Every so often, no matter how much we try to avoid it, current events have a way of barging into the dojo. The recent Boston Marathon Bombings is one of those events in the minds of many Americans. We’re not used to terrorist attacks on our own soil, albeit we’ve had our share of it over the past couple of decades. I’m sure it’s been the topic of conversation before and after some training sessions, and even during breaks.
How do we make sense of it in the light of martial arts?
I tend to look at terrorists and any criminal attacks on civilians and the appropriate response by law enforcement and military authorities the way Lt. Col. David Grossman (http://www.killology.com/) likens it. His analogy is not totally appropo, I think, but it does put things into a really interesting and useful perspective to start a discussion. The following is based on Grossman’s analogy, although any misunderstandings of his ideas are purely my own fault.
Grossman likens the general public, law enforcement (or military, or any emergency/rescue/survival official) and criminals (predators) to the interplay of sheepdogs, wolves and sheep. Predators like wolves will constantly circle a herd of domesticated animals, waiting for a chance to attack them. The many cattle, sheep or other such herd animals, like their predators, have four legs, teeth and hooves or claws, but they simply are not bred or capable of protecting themselves other than the flight or faint reaction. “Fighting” to protect themselves is usually not possible given their weaker and smaller jaws and claws. (The analogy does break down, for example, if you talk about elephants, whose sheer size can do damage to smaller predators like lions, or other herd animals with antlers or other such features that can do damage. And let’s not forget beavers. Recently, one of those seemingly innocuous creatures killed a man who got to close by using its incisors to bite him in the femoral artery. Don’t anger the beaver.) The shepherd therefore employs sheepdogs to guard and protect the herd.
The thing is, the DNA of dogs and wolves are over 99 percent similar. They are so similar that they can, in fact, manage to interbreed given the proper circumstances. So while they do have physical differences, such has dogs having slightly smaller incisor teeth and wider, flatter faces, what’s there to stop a dog from attacking the same herd it is supposed to guard? It’s breeding and training. In the human counterpart, it’s attitude, ethos and goals. Predators and protectors are totally different kinds of people, although they share many different traits. The sharing of traits, however, is the danger zone for protectors.
Or, as one friend in self-defense training joked about it to me, “The closest thing to criminals are cops. Both like to drive around in cars all day scoping out the joints, both carry guns, boss people around, and drink a lot of coffee.”
It may be a joke, but reflecting back on Grossman’s metaphor (or is it an analogy?), there are, in fact, similarities between our guardians and the predators of human society, just as there are superficial similarities between dogs and wolves. Both tend to carry deadly armament, or have the expectation of the use of force in carrying out some of their profession. Both are, in fact, trained to react to violence, whether it’s through training in law enforcement or military boot camp, or in the mean streets of violence and abusive behavior.
But all such similarities end, as all such similarities end when you discuss dogs and wolves, when you talk about motivation, goals and loyalties. A guardian of society, whether it be a member of the military, law enforcement, or even fire/rescue, medical, educational…any kind of professional who renders service to the public, does so as a service, as an aid to the public. They have a calling, and that calling is to help other people in need. To protect the defenseless, to aid the weak, to rescue those in danger. They will go to danger to succor and comfort the public. They are trained to react to emergencies or problematic situations by confronting them and trying to stop them. It can mean stopping the bleeding of a wounded bystander, or firing shots at a psychopath who is intent on blowing up more people, or helping a patient into a wheelchair. They do not have the option of running away. They are trained to help, to go to the problem, to protect and defend. They go to danger to help others.
The predator, however, will actively court dangerous situations in order to get what he/she wants, whether it’s attacking a weaker family member, a total stranger, or society in general. The predator is not out to stop violence, he’s actively looking to create disruption and violence to get what he wants. It could be for a radicalized cause, for greed, for personal gain, but it’s basically selfish goals, for his self, never mind the pain and suffering it can cause others.
Both predator and guardian, however, circle around the dark attraction of aggression and violence, whether it is social, verbal or physical. The attraction of violence, so vivid in so many movies and computer games, is something that a guardian has to watch out for, because only a paper-thin barrier stands between the attitudes of a guardian versus a predator. A gun on the hip of a guardian, for example, can be used to protect the life and limb of citizens. In the hands of a predator, however, it can threaten, intimidate, wound and murder. It’s like sharp fangs and claws. Both dogs and wolves have them, but they are put to different uses.
Therefore, the need for law enforcement officers to live up to an even higher standard of behavior than the general public is a necessary draconian rule, else they fall into corruption and criminal behavior. Likewise, soldiers who slaughter innocents and who torture and abuse civilians or prisoners debase their military tradition, and in so doing become nothing more than uniformed terrorists, losing their pride as a military unit with a traditional heritage of service.
When any military resorts to debasing its code of conduct, it loses its discipline and core characteristics, hence the need for military courts passing out harsh retribution to soldiers who abuse their responsibilities as combatants. The guardians cannot become the predators.
Some martial artists like to think of themselves as “warriors,” emblazoning their keikogi with logos and patches that are like military insignia, such as crossed swords, stripes denoting rank, and so on, but that’s not necessarily the case. We martial arts folk don’t go to combat, unless we are also soldiers or law enforcement officers. What we do train for, however, and how this essay has relevance for martial artists, is that while we are not necessarily warriors, proper training should inculcate in us the mind and heart of a “warrior” in that we deal with facing up to stylized combative situations (i.e. moments of stress) and, through repetition, learn to mentally and physically deal with them without totally falling apart.
Of course, it’s very rare that a criminal may come at you with a samurai sword or a wooden staff. More likely, it will be a short pocketknife, “Saturday Night Special” pistol, or an assault rifle. But we train for keeping our cool in physical or mental encounters that trouble us nonetheless, and the abstracted action and reaction trains our minds, often, more than our bodies. In that way, the training is like training a dog to learn how to be a dog, to guard and protect a flock or herd rather than have it revert to its wolfish nature and attack the herd it is meant to protect.
The direct aftermath of the two bombs that went off at the Boston Marathon was recorded by numerous cameras and video equipment. In the midst of the chaos and carnage, one gratifying thing to see was that many everyday, average people immediately ran to help the wounded, rather than trample away like frightened cattle. It was as if the “herd” wasn’t just a herd, it was full of guardians of all stripes and colors, willing to sacrifice their own safety to help those in need.
What proper budo training should do is cultivate that kind of mind: the willingness to serve and protect, not just in a fight or tournament, but in everyday life, and in such emergencies. The danger is that martial arts training can easily be turned on its head if the goals are only slightly changed, and it becomes a spawning ground for psychopaths with a fixation on violence, for making better bullies and thugs. It can be the same martial art system, but only a slight tweak in the methodology and goals will create better predators rather than braver altruistic members of society.
In our modern American urban and suburban lifestyle, we tend towards a sedate culture that avoids actual violence as a means of getting our way. Hence, a common reaction to blatant violence used to be either the “flight or faint” reaction, or just immobility through disbelief that it is really happening. Terrorism and other random acts of violence has become so commonly reported in the news these days that I think the general public has been roused from their complacency. Yet, I still think that properly conducted budo training can help us deal with confronting such extraordinary events of destruction, whether human-made or natural.
And if done long enough, I suspect we end up like old, grizzled doggies ourselves, sleeping by the fireplace of our human masters, happily dreaming of younger days when we protected our master’s houses and yard with our big barks and show of fangs and claws. In that way, maybe Grossman’s analogy is truer than he thinks. I kind of feel like an old, lazy dog myself nowadays.