21. On the killing of Osama bin Laden

Any time the Western way of war can be unleashed on an enemy stupid enough to enter its arena, victory is assured.
–Victor Davis Hanson

As Americans, I think whatever our political persuasion we all breathed a collective sigh of relief with the killing of Osama bin Laden, al Qaida’s leader, this past Sunday, May 1, 2011.

Yet, as martial artists and Americans, many of us were taken aback by the spontaneous gatherings and party atmosphere of crowds screaming epithets like “U-S-A!” or holding up one of their fingers to indicate that we were Number One, like it was a giant pep rally for a college football championship.

Certainly, a similar scene of joy did occur on VJ Day, to celebrate Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. That was the end of a large scale conventional war of massed armies. But there is no end to the “War on Terror,” since “terror” is a tactic, not a country, and it’s used by myriad of still-extant cells of religious and political extremists, fanatics and jihadists. Perhaps it’s a joy among people young enough that over half their lives were spent in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a feeling of closure now that the chief architect of that tragedy has been put down. Youthful exuberance. That’s hard to deny them their celebration.

I certainly went through conflicting emotions. First was uncertainty…was it for real? Then came amazement, then the greatest sense of relief. Relief that this man, who had become a symbol for thousands of twisted, angry people, had been taken off this Earth, and thereby perhaps in the long term we have lowered the chances of further jihadi attacks against civilians in the West and also in Arab countries. As one news source noted, bin Laden and his philosophy of violence had, over the course of ten years, been battered not just by the pushback from American military and political forces, but the Arab “street” itself has begun to peel away from the use of violence as a tactic. And, it should be noted, al Qaida killed a whole lot of fellow Muslims in their pursuit of violent jihad, and the organization and radical supporters justified it by their twisted, abusive interpretation of a great religion.

So I shed no tears for the man’s death. Yet I also do not crow over the victory. Why? A couple of other martial artist friends commented on their own feelings in their Facebook pages, so my opinion is hardly unique. These acquaintances gave me the idea for this blog.

In summary, it may be that because of our martial training, we simply have a mindset that does not feel good about gloating over a man’s death, however evil that man was. In our opinion, war and killing are horrible options. To do so, even to counter great evil, may be a necessary evil, just as the actual application of martial arts methods in real violent encounters should always be a last and final option, not the first. One FB correspondent quoted Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. The abridged quote goes like this:

Weapons are instruments of killing and destruction, which are contrary to the nature of life.
…Because weapons are inauspicious, they are not to be the instruments of a gentleman.

Only when one has no other choice may one resort to using them, and if their use is necessary, one must employ calmness and restraint, for peace and quiet are the normal nature of universal life.

Even in victory there is no cause for excitement and rejoicing. To rejoice over a victory is to delight in killing and destruction.

…This indicates that war is treated as the equivalent of a funeral service.

…Even when a victory is won, the occasion should be regarded as lamentable.

(translated by Hua-Ching Ni)

If some say that this is just some passive “Or-ee-entl” mindset, then we should pay heed at least to a Western philosopher, the Stoic warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Lest we become as bloodthirsty as the jihadi, he said:

The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.

I think it was proper and fitting that the US military performed Islamic death rites as best they knew and could, given the situation, and after verifying it really was bin Laden, they disposed of the corpse and the government chose not to release the photo of the body. That certainly was more respect than al Qaida ever offered its thousands of victims after they were killed, and we have to be better than the terrorists. That is what this whole battle is all about: it’s a contest between ways of thinking, a clash of ideologies, and we cannot sink to their level else we become no better than them.

Photographs will do no good and could be used by our enemies as a rallying point. Worse, they could be used by idiots to glorify the attack. I’m sure some screwball would immediately silkscreen the bloody, gory photos on a t-shirt and sell it in the streets of New York City immediately. Bad taste has no boundaries.

As martial artists, therefore, I think many of us reacted surprisingly the same way: relief, but no jumping in the streets screaming at the top of our heads and getting drunk as a skunk. Relief, but a sense that this wasn’t the end; it was just a milestone along the way to the final defeat of violent jihadi ideology.

This is zanshin in budo translated to our regular lives. Even after victory, the saying goes, you tighten your helmet straps. Don’t lose sight of the goals. Don’t show any openings, because the enemy can still strike if you are momentarily distracted.

Martial artists are not military folk, although the two often overlap. I would not dare to put any of us on the level of training, fitness and abilities of serving military, especially of our special forces. Nor can I compare the daily sacrifices of our police and security officers to what we do as a pastime. But I believe there can be a shared mental attitude of service to others and preparedness. Therefore, if one is to be a total budoka, not just someone who goes to a gym for a twice-a-week physical workout in something called martial arts, then the mental and spiritual component of budo is really important as a major part of training. That attitude is a martial one, in the old sense of the word, in the sense of attitudes stressed by Lao Tzu, Confucianism, Buddhism, and other religious and philosophical sources that made up the spiritual and mental wellsprings of our art.

Chinese philosophers were Confucian at their civil service jobs and Taoist in their personal retreats. Roman warriors could be stoic in battle but epicurean when it came to enjoying life. One does not have to be a dour and salty old soldier to do martial arts. But I would suggest that without investigating how martial philosophy does affect one’s personal outlooks, you’re only learning half of what budo offers.

So I close with two other relevant quotes, both from philosophers who were addressing military men and martial artists:

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.
–Sun Tzu

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.
–Marcus Aurelius


12 thoughts on “21. On the killing of Osama bin Laden

  1. Nice, Wayne, though I quibble as this is something I often wrestle with:

    “a quote by the Stoic warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Lest we become as bloodthirsty as the jihadi, he said:

    The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.”

    Killing Osama Bin Laden in an operation is NOT in any way “becoming like him.” I don’t think you are saying this – I hope not. It appears that you are equating them, but I may be reading into it.

    And I would also disagree with Lao Zi to a point. Yes, implements of ill omen – but not the tools of the gentleman? He insults every peace keeper that there ever was.

    The very ones whose sacrifice allowed him to philosophize in the first place!

    One can very much be a good martial artist – a gentleman – and use weapons appropriately. Most (trained to do so) do, most of the time.

    Taoist teaching also contains the concept of “killing one to save ten thousand.” This can indeed be a worthwhile thing. IIRC Takuan spoke of this to Yagyu Munenori (check me if the latter name is off. BTW, there is a new translation of a commentary on the Dao de Jing out by Takuan!)

    In the case of OBL, I think it can be taken almost literally. The point is well made that he killed far more Muslims than he ever did his hated “Crusaders,” and it seems more innocent civilians and unarmed non-combatants than fighters in the latter case. And though we have examples far and between of soldiers of mean intellect and meaner disposition commiting atrocities – it is not our bounden creed to do so; unlike his, which is on the level of the Nazis (and interestingly enough, some WWII era Japanese!)

    His is as much a perversion of his culture as what the Japanese at Nanjing did perverting theirs.

    So celebration at the death of a human being, despite his evil, no. Inevitable karma – for OBL and for the men that took him down – yes.

    But there are mitigating circumstances making that karma of different order of magnitude, or so at least a Shingon priest has told me.

    Clearly, the more mindful – and competent – we can be in handling weapons against others the more responsible, appropriate use of force decisions can be decisively made even in the flash of lighting that it takes to make them, rather than in the deliberations of philosophers and preachers.

    Two wonderful stories of this are found in the tale of Tsukahara Bokuden’s Mutekatsu ryu (which I think you wrote up in Furyu, once, no?) and in a story of Kamiizumi Hidetsuna.

    In the first he deals peacefully and even cunningly with an impudent warrior whom he could simply have cut down by the mores of the time; in the latter he apprehends a hostage taker and rescues a child by throwing him a ball of rice to distract him.

    In the case of Bokuden, we musn’t forget that the man’s sword was well stained with blood. He was directly responsible for a whole lot o’killing in his day. Perhaps being concerned about this karma in the Buddhist culture that he was part of, or maybe just being plain tired of doing mayhem to other people, he elected not to kill that man. But by the same token he could and was no doubt willing to cut that man down in the blink of eye if he felt his ruse was not working or that he otherwise needed to.

    I don’t think the two can be separated. Bokuden did as he did because he had the absolute ability and skill to do the other, without hesitation, but he decided to spare life because he did not have to take it. I like to think that part of the reason his ruse worked is the strength of spirit and will that comes from a proven willingness to do what it takes.

    The best fighters and best shooter of the cops I know don’t get in a lot of fights, and many times elect not to shoot when they could legally do so. They don’t have to, and they do not feel impelled to it through fear.

    As for Kamiizumi, a favorite story of mine; Dr. Will Bodiford addresses it in his piece Zen and Japanese Swordsmanship Reconsidered in the collection “Budo Perspectives Vol 1, by Kendo World.

    He does so during a long discussion of the Zen teaching “Sword Blades Upward.”

    Kamiizumi, as told in the book Honcho Bugei Shoden (1716), came upon a situation where a desperate criminal was holding a child hostage. In this day and age we call out the SWAT team for that kind of thing, but Kamiizumi was apparently a bit of a one man SWAT team. Kamiizumi disguised himself as a monk by switching clothes with a real one, approached the criminal offering food, and when he saw his opening, acted; he threw the criminal to the ground, snatched up the hostage child, and saved the day.

    Apparently the monk was so impressed that, according to Bodiford, he said “Truly you are magnificent. I am just a monk, but even I can sense your courage and strength. Here is a person who actually understands the critical phrase Sword Blades Upward.” and he gave Kamiizumi a miniature Buddhist vestment.

    Bodiford writes: “In the context of this story, understanding the critical phrase “Sword Blades Upward” clearly implies a willingness to risk one’s own life and the skill to succeed. It seems to have become a code word for a high level of martial attainment. But what it actually represents is not spelled out.” (p. 95)

    Earlier Sword Blades Upward is seen as a teaching that, while seeking “Peace amidst War,” certainly did not demure from the idea of smashing one’s enemies as need be.

    And that is it, really. The willingness to go into harm’s way with the skill and will to bring harm to others as necessary – but only as necessary in light of the facts known to you.

    I found some of the early back-and-forth on whether Bin Laden was armed or not to be fascinating, and utterly revealing of a people that are so far removed from the mindset and decision making of the people serving their way of life, the team members that went on that raid, again, the very people who enjoy the freedom to not only be provided information as what happened, but to freely think what they want, express that opinion, and not be afraid that someone might hear and report them to some repressive authority.

    Anything less that INSTANT surrender was more than justified for shooting him. They have since appropriately noted the considered possibilites of a suicide bomb, rigged location, and his effort to use his wife as a human shield (big, bad, Jihadi warrior there, no?) Any hesitation on the part of the shooter/shooters would have meant placing themselves and their teammates at further risk.

    Being in that position sucks, and demands a lot of the mindful warrior to act decisively one way or another when lives hang in the balance. Acting properly, (whether you “drop the hammer” or no…) and coming out in one piece (or even relatively so….) on the other side, can be an incredibly exhilarating experience, or it can be not so good. It seems to depend on whether you think in your own mind you did the right thing.

    And shooting someone in the head is sometimes the right thing to do.

    Having “the right thing” instilled in someone’s head is what a lot of the mental teachings in budo seemed to have gotten at, even from the beginning. I think that was because early on it wasn’t the philosophers, or the monks like in the Kamiizumi story, that were in the place to do that, especially when it wasn’t the “easy” answer.

    The warriors were. Like the team that did this op against Bin Laden. And that’s why I think there are still lessons in the budo for warriors today.

    1. Kit,

      I concur with your analysis. I struggled mightly to articulate similar arguments over the past week.


  2. Kit, I believe Wayne is applying Aurelius’s quote to the celebrations following Bin Laden’s death, not the operation itself.

    As for Laozi, keep in mind the vagaries of translation and the pithy nature of classical Chinese texts (which were not punctuated). I recommend going to this site: http://www.duhtao.com/index.html . Look at the various translations of chapter 31 to get an idea of what Laozi was really saying. IMO, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that he was saying peace-keepers weren’t gentleman (itself an imperfect term to translate the original Chinese). Rather, the whole chapter is about how good men use weapons.

    1. Two VERY thoughtful comments by online friends, Kit and Josh. To clarify, Kit: I meant the way people celebrated the killing of bin Laden, not the operation itself. Soldiers (and warriors) in many traditional cultures, such as the Greek, Roman and Japanese, did not take to too much reveling in their war skills per the admonition by Lao Tzu, Confucius and others about the nature of martial skills. Yet one needed to have a warrior culture that emphasized skill at arms. In that context, a warrior was also admonished to be a “gentleman,” i.e., someone who studied the Classics, who could see beyond his technical skills and act strategically as well as tactically, per Bokuden or Kamiizumi. I don’t think we disagree with that.

      Josh: I have a book sitting on my desk that has side by side readings of Confucius in English and the original Chinese, with comments by the translator to guide the reader through classical Chinese, because of that very problem in translation…so much is lost, and I can at least do a vague reading of the Chinese characters for myself with that guide.

      Per the debates going on about the operation: When you make war, as bin Laden did on the US and its civilian population, you’re fair game, period, in my opinion. It was a military operation. So you kill the bad guy and bring home your soldiers, never mind the niceties. That the team managed to do this with very little collateral damage is amazing, and a testament to their professionalism and their intense training (kata geiko?).

      It’s not like you had time to read the Miranda Rights to this guy, after all.

      Hope this clarifies things.


  3. Kit,

    I concur with your analysis. I struggled mightily to articulate similar arguments with several people over the past week.


  4. My favorite line in the whole article was “The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.”. I find myself forced to agree that while it is wise to feel good about being alive it does no good to win just to fail in the end.

    1. Michael,
      Yes, practically speaking, you can be philosophical AFTER you win the battle and survive. If you lose and die…well, you’re just dead. But how you regard your survival will depend on your own personal character and traits. My opinion in this blog is really just my opinion, and there are others who have just as valid a take on this as I do, and maybe better.

      What I think the aftermath has been showing, though, is that our government doesn’t gloat over the killing. We don’t run around in the streets with our hand soaked in our enemy’s blood. Our military did the job, we buried bin Laden according to what we understood was Islamic custom; a courtesy that bin Ladin or his cohorts never would have afforded us if the situation was reversed, and we acted as appropriately and nobly as we could. In doing so, in not becoming like the violent, virulent jihadi, we will hold up a stark contrast to their methods and goals and ours, hopefully, and people can decide which worldview they prefer.

      Speaking of which, I glanced at a news item where even the pacifistic Dalai Lama didn’t condemn the US’s actions outright. Sometimes stopping some crazy mad killer is legitimate, the Dalai Lama may be thinking, if it will stop the death and misery of hundreds and thousands of others. In any case, bin Laden had some really bad karma he was going to pay for sooner or later. The SEALs were just hastening the day of his karmic retribution. If you want to talk about it in a Buddhist sense.

  5. Wayne and Josh

    I thought so, just making sure my reading of it was correct. Ron – cool! – good to see you here!

    I think these are the kinds of discussions that reveal the true meaning of Budo, at the “tip of the spear,” as it were.

  6. Good discussion. Kit, your thoughts are very similar to mine. So much so I won’t even add anything. Most of the people that I’ve been in harm’s way with would most likely agree also. What I do have a problem with is how the major civilians/politicians handled the information given as the news began to trickle out. If it was tactical in nature, I have no idea what their motivation was; and if it wasn’t, some of them should be locked in a closet away from the media if the rest of their job behaviors are acceptable. If not, they should be canned.

    I don’t know about hastening his karmic balancing, Wayne, but they certainly took care of their role in it effectively. Too bad we lost the chopper… those things are expensive.

    1. Chuck,

      Agreed. Lately my wife and I have taken to flipping the channel when a news/talk show goes into talking heads mode and some chair-warmer starts to talk about the operation and its consequences/results/who gets the kudos/etc. It’s all speculation, innuendo and partisan politics. This bad guy is dead, we got him, let’s move on and get the next guy on the list.

      What amazes me still is that for such a dangerous mission, even though a copter was lost, no American soldier was killed or wounded, and “civilian” casualties were kept at an incredible minimum.They went in, got the bad guy and got out, in 40 minutes. That is American modern military arts. Amazing.

  7. A PS on Kit’s note about the Kamiizumi story:

    I’m sure you saw the adaptation that Kurosawa did of that legend in his “Seven Samurai.” What I missed when I was a teenager the first time I saw the movie, and what I saw when I viewed it again much later, was how the farmers watched the samurai, in stunned silence, cut and shave his top knot off to really look the part of a monk. It was a very class-oriented society, and the samurai were on top of the heap. As a clueless young man, I totally missed the boldness of what the old samurai did: here was a warrior who willingly put aside the outward trappings of his status and power, for no personal gain, to save a farmer’s child. When I saw it later, as a much, much older man, it was right there, in front of me. Kurosawa was laying it out: THIS was a bugeisha. Even the master swordsman, who lived only to perfect his fencing skills, joined the group because of this leader’s spirit.

    It still strikes me as one of Kurosawa’s most complex samurai movies.


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