What's the point of martial arts? An essay.




In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson’s 2003 near-future novel, the lead character recalls past self-defence lessons with an ex-SAS man named Bunny.

While some of her friends researched Thai kickboxing, she’d been schooled in no more than half a dozen moves most often practised in the maximum-security wings of British prisons. […] “And run” was invariably the footnote to any Bunny lesson.

“And run”. I’ve been thinking about this recently, and about the assumptions  it depends on. That’s led me to wonder: what’s the point of studying martial arts?

I’ll get to my answer to my question further below, but I want to go through a train of thought first, to give a bit of context. I think I need to start with the party balloons.

A couple of years ago, I read a news report about how helium is a limited resource, extracted from underground reserves – reserves which are running low, and whose end is in sight within our lifetimes. The article went on to discuss how helium is essential for scientific and medical research. However, scientists, even now, are finding that they sometimes cannot obtain the helium they need – and yet recycled helium, which could be re-used for such essential purposes, is sold super-cheaply and used to fill balloons, from which it is lost forever to outer space. The article concluded:

Researchers are now warning that the use of scanners and other machines may be increasingly disrupted, an unpleasant prospect, said David Ward of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. “I will not be happy if I cannot have a medical scan in my 70s, because we wasted helium on party balloons while I was in my 30s.”

Some days later, I happened to see a message on a Facebook group covering events in my local community; a woman was asking where in town she could get helium balloons. Thinking of what I’d just read, I responded with a link to the article, and a comment that perhaps we should be re-thinking whether we use helium in this way.

The response astounded me. A torrent of angry replies poured in, all of them from women furious at the mere suggestion that they might have to go without their helium balloons. There were personal attacks against me, indignant comments about party-poopers and miserable environmentalists, and flat-out denials that helium could actually be in short supply, now or ever. The comment thread became so poisonous that the forum administrator eventually deleted it.

I was pretty shaken. If these people – the kind of people I saw in the street ever day, who lived along the same roads as my family and I – could get so vicious about helium balloons, how would they behave when a truly important shortage came along? Food, for example, or petrol, or energy supplies? If genuinely essential products became scarce, I developed a nasty suspicion that people like this will try to acquire what they want by any means possible – because they deserve to have them; it’s their right!

I’m not being over-pessimistic, or miserable, or doom-and-gloom, here. It’s inevitable that there is going to be a crisis. We’ve narrowly missed it several times in recent years – the demonstrations over petrol prices, the cutting off of the gas supply from Russia, the dust cloud from the Icelandic volcano which halted air-freight. All of these brought us to within days of a major economic crisis of the ’empty-shelves-in-the-supermarket’ variety. The complexity of our economy guarantees that sooner or later some random event will catch us unprepared.

Even if we’re lucky, the facts are very clear that the global economy that we’ve become used to is finished; to say otherwise is effectively to hide under the blanket and hope the scary monsters go away – but they won’t.

To give one example, we know that global energy production is peaking, and is only being maintained by vast amounts of investment in short-term sources. The only possible outcome is that energy will become more and more expensive – and will become too expensive for more and more people. That doesn’t just mean electricity from your wall sockets, it means everything that uses energy in its production, or its transport to your local shops – and that’s everything.

We also know perfectly well that agriculture in California is being destroyed by drought – possibly for ever. The consequences will be global. California produces a huge proportion of the food consumed in the US – and elsewhere. Once it’s no longer available, the knock-on effect will be steep rises in food prices globally. The likelihood is, in fact, that many cities throughout California and the rest of the American southwest will run out of water very soon, and become uninhabitable at current population levels.  That means major social dislocation, and a huge economic impact with global consequences.

As for current events in Ukraine… Ukraine is a major global producer of grain. It’s already had bad harvests in recent years due to the climate – what do you think the current crisis is doing to the agricultural sector there? This is another reason why food prices will rise all over the world.

When you consider that high prices for food and energy were the underlying causes of many of the crises we’re seeing at the moment in Africa and the Middle East, it’s worth pondering the effect yet more price rises will have on other countries currently teetering on the edge.

All of these things are facts. The information is easily available, if you want to look for it. Most people, of course, don’t look; it’s uncomfortable, and thinking about where these trends are leading us is even more uncomfortable. Where does this train of thought lead, though?

The likely outcome is that the squeeze on our way of life is slow but steady. Everything becomes ever-scarcer and ever-pricier over time, but there’s never a specific event that says the crisis is here. More and more people become angrier because they deserve the way of life they’re used to, dammit, but they just can’t afford it any more. That anger is going to get channelled somewhere; I suspect a lot of it will get channelled into movements which look for someone to blame, and into ways (legal or otherwise) in which shiny stuff is expropriated from people who have it and redistributed to angry people who deserve to have it, dammit! This outcome goes somewhere like contemporary Greece: huge unemployment, street violence, extremist parties resurgent. The ability of the authorities to do anything is very limited, but there is still some government in operation.

Does it seem unlikely? Ask a Russian about the 1990s, when they went overnight from superpower status to economic disaster. Or, of course, ask a Greek. Or a resident of Argentina, like Ferfal. Ask the ethnic Chinese of Indonesia about what happened to them during the 1997 Asian Crash. All of these countries had comfortable, educated, middle classes who never imagined themselves ending up selling family heirlooms on the street for a tin of beans.

In a worst-case outcome, it’s not impossible that the crisis could be so sudden that it overwhelms the ability of government to cope with it, and everything collapses at once. Channel 4 ran a drama recently about this, which combined bleakness with elements of optimism. If the UK was hit by a sudden energy crisis, how would the state continue to operate, with no computers, no phones, no media? It couldn’t. And so it would go away. That Channel 4 drama, Blackout, was of course a fictional event. I’ve recently been reading a blog by someone called ‘Selco’ however.

He lived in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars. He was a medical technician leading a normal, fairly comfortable life. He was worried by the media reports of ‘problems’ and ‘local crises’ elsewhere in his country, but everything in his own prosperous European city seemed normal, and he had confidence that ‘they’ would find a solution and sort everything out. Then, one day, he woke up to find that the city was under siege, and nobody was in charge any more. He writes about how soldiers deserted and went back to their families, taking their weapons with them. The police became thieves. There was no power; no running water any more. With no food or medicines coming in to the city except through the black market, neighbour turned against neighbour. Gangs developed; as they realised that there was no law any more, their behaviour became more and more cruel. It’s a terrifying story. One thing I took away from reading it is that people survived only by hanging together with people they could trust absolutely and literally with their lives. ‘Lone wolves’ didn’t make it through.

Could it happen here, in the UK? Yes, it could, and far more easily than we like to think. Over the past few years, ever since I began connecting the dots in the reports about resource depletion, I’ve been wondering how to respond to these trends. Based on all of the reading I’ve done, I’ve concluded that one or the other of these two outcomes is inevitable. See this article: Global riot epidemic due to demise of cheap fossil fuels.

All of that is to give a context to my question: what’s the point of martial arts? Context is crucial in answering this.

  • Karate is from Okinawa. It was developed from Chinese roots by peasants who were fighting Japanese samurai, who’d conquered the Ryuku kingdom, and forbidden the population from carrying weapons.
  • Judo is a sport, the roots of which lie in battlefield grappling techniques for disarmed samurai, in a culture with strict rules of honour.
  • Tai chi, originally at least, was a family martial art, used by the Chen clan to protect their village against bandits;
  • Wing chun was developed in the crowded cities and ships of southern China;
  • … and so on.

Ultimately, each martial art has an original specific context.Try to use muay thai’s roundhouse kicks on a ship rolling on the ocean waves, for example, and you may well find yourself pitched off your feet. Try to use judo against a crowd, and you’d better be very good. Of course, there will always be counter-examples; someone will always be able to point to that one master who fought off an enraged group of assailants using his years of training. Let’s be honest, though: in all likelihood, you are not going to succeed in doing that. Neither am I, and neither are most practitioners of most martial arts.

So what use are they?

Well, there are all kinds of benefits to training in martial arts. They can build strength, they can build endurance, they can build self-confidence, and, well, they’re fun. When it comes to self-defence, they may very well help you to escape an attacker in, say, a dark alley, or a bar, and run away.

“And run away”.

  • Assumption: you are uninjured, and able to run.
  • Assumption: there is a police presence within reasonable distance.
  • Assumption: there are safe places nearby, where the assailant(s) will not follow you.
  • Assumption: the assailant(s) will not follow you for too long, but will give up and look for an easier victim.

What if these assumptions are not true?

This is why I’m thinking more and more about context. Most martial arts that we study are actually far removed from their original context. They have meaning and value now because we practice them in a society that is, on the whole, safe; a society where violence only occurs in certain limited contexts, and where law enforcement is generally available.

For the reasons I listed above, though, I fear that this context is on the verge of being transformed, and that our society will soon become much more impoverished as a consequence of resource depletion. The result of this will be a large number of people who feel entitled to have certain things, that they deserve those things, and see no reason why they should go without – even if it means taking those things from other people (who just don’t deserve them so much). It’ll mean people who are willing to obtain such things in order to sell on to people who feel they deserve them but wouldn’t stretch to directly stealing them. And it’ll lead to people who are so desperate to survive that they’ll resort to any means necessary.

What does this mean in practice? Refer to Ferfal: Home Invasion or, more generally, this. Remember that he’s writing about his personal experience in a society where, although the economy is collapsing, law and order still exist in theory, and the police are still there and trying to do their job.

That’s a best outcome. Again, let’s be clear that the resource base that has sustained our social and economic system for the last century or so (abundant oil, abundant water, etc) is running out. As this article shows, for example, the oil companies have given up on developing new resources because the costs of production are now higher than than the market can bear. As I noted above, that means that the price of anything that requires energy – and that’s everything – will soon start rising inexorably upwards.

The risk is of sudden collapse. Here’s what Selco says about that: The temptations of being evil in post collapse situation, or The 5 First Symptoms of SHTF.

Let’s be clear: the experience of people who’ve actually lived through economic and/or social collapse is consistent:

1) have 100% trustworthy people around you, preferably living in the the same building, and

2) have guns. In the UK, though, this isn’t an option for most of us.

In this context, I’m not sure that most martial arts are going to be of any use. Things like judo and karate may help in a skirmish, but the assumption is that you’ll be able to run away, and that you aren’t going to be pursued by a gang who know that there won’t be any police coming. I emphasize again that my concerns are based on extensive reading of economic trends over the last few years.

So. That brings me to consider what use training in martial arts is – and why I switched from Chinese martial arts to systema. Systema is the only martial art I’ve encountered which includes training in reading crowds; in spreading confusion and uncertainty amongst numerous opponents; in using breath control to run, and run, and run. These are skills that are more likely to be needed in our context than those of judo or karate.

Even so, it’s not enough. I’ve been posting on a systema group on Facebook about some of my experiences with Andrey Karimov, and about how enthusiastic I am about the way he combines cultural practices (song, dance) with the martial arts. Recently, someone posted a comment on another dance-related post (not one of mine) about “Siberian Cossack Chickens“. I can’t really be sure, but I suspect that this  was essentially a derogatory remark aimed at the inclusion of “non-combat” training; it is, after all, a group that prides itself on being “reality-based”, even to the extent of being one of the few groups that discussed the current legal environment insofar as it affects martial arts.

Well, I don’t doubt that the author is a far better martial artist than I am. I also suspect that he has only ever considered the use of martial arts as himself against “the bad guys”, in fantasies where he overcomes groups of assailants and emerges triumphant. My own recent past inclines me more to think about running from groups of bad guys who are too strong to oppose, and trying to carry elderly parents and/or young children with me. In those circumstances, “me against the bad guys” just doesn’t work.

Again: the experience of people who’ve actually been through economic collapse is: you need people you can REALLY trust watching your back. You need people who won’t stab you because you’ve got something they need in order to save their sick child.

In considering this, I’ve found an old article from Harper’s Magazine, which I find extremely instructive: Who goes Nazi? Written in 1941, before the USA entered WWII, it concludes:

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.

The terminology is old-fashioned, but it ‘s essentially talking about values; values and social bonds, and an ingrained respect for other people.

I don’t, unfortunately, see this in our society. If I once thought it was there, my experience with people in my own community over my ‘outrageous’ suggestion that helium balloons were a bad thing taught me otherwise.

And that, ultimately, led me to Andrey Karimov’s approach. I can’t speak for him; indeed, given that we don’t have a language in common, it’s hard enough for me to speak to him. Still, I get the impression that his thinking is along similar lines to mine: that we need to be training not for individual training, but for a form of preparedness that includes “non-combatants” – because when societies collapse, there are no non-combatants.

Russians, of course, know this perfectly well, because much of their history has involved total war on a scale unknown in most of Europe since the Middle Ages. The invasion by Nazi Germany; the horrific atrocities committed during the Civil War, all the way back to the Mongols and their pyramids of skulls… The clip below from “Come and See”, a Russian film from the 1980s that deals with the Nazi occupation of Belorussia during WW2. The screenwriter was a partisan during the war, and included things that he’d seen for real. It’s pretty horrific, so be warned.

The specific moment that I’m interested in is at 0’27”, and is just on-screen for a couple of seconds.

It could be Syria, Libya, Iraq. It could be Mali, Congo, Somalia. It could be any number of Latin American countries within living memory. It could be Croatia, Bosnia, or Kosovo. I might, if things go badly, be Ukraine. It could be any one of any number of countries where resources just aren’t affordable any more, and which are slipping into chaos.

Where’s your judo, here?

My conclusion is that it isn’t enough, or even appropriate to the context, to focus on individual training. It’s as important to be building a resilient network that’s trustworthy, that’s able to defend itself, that’s able to work together in the face of existential challenges. It means mature men and women able to protect the old and the young, who in turn know how to behave in the face of threats.

In the world of martial arts, I only see systema as doing this; within systema, my personal decision is that the Siberian Cossack system does it better than any other. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if a martial art isn’t community-based, it isn’t appropriate for our context and the challenges we face – in my opinion, of course.

   Image credits: the bodies of “The Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo“. Photo borrowed from albany.edu; originally taken, I think, by Mark H. Milstein.


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