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Psychology of Combat

by James Williams

Aikido Journal #114 (1998)

I was pleased to see a review of the book Bloody Iron in Volume 24, No. 3 of Aikido Journal. Here is a book that speaks plainly about the reality of conflict with edged weapons in circumstances involving lethal force. The authors, both long time residents of some of Americas finest prisons, describe in detail the prison environment as regards to the edged weapons conflict that is a part of daily life. The nature of such situations is presented graphically so that there will be no mistake as to their grim reality. There is much to learn in this volume and perhaps some of the information can give insight into the training that was necessary for the feudal era warriors of Japan.

With this insight we can further define the difference between most modern training and classical samurai training. And from that more clearly define what training for “real” entails. The classical samurai arts are military arts-arts designed for war. The original purpose of arts such as kenjutsu and jujutsu was to train for “real,” that is, to train for war. Wars arising from the necessity of circumstance, involve men killing and dying. This fact is not pleasant to contemplate. Man has engaged in warfare throughout history. It is no less real in the present era than it has been in the past. Practicing martial arts for “real” from this classical perspective, is practicing them with a military intent. Ours is a society born and maintained by force of arms, yet the majority of the population is as removed from this reality as they are removed from the need to hunt for food.

It is perhaps for this very reason that I find Bloody Iron valuable. Much of its value lies in the fact that it deals with the reality of edged-weapon combat from an in-depth personal perspective. No drum rolls or spiritual edification, just the grim reality of living and dying at the edge of a blade.

Living, killing, and dying at the edge of a blade defined the existence of the samurai. It defined their conduct, technique, art, and philosophy; it defined their entire culture. The military techniques of this warrior class were based first on the need for successful deployment of edged weapons in lethal force engagements. “… cutting down the enemy is the Way of Strategy…” Miyamoto Musashi. Everything else stemmed from this grim reality, including their jujutsu arts. The mental, emotional, and physical skills the samurai strove to attain emerged from the demand of their environment. Much of the technique and philosophy that has carried forward into the modern era is a product of the Edo period (1600-1876) of Shogunate control and extended peace. This later development is not a matter of right or wrong, it merely changed the prime purpose of the samurai’s training in a later era.

To train for combat in the classical, pre-Edo sense meant to train for a lethal-force, weapons-based, environment. The samurai’s focus was on how to bear himself in battle, methods for achieving victory by destroying the enemy, and for dealing with the physical, emotional, and moral consequences of both victory and defeat. This did not just mean that weapons were dealt with in the training, it means that weapons defined their training.

Training for “real” today is training for a weapons based environment, the same as it was during the Samurai era in feudal Japan. The problems that need to be solved in this combat environment demand solutions that parallel the solutions required of the ancient samurai. Training for self defense in the modern sense, as it is usually taught, is a different paradigm.

The lessons, behavior, and attitudes presented in Bloody Iron are not the norm for society as we know it in America. The environment presented in this book does, however, closely parallel the society of feudal Japan. Bloody Iron describes situations, actions, and a mind-set that many practitioners of modern martial arts find repellent. I would suggest that it was this very reality that spawned the military arts of the samurai in all of their many manifestations, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. This body of knowledge, that has come to us from antiquity, is the legacy of the samurai. The changes that have occurred in these arts over a long period of time are due to their being removed from a reality absent the constant threat of killing and dying.

In sharp contrast to a prison environment where the prime directive is self-survival, the warriors primary concern was the protection and defense of society. Such a focus molded and shaped the warriors’ character and morality. Honor, courage, and integrity, although not politically correct nowadays, are the very foundations of character upon which a strong, moral society is built. When we study for “real,” this character becomes the basis of our training. It defines our duty and service as well as the essence of male bonding.

In the classical samurai arts, soldiers were prepared for combat. The difference between what we call “marital arts” and the classical military arts of the samurai is that the former was designed for combat while the latter are sports or esoteric practices. Some are, of course, violent sports requiring skills that are effective in physical confrontations. However, the prime directive of the classical samurai was combat while this is not at all the case with the modern “do” arts. It seems that the majority of the koryu now practiced in Japan are also removed from the lethal force reality of the military sciences studied and applied to combat by the samurai.

In the military/combat situation, the ability to apply knowledge instantly, without conscious thought is critical to survival. The intangibles are the most important factors controlling the outcome of an engagement, the technique applied being of much less importance. Combat is about damaging human beings to preclude their ability to function. The means may be gun, sword, club, knife, or hand; the end, however, is the same. The training in preparation for this task is very to the point. There is nothing taught or practiced that is not essential to the final outcome of the conflict. The person undergoing training must be constantly presented with combat problems to solve. These problems inherently involve weapons-based attacks including attacks with firearms. There is no substitute for practicing in as realistic as possible situations. In this regard, I agree absolutely with the authors of “Bloody Iron.” I instruct my students that if they want to learn how to hit people hard and effectively, then they must practice hitting people, not the heavy bag or makiwari. This same applies for dealing with being hit hard and effectively. Training in the use of knives and guns is no different, except that a non-lethal, albeit often painful, form of training is employed to simulate the actual environment as closely as possible.

My perspective here is based on my military experience, training in a classical art, and now through my involvement in the Surefire Institute and Combative Concepts teaching military and law enforcement personnel to prepare for engagements where lethal force is present. The lessons learned by the ancient samurai are totally applicable to modern warfare just as they were in ages past. Speaking from personal experience, the training administered to military and law enforcement personnel is seriously deficient in many crucial areas. This is especially true with respect to investment in the development of the individual. The tendency in modern military and police training approaches is to attempt to solve problems using technology. This approach has, however, proven woefully inadequate. We have found that an individual’s ability to perform and survive in a lethal-force engagement is greatly enhanced by adopting the mind-set, philosophy, and techniques proven through long centuries of warfare. How many individuals in this modern day have the depth and breadth of experience and knowledge that these ancient warriors acquired through long centuries of warfare?

The trained and experienced warrior came to display certain attributes. These include enhanced awareness, calmness in the face of danger and death, perception, emotional control, objectivity, integrity of character, and the ability to make rapid, accurate decisions followed by proper and timely action even in situations that would horrify and mentally overwhelm most people. This adds up to an ability to think and act at one’s maximum capacity when the danger is greatest. In the high intensity training environment that Combative Concepts provides we have seen the results of improper and/or lack of training time and again. People become, as Ken Good, President of Combative Concepts, so aptly puts it, “overcome by events,” when placed in a high stress combat environment. The attributes of the trained warrior, although they may be taught to some degree in the dojo, are learned under duress. The warriors’ courage and ability in such circumstances are a direct result of proper training. To quote from Flavius Vegetius Renatus written in AD 378, “The courage of the soldier is heightened by the knowledge of his profession.”

It is necessary in a difficult, life-threatening environment to maintain mental stability and the ability to function. Events or situations that would shock most people must be dealt with in a calm, aware state of mind. An emotional approach would soon leave the warrior with the inability to survive such an environment. The situation is no different in prison, surfing life-threatening waves at Peahi on Maui, or in a combat situation.

Fear is an ever-present factor in a dangerous situation. The reasoning human being, understanding his comfort level, begins to feel fear as the situation exceeds that level. It is not the absence of fear, but an understanding of it that allows the body to continue to function or, indeed, increase its ability to function when fear is present. Fear demands that one call on all of his resources, to function at the maximum. The fight-or-flight mechanism is for animals or the untrained, not the warrior prepared for danger or death.

The belief that we are controlled by our bodies is an inferior understanding. Here is a superior perspective on fear written by Dave Kalama who puts himself in harm’s way on a regular basis. “Fear, in a physical sense, to me means tightening your muscles in preparing yourself for impact or fighting. I still have fear obviously, because I have a fear of dying, but I’m trying not to let the fear have control over my body. Usually, when you experience fear is when you need to be as loose as you can possibly be and focused on the task rather than tightening up. Your movement needs to be as agile and spontaneous as it possibly can be. Fear just exists. That’s the way it is. The better you can deal with it the more prepared you are for any situation.” This quote by Dave was taken from the book Jaws-Maui about the monster waves that only a very few are capable of riding and surviving. The attributes acquired in this environment are a matter of necessity. One must place himself in such an environment to acquire them.

Jerry Head, one of the principals of Combative Concepts and an Irvine SWAT officer, was recently involved in a shooting. The standard operating procedure for most police departments is to have the department psychologist debrief the officer. Typical questions pertain to the officer’s adrenaline level, tunnel vision, and sense of time distortion. These symptoms are indicative of an untrained mind incapable of dealing with a situation involving duress. Jerry, who is experienced and trained, displayed none of these negative symptoms. The fact that these symptoms are expected in officers involved in shootings should give us an insight into the lack of proper training and preparation that most receive. We have come to perceive as normal behavior certain characteristics that are detrimental to optimum performance under duress.

Whether we like it or not there are still bad people in this world. There is still violence and war. There is still the need to protect and defend ourselves and, even more importantly, the women and children in this society. Honor, courage, integrity and capability are still necessary attributes, whether or not politically correct, if society is going to continue. This fact was well understood in feudal Japan. The Chinese character for “bu” in the word “bushi” or warrior, means “to stay the spear,” that is, to protect and defend society. It is tiresome to hear those who are being protected in turn disparage those who are protecting them. Nations rise and fall by force of arms; this is the lesson of history. The ancient Chinese proverb, “When the world is at peace, a gentleman keeps his sword by his side”, has as much validity today as it did two millennia ago.

What training then is most appropriate for military and police applications? Aiki applied jujutsu principles and techniques born of battle, along with tanto jutsu, are two of the tools we use at Combative Concepts when training military and police. These same aiki heiho principles carry over into our gun fighting tactics and techniques. Unlike modern derivatives, battle-oriented jujutsu approaches are directed towards combat in an environment where weapons dictate tactics, techniques, and strategy. This is different from the fights that one sees at the Ultimate Fighting Championship events. As skilled and courageous as the participants in these events are, and as dangerous as this form of fighting is, the sport does not represent a lethal-force engagement environment. The tactics, strategy, and techniques that are successful in that arena are quite different from those needed to prevail in a weapons-based situation.

Battle-oriented jujutsu is derived from and complements kenjutsu, the foundation of the samurai military arts. To fully understand, develop and apply aiki based jujutsu techniques, one must also understand and be proficient in the use of the sword. As is so well explained in the book “Legacies of the Sword,” an absolute must read for anyone interested in classical military arts, kenjutsu is the omote or outward manifestation of strategy and jujutsu is the ura or inner manifestation. In the classical sense, the two cannot be separated, jujutsu and kenjutsu are like two sides of the same coin. Breath control, subtle movement, an understanding of physical reality, human physiology, and psychology, coupled with a calm, aware state of mind allow for optimum performance and the best possible solutions when an individual is placed under duress. Proper training then re-enforces the ability to function in close-quarter battle.

Bloody Iron presents many practical lessons that are valuable for the warrior. The first such lesson is awareness. “War is a matter of deception,” to quote Sun Tzu. In the real world, so to speak, your opponent will catch you off guard if he can. Those who seek to prey on their fellow humans thrive on surprise and deceit to conceal their true intentions. It is your responsibility to prevent this from taking place. The ability to perceive danger or to forestall it by not putting yourself in a dangerous situation must be learned and practiced. “Old timers in prison don’t wash their face or shampoo their hair in the showers-too easy to get hit while momentarily blinded.” This practice parallels Musashi reportedly not bathing because it offered an opportunity for his enemies to attack him when he was ill-prepared. This is one example of precluding an attack by not putting yourself in a position of vulnerability.

At Combative Concepts we practice situational awareness as a part of everyday training. There are some simple things that can be practiced on a daily basis. For example, never walk close around a corner. Open doors fully before you walk through them. Pay attention to the direction the light or sun is coming from in relation to you and any possible threat. What direction is the wind blowing (this is especially important if one of your tools is Oleo Capsicum resin (pepper spray). Practice using your peripheral vision to discern objects, people and situations. Use your eyes to constantly scan situations outside of your personal sphere and observe yourself as if you were a third party. In other words, practice taking an objective view of yourself. At Combative Concepts we teach our students, and this is especially applicable in the low light environment, to see themselves as their opponent sees them.

It is easy to become self-involved and be unaware of other people and situations. Sometimes we wear this self-involvement like armor to protect ourselves. This is tantamount to a child pulling a blanket over his head when afraid. Another thing to constantly be aware of is your distance relationship to other people. For the samurai, this was generally one step, one cut, or about six feet. To enter closer was to invite an attack. Also, be aware of your skeletal relationship to others. If a persons back is to you it makes it difficult for him to bring a firearm to bear until he changes that relationship. These two relationships-distance and skeletal-define much of what can take place in human physical interaction.

The most important factor in determining life, mental state, and awareness is breath. Learning to breath properly is essential to optimum function. Especially, check yourself when startled or upset. The sharp intake of breath-physical tensing caused by the startle reflex-is extremely detrimental and must be changed to an exhale-relax reflex through constant training. Train your hearing to detect and isolate sounds, especially those out of the ordinary. Eventually, you will acquire a subconscious sixth sense that will make you aware of situations that would normally elude you. One of the best times to practice some of these techniques in daily life is when driving you car. Obviously, distance and relationship to other vehicles is important. Also, as mentioned earlier, breath control and awareness play a big part in your ability to react properly if a dangerous situation arises. Constant scanning with your eyes forward, in your mirrors and using your peripheral vision will make you aware of potential problems. If you think about it, the threat of lethal force always exists when driving a vehicle. More people are killed in automobile accidents than from any single cause other than old age and related diseases. Being aware of and taking action to avoid potential danger does not make one paranoid when there is reason for such action. With time you will become conscious of possible dangers. No longer will things just happen. You will become aware and take responsibility for the outcome of events as they relate to you. Your goal is to become conscious.

Finally, one of the most important points brought out in Bloody Iron is the need, in fact, the absolute necessity of forming relationships with other men who will come to your aid in dire straits. Your are likewise bound to come to the aid of your comrades in like circumstances. This is the essence of male bonding. Practically and historically, male bonding served two functions, both involving the need to support others in dangerous circumstances. The first is the hunt, and the second is combat. Our survival as humans depended upon our willingness to support others of our kind under duress. “I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come, if alive.” This quote is from William Tecumseh Sherman in a letter to Ulysses S. Grant. For the warrior, this is the only true male friendship. Everything else is acquaintance regardless of affection felt. This relationship and bonding is absolutely essential in war and in other dangerous pursuits such as riding the monster surf at places like Peahi. These relationships are defined by the willingness and ability to risk grave danger in order to get a comrade out of trouble, or if there is no other recourse in combat, to die with him. “When men find they must inevitably perish, they willingly resolve to die with their comrades and with their arms in their hands,” wrote Flavius Vegetius Renatus. In these life-and-death situations, the casual criteria with which we define other male relationships do not apply. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” Shakespeare, Henry V. An understanding of this bond provides deep insight into the male psyche. An interesting phenomenon is that men placed under such duress frequently display a high degree of spiritual insight. “When your thinking rises above concern for your own welfare, wisdom which is independent of thought appears”

If the character of the warrior is moral, this will be demonstrated in his experience. Read “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae killed in combat in France January 28, 1918 after four years of service on the Western front, “I have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger killed in combat July 4, 1916, and “Trees,” by Sergeant Joyce Kilmer killed in combat near Quercy, July 30, 1918. Read the moving poems and writings of these and others to get a complete view of the warrior. One of my favorite samurai death poems reads as follows:

“The sharp-edged sword, unsheathed,

Cuts through the void-

Within the raging fire

A cool wind blows.

- Shiaku Sho’on

There are tools available for use in a civilian situation even if you do not or cannot carry an edged weapon or a firearm as some of us do. Two that I make use of frequently are OC (pepper spray) and a 6Z Surefire tactical light. About 70% of violent attacks take place in low-light conditions. A compact, powerful light is an extremely viable tool in these situations. The OC works very well to neutralize an opponent and has the advantage of being legal in most states as well as non-lethal. The flashlight also puts you in a position to identify the level of threat that you may be facing. I offer an example from personal experience. One night when walking with my wife in San Francisco, a man suddenly lurched out of a darkened door towards us. I had my 6Z in my left-hand jacket pocket and was walking on the left side next to the darkened buildings that we were passing. I immediately shined the light into the man’s eyes. This had the effect of stopping him in his tracks, removing his immediate ability to use his eyes effectively, and giving me a read on the situation. In my right-hand jacket pocket was my OC ready to be deployed if necessary. The man ended up just being drunk and was not a threat and we continued on our way. Many people deceive themselves by ignoring the potential of violence. Lack of preparation is the mark of a fool. The untrained, not the warrior, overact to danger and display the primitive fight-or-flight response.

War, for better or worse, has inspired both the best and worst in mankind. Training for combat is not a casual pursuit for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Using this training to dominate others with the power gained is evil. Rather, training and ability should engender a sense of honor, responsibility, and morality. The skilled warrior must hold himself to a higher moral standard. He does not have the option of taking casual offense. “There is power in a gun. And attached to power is responsibility, because anyone who has a gun acquires some of God’s power. The power to take a life. And that means that we have to be very careful about when we use the gun; careful to beware of hubris.” This quote is from Aaron Wolf’s “A Purity of Arms” on the Israeli army. Israeli soldiers receive their weapons in one hand and a bible in the other. If our behavior is in harmony with the Way, then we do honor to those warriors who have come before us. It is their sacrifice and knowledge that have allowed us to be free and have given us the means to stay that way. Men have a historical even genetic prime directive to protect and defend society. The ones who answer this call have a responsibility to use knowledge and ability for the good of that society. The burden taken does not just include risking one’s life, it also comes with the moral responsibility for taking the life of another. Even if justified and necessary, such as war, this burden still falls on the individual. This then separates those men and the training that they undergo from other human endeavors. They deserve honor and respect and their training should prepare them for all possible eventualities. Using the knowledge, tactics, and strategy from warriors long dead is a viable means to achieve this end. This then is training for real.