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Common Sources of Knowledge About Violence

by Rory Miller, March 31, 2014

We are, all of us, both teachers and students. As teachers, we give our students information. As students, we learn from our teachers. The teachers give us knowledge. This knowledge came from somewhere, from one of four sources:

1. Experience
2. Reason
3. Tradition
4. Entertainment and Recreation

I like experience. It helps to winnow the BS from the truth. It allows you to pass on a little of the mindset, a few of the tricks, some of the obstacles that they will face. It leads to a perspective that is unique. But realistically, how many instructors have enough hands-on experience in real violence to pass anything along? Very few. The instructors who have experienced enough violence to be able to generalize are even more rare.

Additionally, violence is extremely idiosyncratic. I honestly don't know if my experience will match yours. I don't know if our bodies and minds will react in the same way to the cascade of stress hormones. I can't honestly tell you how much of my survival is based on judgment or skill or luck.

I was discussing this with one of my students, explaining that unlike almost anything else, the more experience of violence you have the less sure you are that things will work out. Jordan put it in perspective: "Sounds like a case of the more you know, the more you realize you don't know."

Experience, in my opinion, could not give rise to a new martial art. Given the idiosyncratic nature and the improbability of surviving enough high-end encounters, it would be hard to come up with guiding principles or even a core of reliable techniques. I am painfully aware that things that worked in one instant have failed utterly in others.

Reason is weak.  Most people don't recognize the sheer chaos of survival fighting or the effects that the stress hormones dumped into your bloodstream will have. Seeing a need for training in this area, instructors have a tendency to look at an area they are familiar with and extrapolate it to violence. Many take competition experience or other people's research and try to figure out what "should" work.

Things that should work don't all the time. I've been completely unfazed by a crowbar slamming into the back of my head and been left dizzy and puking for three days from a light slap…also to the back of the head. I couldn't have reasoned that out.

Reason has given rise to a number of martial arts styles, or perhaps fantasy masquerading as reason. There are two ways reason can be applied to any particular aspect of the matrix, such as self-defense. Most people and organizations plan from a "Resources Forward" model. Basically, they look at what they have and figure out what they can do with it. The equivalent in martial arts would be to say, "We're really good at kicking and can punch a little, how do we use that in an ambush?"

"Goals Backwards" looks at the problem and then creates the resources. "What do I need to do, and what do I need to get to accomplish that?" There's no real martial arts equivalent of this thought process. The self-defense equivalent is to ask, "What does a real attack look like, and what do I need to have a chance?" Look at what you need, not what you have. Then you gather what you need instead of trying to stretch resources where they were never meant to go.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and reality. In reality, there is. Reason, by itself, is only theory.

Tradition.  Often we don't respect the environment that spawned the old combat arts. There is, in my opinion, a persistent myth that we live in the most dangerous and lethal era in human history. Surely our weapons and delivery systems are more powerful, but our perception of the value of life has far outstripped our destructive abilities. For generations raised like I was on the myth of the destructive, wanton Killer Man, this will be a hard sell.

For 2002, the Bureau of Justice statistics put the murder rate at six per 100,000, the lowest rate seen in at least thirty years. Overall violent crime was 25.9 incidents per 1,000. This has shown a steady drop since 1996 (as far back as I was willing to go with some slow loading tables on their Web site).

I don't know whether those numbers seem low or high to you. In early 1945, the Battle of Iwo Jima lasted 35 days and resulted in 26,000 dead, combining both sides. The combatants used artillery, bombs, naval guns, and the most sophisticated personal weapons available at the time: rifles, machineguns, flamethrowers, and grenades.

In 1600, the Battle of Sekigahara resulted in about 40,000 dead in six hours. The battle was fought with horses and the most sophisticated personal weapons of the day: swords, spears, bows, and muskets.

It is estimated that the total civilian and military deaths of World War II would be around 50 million people. This was a war where the major industrial nations of the earth fought a war of attrition to the bitter end, a war where nuclear weapons were developed and used.
It is also estimated that using bow and spear and sword, the Mongols conquered Northern China between 1210 and 1240 at thecost of 40 million lives…but they also conquered Russia and the Middle East, another 10 million (perhaps a million in the sack of Baghdad alone) and another five million conquering Southern China from 1250-1280.

Chapter 2: How to Think

Do we really believe that the serial killer is a modern phenomenon? Modern serial killers don't approach the body counts of Elizabeth Bathory who may have killed and bathed in the blood of 600 young women or Gilles de Rais who was eventually executed for the torture, rape, and murder of 200 (more or less) young boys. What is different today? A countess could not hide behind her nobility and it is difficult and rare to say that peasants don't "count." We have a computer network that helps us know if a murder is part of a larger pattern. We have a media that reports what happens. At the turn of the last century, if someone were killed in your town, no one outside of your county and the relatives would even know—unless it made excellent news, like the Lindbergh baby or the Lizzy

Borden ax murders.

We also have the police. The idea was a new concept in the 18th century. The U.S. Marshals Service was founded in 1789. Scotland Yard was founded in 1829. Think about the implications: If you were killed, unless your friends or family sought vengeance, there would be no investigation, no search for justice. You would be forgotten. The killer would move on. Many of these killers lived and worked in bands, sometimes gangs, but sometimes agents of authority. The press gangs beat and kidnapped citizens to "recruit" for the British Navy.

The soldiers of the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, and much of the Napoleonic era roamed the countryside supplying themselves, which means robbing, raping, and killing for anything that they wanted or needed. The largely unarmed citizenry had no recourse to any higher authority.
This is the environment and the context in which the older martial arts arose. It was an answer to a primal understanding of violence, something we often miss without the experience to understand and evaluate it.

Anything that is taught becomes tradition. Even a tradition of questioning traditions. Students have a right to know which of their lessons are based on experience and which on reason. Do you even know if the techniques you learn and teach have actually been used?

If a martial arts style goes through several generations of teachers  without combat experience, will the guesses of the many teachers come to wash away the hard-won experience of the few? Will the rhinoceros become the unicorn?

Entertainment and recreation.  Too many people, students of martial arts, concerned citizens, self-defense "experts," and rookie officers learned most of what they think they know from television, movies, or sports events. The purpose of all of these venues is to entertain, not to educate. What they show has been modified to look more interesting.

The long, complicated fight scenes of a Hong Kong Kung Fu flick are just as unrealistic as the wire work and flying. In a lethal fight, one party has the advantage or gets it as early as possible and presses it to the quick, brutal end. It's fast. There is very little drama.

Rookie officers come to the academy believing that the right way to make a fast entry is with their weapons next to their heads, pointing at the sky. A technique that only existed so that a cameraman could get the star's face and a gun in the same picture has become something that people who know better try to do. In real life, it is a matter of an instant for a bad guy to grab the barrel and shove it under the officer's chin. A messy death. Each piece of a well-choreographed movie fight scene is designed to entertain you. The distancing lets the techniques show to best effect.

The timing is designed for drama, rhythm, and pacing, not for finishing things. The choice of technique showcases the actor's flexibility. In combat sports, three major factors make it difficult to extrapolate from the ring to uncontrolled violence. The most critical and hardest to train for is surprise. You know if you have a tournament next Saturday. You know if your club practices free sparring on Monday and Wednesday nights. You do not know when, if ever, you will be attacked. You cannot warm up for it or stretch or eat right or get enough sleep. The second factor is similar—you know what is likely to happen in a combat sport. You know how many opponents you will face and what size they are and whether they will be armed. You know what the footing and lighting will be like. Rules and safety considerations are the third factor. Some rules are instituted for safety. Most grappling styles don't allow fingerlocks or strikes to the brainstem.

Chapter 2: How to Think

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Other rules are based on increasing the entertainment value of the art as a spectator sport. Cops pin face down. The samurai used to pin face down and finish things off with a knife in the back of the neck, but wrestling and Judo pin face up because it makes for a better fight if your opponent can use all of his or her weapons.

Decapitating goats and the limits of reason. When I was very young I read a book called The Far Arena by Richard Sapir. The premise of the book was that a Roman gladiator had been frozen in arctic ice and miraculously brought back to life in modern times. One section stuck with me for many years. The gladiator was ruminating on decapitation. He explained that it was rare, that in all his time in the arena he had only seen it done once, by an enormous Germanic barbarian. He explained in great detail about the different layers of tissue, the toughness of the muscle, and how things that cut muscle tend to be poor at cutting bone and vise versa. It made perfect sense.

I filed it away in the back of my head and believed, without challenging it, that beheading someone or something would be a very difficult task indeed.

Years later I was asked to help a friend butcher some goats. The first step, of course, was killing the animal. We wanted to minimize pain and panic. Cutting throats can work. A gunshot to the brainstem can work (but the other goats tend to get scared and are harder to control). I'd been practicing with sword for years. Both the owner of the goats and my wife write fiction of the sort where details on beheading might be useful. I volunteered to lop the goats' heads off.

Mary held a rope and the goat pulled against it, stretching its neck nicely. I used the sword my wife had given me for our first anniversary, a single-edged hand-and-a-half forged by Cord. The Far Arena firmly in mind, I prepared for a power stroke. All of my skill and all of my power…The sword went through the neck like it wasn't there.

In all the animals we butchered that day, I only felt any resistance

Chapter 2: How to Think

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Once—we didn't use the rope and I did a backhand horizontal stroke. That goat died instantly with its spine severed but the blade didn't go all the way through the front of the neck. Later, there is a stage in the butchering process where you normally use a saw to cut the spine in half lengthwise. Mary started the job but the dead animal was floppy and hard to work with, so I volunteered to finish it with the sword. Without a stroke of any kind, just letting the weight of the blade fall off my shoulder, the steel went through about 18 inches of bone. Hope that wasn't too gruesome for you. Here's my point; just because something makes perfect sense doesn't mean it is true.

Rory Miller has served for seventeen years in corrections as an officer and sergeant working maximum security, booking and mental health; leading a tactical team; and teaching subjects ranging from Defensive Tactics and Use of Force to First Aid and Crisis Communications with the Mentally Ill.


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