One Cannot Play at War

by V. Moroz

“Men, there is not much time for exhortation, but to the brave a few words are as good as many.”  Hippocrates

I’m convinced the ancients knew everything that was ever important.  They lived their lives head-on, and they were not squeamish about things like love, war and death.  While we often view them as backwards through the window of our technology the fact of the matter is they were far smarter and more worldly than we have become.  In no field is this more apparent than in the martial arts as warfare was considered an essential part of city life and of great importance to the state.  Their brand of warfare was upfront and personal, conducted well inside the individual space bubble that most people feel uncomfortable allowing others into during casual conversation today.  As an example, the Spartans preferred a 12 – 14 inch sword blade, which was one of the shortest of their age and often ridiculed until they were met in battle.  This is about the length of a medieval rondel dagger.

“Be convinced that to be happy means to be free and that to be free means to be brave. Therefore do not take lightly the perils of war.”   Thucydides

The ancient and medieval world was a rough and ready place, the imminent need for personal protection never far away, especially on the roads between cities.  It would be lawless by western standards, but a person with skill at arms – one who was fit and who had the courage to use those weapons – had a reasonable chance of protecting themselves or the ones they loved against attack.  And there you have it, the three things they had which we struggle to balance in our domesticated minds, and the three things I will be discussing in this treatise:  fitness, skill at arms, and personal courage.

“Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”

For only a very short time in our history could we in the western world be safe to walk outside our homes after dark and be among the teeming throngs of humanity without the need of a weapon for personal protection.  Our laws and current social behaviours strive to further pacify and domesticate us despite the harsh realities of history and current social conditions, yet we find ourselves still in need of the means to defend ourselves, our loved ones and our homes from the thugs that threaten us.  But what effect has 40 years of social engineering done to our ability to make violence in our own defense?  Is our domestication complete or can we break from it and truly be free again?  Free … not a state of anarchy where people push their own agendas over the needs of the tribe, but free where the individual, as a part of the tribe, is able to live the life they choose without suffering the dictates of those from other tribes.  Not a concept we understand well anymore when the size of a national tribe is equivalent to an ancient empire.

“Rome remained free for four hundred years and Sparta eight hundred, although their citizens were armed all that time; but many other states that have been disarmed have lost their liberties in less than forty years.”  Nicolo Machiavelli

The Spartans drilled their citizens from age 7 onwards, both boys and girls, with their entire social structure dedicated to making their young strong, cunning and ready for battle.  For over 400 years they stood as an indestructible military force in their world, even invading mighty Persia after the battle of Plataea and again after the Peloponesian War.  Unique in their world as the only major city in ancient Hellas with no protective wall, the men of Sparta, and undoubtedly their women also, were the wall. What is important to note is that inside of their world they were admired by other Greek city-states and generally looked to for leadership in times of trouble – an important point to ponder given the fierce independence of cities in ancient Hellas and the bad press they get today in educated circles.  They remained free, although a shadow of their former glory, until past 300AD when their city was finally destroyed by the Visigoths.  Even the mighty Philip of Macedonia, and his more famous son Alexander, did not enter Sparta.

The finest legions Rome produced were built after their military reforms with constant training and harsh discipline.  It was their rigorous methods along with their engineering skill that forged an empire across Europa and into Asia lasting for hundreds of years.  The medieval masters knew this, and the western martial arts system that we now train in was a well organized, well documented foundation of knowledge for the knightly arts covering all the major hand-held weapon systems of their day.  Therefore, we need not look for where to begin our understanding of martial arts proficiency, it has been handed down to us from antiquity.  What we require is the personal discipline required to create skill.

“The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.”  Tacitus

Simple to say, not so simple to do in our world of mass distraction, especially when such skills are no longer highly valued in our pacifist society.  Do I put in the practice time at home or do I suffice it to swing my waster once per week in the training hall?  Will I spar with my betters that I may gain knowledge from practice and learn to correct my weaknesses, or will I save myself the sweat and quickly depart?  Truly, we all join in martial arts for our own reasons, but we are unique in history in that we can seek this knowledge for reasons of fitness and not of survival.  The take away point is practice and discipline.  If you would be true to the art, the masters that created it and those who teach you now ….. practice.  Practice that you may be confident and ready in the moment of truth to defend that which you value most.  Discipline yourself that you will practice when no one is pushing you to do so.

“Even the bravest cannot fight beyond his strength”.  Homer

In all the centuries of warfare, the weight a soldier carries into battle has not significantly changed.  It is still around 80 lbs of weapons and equipment. Battles can last all day in the hot sun, the freezing cold, and the driving rain. Confronting the enemy is stressful, and this stress makes additional demands on the body above the rigours of the fight … controlling weapons accurately, engaging the enemy at very personal distances well inside the dangerous range of their weapons.  If you do not have a strong foundation of physical fitness then your ability with your weapons will come to naught as eventually one of lesser ability will find you too weary to fight back and you will be undone.   Demonstrate an impromptu flourish of 14 separate moves at full speed and tell me how you feel afterwards.  Do this 5 times in a row without stopping and tell me again – shall we add in the minor stress of the entire class watching your every move? You’ve been exercising for maybe 60 seconds at most and I guarantee you’ll be panting.  A far cry from a real fight, but a realistic way to prove the need for muscular strength and physical endurance.

Joining a gym or having a basement full of expensive fitness equipment is not required to gain a useful level of physical strength and endurance.  Very simple systems that work the core of the body’s muscular strength are freely available on the Internet and can be implemented at home with almost no equipment required.  Almost everyone has access to inexpensive pedal bikes, roller blades, ice skates or cross-country skis to work the heart and lungs.  It is your own level of discipline and commitment to life-long fitness that is key to success, not even what level of fitness you are now starting from.  For those who need a bit more intensity in their muscular training I recommend looking up the teachings of Arthur Jones, Dr. Ellington Darden, or Pavel Tsatsouline.  All the usual notices and warnings about beginning a new fitness program and consulting your health-care practitioner first apply here.

“The strong did what they could and the weak accepted what they must.”   Thucydides

Let’s step back a minute … perhaps few of us will ever fight the foe with edged weapons, and very few will even fight in modern war, so what is the big deal?  If you do get into a dust-up with that aggressive neighbour, if you do get mugged, if you are at the receiving end of a random swarming attack you will still find yourself engaging someone inside your personal space.  The mental stress will come on suddenly and take its toll and then you will still need to perform physical tasks of personal defense under that stress.  Your life may be on the line, and you’ll know it.  The point?  If you have trouble making it through the individual and team touch-drills without huffing and puffing or feeling light-headed you likely will not be successful in a real fight.  Your muscles, heart and lungs will fail you in the moment of truth no matter how well you learned your Ringen.  Most individual fights don’t last very long, but it will be long enough to drain you.  Are you physically ready to go full out for the time it takes?

“A nation that draws too broad a difference between it’s scholars and it’s warriors will have it’s thinking done by cowards, and it’s fighting done by fools.”   Thucydides

Socrates.  You’ve just thought:  “ancient Greek philosopher from Athens.”  Maybe you remember he was forced to take hemlock by his own city for allegedly polluting the youth of his day. What you likely do not know is that he was described in Plato’s work  “Symposium” and a participant of three Athenian campaigns during the Peloponnesian War:  Delium, Potidaea and Amphipolis.  He is described as being in the fore of the fighting and having saved the life of Athenian politician, Alcibiades.  Not exactly how we rationalize philosophers in modern times, and not how modern scholars want you to view this ancient personage.

Hippocrates.  Founder of western medicine and healer, right?  Sure, but also a soldier and general of Athens who was reported to have said that battle was the only proper training ground for a physician.  It becomes evident that the ancients did not draw a line between higher thinking and martial virtues, but rather looked at military knowledge as something positive and valuable to the state.  Have we broken any modern false beliefs about the practice of arms and its relation to other arts we view as more cerebral and pacifist?   In reality the true martial spirit is designed to have us look inwards, to be more in control of ourselves and possess greater spirituality.  It does not lead us to uncontrolled violent behaviour as some would have you believe.

“It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.” Aesop

The practice of arms must never be done for the sake of practice.  I do not advocate looking for trouble, but those who seek the knowledge of the warrior must have the spirit of the warrior, or like arriving at the battle out of breath, you will find the strength of your knees taken from you by a lesser trained person who is not afraid to fight.  What would you do if you saw someone you cared for being beaten?  Your wife or husband?  This is not the great battles of history I speak of, only the everyday items one can read in the papers, the sad death of the everyman sheep who has been pacified to the point he cannot defend himself.  If you would overcome in a struggle, then you must first overcome yourself, and the fears and discomfort that go along with violence.  Fear not, but know that you are a force to be reckoned with.   It is easy to be safe when thinking about danger that has not happened, are you ready to face the danger?  Have you tested yourself against others in training and accepted your share of training deaths that you may survive in real life?

“Constant exposure to dangers will breed contempt for them.” Seneca

Dave Grossman, in his excellent book “On Killing” describes what physiological changes the body goes through when put in situations of life-threatening stress.  The fine motor skills degrade and vision becomes narrow and tunnel-like, the sounds of the world disappear and only the immediate sounds of the stress are there, if those don’t leave also.  Your heart-rate will skyrocket and you will be labouring in your breathing, your every thought will be a struggle to focus – all in a few seconds of entering the fight.  So, you will lose your peripheral vision and be unable to focus on a big picture, your ability to hear will diminish greatly, you will only be able to complete gross motor tasks, and your thinking will be all over the place. Add to this your heart will beat hard and fast, and adrenaline will be pushing your muscles to move faster.  If you cannot push yourself through this beginning and force yourself to recover where will you be.  But how do you do that?  If you are timid in nature then by taking yourself to the edge of this state every time you train, leaving your comfort zone and dying in training that you may live in battle.  Spar so you learn to check your fear, learn to deal with a bit of pain, and train your body to act when thinking about acting will be impossible – training creates muscle memory.  The confidence you gain by learning will help ease the physiological effects, or at the very least, help you push through them quickly to the place beyond where you must be – that opposite is total collapse.  The muscle memory you create by training will do your thinking when thinking is almost impossible.

“Far better to have a stout heart and suffer one’s share of evils than to be ever fearing what may happen.”  Herodotus

The ancients believed that bravery can be learned and I’ll add this is done through training and personal discipline.  It is normal to be afraid, this is where you trust your training, your hours of practice, and face your foe despite your fear.  Part of ensuring that you do not get into a fight is by demonstrating your resolve to be in a fight, by not showing fear even when you feel it.  Turning your back and cowering is a sure way to start a fight, as submission seems to trigger the worst in humanity.  Facing your foe with level eyes makes them pause and consider whether or not you are an easy target, whether or not they should leave you be and find someone easier.   Like bars or shutters on a basement window, it is deterrence.  Courage is deterrence.  Do not underestimate the value of showing courage.

“Courage is what preserves our liberty, safety, life, and our homes and parents, our country and children. Courage comprises all things.”  Titus Maccius Plautus

For the timid, you have made a bold step in beginning to train, do not let the thought of fighting or a lack of current skill discourage you.  You came to learn so have fortitude, and learn to work through your uncertainty and fear by understanding its’ effects on you.  Do this by pushing yourself beyond what you comfortably know and step into that uncharted territory where the walls turn a bit black.  Slave to fear or master of self?  You decide.  Again, we are unique in history in that we can currently make this choice.  If you are ready to fight but need to learn how, then have the discipline required to practice and spar that you can see where your weaknesses lie and develop strength.  Once you overcome yourself, the rest is a simple matter.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”  Seneca

Let’s recap.  To be capable of defending yourself, your property or your loved ones, you first need the will to do so, the courage to stand up.  In order to harness that courage into a force to be reckoned with you need skill with your weapons.  Supporting both of these is a physical body capable of sustaining a fight longer than it takes to do a 14-move flourish five times over.  I have spoken the what and the why is clear.  But I have not given too much detail on the how, as each of us walks a slightly different path due to our own strengths and limitations.  To be additionally clear, I am not attempting to discourage anyone from training, far from it.  The point is to push yourself, to evolve from the everyman sheep into a free citizen by leaving not only the couch, but your comfort zone long enough to grow.  Just as a fish in a small aquarium never attains full size, neither do we if we do not seek larger boundaries. This is perhaps your largest hurdle, your most cunning foe is you.

“Princes and Lords learn to survive with this art, in earnest and in play. But if you are fearful, then you should not learn to fence. Because a despondent heart will always be defeated, regardless of all skill.”  Sigmund Ringeck

Spoken like someone who has seen the elephant.  Allow me to leave you with a final thought, let it be a light guiding why you train.

“For he that is well instructed in the perfect skill with his weapon although but small of stature, and weak of strength, may with a little moving of his foot or sudden turning of his hand, or with the quick agility of his body kill and bring to the ground the tall and strongest man that is.”   Joseph Swetnam

Recommended Reading/Surfing:

  1. On Killing:  The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, 1996
  2. The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results, Ellington Darden PhD, 2006
  3. The Nake Warrior, Pavel Tsatsouline, 2003
  4. Relax into Stretching, Pavel Tsatsouline, 2001
  5. Symposium, Plato
  6. History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

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