many boxing fans admired Joe Frazier, but how many of them would want to fight as he did? Frazier's fighting style was to stand in there – taking the best his opponent could give, while, hopefully, giving back more. How many of us can take that kind of punishment? How many of us even want to?

In the same light, how much of what past Okinawan masters like Kanryo Higashionna and Chojun Miyagi did was based on, or effective because of, their unique individual abilities? How much was effective because of their natural strength, size, muscle speed or reflexes? You see, what works for a great martial artist will not necessarily work for everyone. What worked for past masters, of any era, is not guaranteed to work for us today. The principles involved may be sound and have broad application; but again, we must carefully evaluate every art in light of its purpose – combat, self-defense, sport, or exercise – and the originator's or teacher's abilities. We must also consider the cultural and social context in which they were developed and effectively used.

Asian fighting and martial arts are extremely potent, and many of the techniques they use were, at various times, "proven in combat." But many of them were also developed a long time ago, in a very different environment, and for a people as culturally distant from ourselves today as their countries are geographically.

Cultural Differences
Historically, practitioners of classical (preserved) martial arts have simply chosen to ignore cultural differences. Nevertheless, the differences between the fighting methods employed by Americans and those demonstrated in most classical is undeniable. Even to the casual observer, it becomes quickly obvious that Americans simply do not fight like Asians – classical or contemporary. This is easy to understand when you consider the fact that Americans, today, do not fight as we did just a few decades ago. Thirty years ago, anyone kicking to the groin was a "dirty" fighter. Today, the groin is one of the first things savvy fighters attack.

Comparing East with West, we find that Americans are typically "head hunters." That is, given the choice, we prefer hitting the general where he lives: in the head. Most classical Asian martial arts, on the other hand, emphasize attacks to the body (the obvious exception is those sports that emphasize kicking to the head). Moreover, Americans prefer punching with the right hand with the left foot forward. (Among practitioners of Asian martial arts, this is referred to as a right reverse punch [figure 3].) Classical Asian martial arts, on the other hand, display a strong preference for the right lunge punch (figure 4) – one which, for example, brings the rear right leg forward as the right fist or hand strikes. These examples reflect cultural differences that are rarely considered when we evaluate the effectiveness of classical "combat" techniques.

Figure 3 Figure 4
Figure 3Figure 4

Beyond the technical, individual, and cultural differences that exist between the combat techniques of the past and today's reality, there remains yet another reason why "combat" effectiveness (classical or contemporary) is a poor argument for preserving a fighting system or specific technique: namely, the objectives of the practitioner himself.

The objectives of a soldier and those of the civilian martial artist are vastly different. According to lifelong professional soldier Lewis "Major Mike" Williams, "a soldier's job is to kill and break things. And that," he adds, "will never change." Death of the enemy and destruction of his ability to wage war are the soldier's primary objectives.

When an infantryman charges enemy ground, any head popping up in front of him is always assumed to be hostile. Saddam Hussein's human-shield warfare aside, the soldier does not normally expect to face innocent civilians on the battlefield. For this reason, he is given considerable latitude in the use of lethal force. (This "license to kill" is the main reason our military does not play a greater role in our national "War on Drugs.")

In war, combat techniques are effective only if they can kill, and kill quickly. This is the sole standard by which they are judged. In a combat environment, any technique that does not immediately neutralize an enemy is ineffective. (Combat is not the place to demonstrate the finer points of one's art.) However, this is not the case for the civilian martial artist. His situation is nearer that of civil authorities.

Unlike the soldier, the policeman works in a "friendly," peacetime environment, populated mostly with noncombative civilians (doubtless, a debatable fact in more than a few metropolitan areas). In the performance of his job, the police officer must differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys. Because of this, he cannot respond to everyone he meets as if each is a hostile or lethal threat. The peace officer's primary objective is not wholesale death and destruction; it is service, protection, and maintenance of civil order. The same is true for the civilian martial artist.

When the civilian martial artist uses his skills in self-defense, his primary goal is to escape injury while protecting himself and others. His action may or may not require lethal force, but unlike the professional soldier, he views killing as his last option – not his first.

Police officer with a mother

Like the police officer, the civilian martial artist's response is dictated by circumstances such as the severity of the attack, the number of assailants, the use or absence of weapons, and the need to protect himself and others. Unlike the peace officer, the citizen is without the authority to dispense justice, so while his response is dictated by similar circumstances, his authority to punish is not.


Rough Riders Forever?

Were I still in the marines, I would take little comfort in knowing that I was learning "combat proven" techniques if they were the same ones our troops used during the Spanish-American War. Eastern or Western, the changes in warfare and personal combat that have occurred in the hundred years since Teddy Roosevelt charged San Juan Hill, are far too dramatic to warrant our entrusting our very survival to preserved combat techniques (of any culture). "Preserving combat techniques" is as oxymoronic as such oft-repeated phrases as centered around, pretty ugly, and criminal justice. All of them sound OK initially, but each is completely and totally illogical when examined more closely.

There is much that we can learn from the numerous fighting systems that were developed and taught by men who were obviously masters of their respective arts (past and present). We should study and record their techniques carefully, for these individuals serve as excellent sources of real experience. But their success with their fighting methods in no way guarantees their technique's effectiveness for everyone else – especially as the distance between their time and ours increases.

One final note with regard to making "combat" effectiveness the standard by which systems and techniques are measured. Just as grenade launchers and mortars are not the primary weapons of our civil authorities, neither are real "combat" techniques the primary tools of the civilian martial artist. This does not mean that martial art instructors should not teach such techniques. Techniques designed to kill an attacker are a legitimate part of the civilian martial artist's arsenal; they simply should not be the only part – or even a major part. In a military context, lethal skill is not a luxury; it is an absolute necessity. However, for the ill-advised or poorly trained civilian martial artist, lethal skill at a Friday night party is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

The argument that a fighting system should be preserved simply because its techniques have been proven in combat is flawed for two reasons. First, because – as was pointed out in Chapter 3 – preserving any martial art or fighting system is the surest way to reduce its effectiveness as a combat art. Second, and more important, techniques designed solely to kill or neutralize an enemy quickly are far more dangerous in a civilian environment than they are useful. Clearly, they are useful – even necessary – but they are more dangerous because, in the overwhelming number of situations the civilian martial artist finds himself in, death as his response to threat is literally overkill. With the except of the military professional, today's martial artist is not practicing his art as a soldier on the battlefield, but as a civilian.


  1. Outside this chapter and throughout the remainder of this book, "combat" means actual, self-defense, street application; not military application.  [Return to reference point]
Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.