Martial Arts as War (MAW) and Martial Arts as Sport (MAS)—these are the two paradigms that, by and large, define the contemporary universe of the martial arts. Or so I have argued in previous essays.
Now, it’s true, of course, that—as my own Master-Instructor observed to me in one of our countless conversations over this subject—the martial arts are assigned values that don’t neatly fit into the binary scenario that I’ve framed. Some value the martial arts primarily (or maybe even exclusively) for their historical, aesthetic, or spiritual significance.
This point being well-taken, it nevertheless doesn’t undercut the overall point that, at bottom, irrespective of the individual’s subjective reason for training in a martial art, the training modality in question is, objectively, better suited for either MAW or MAS. Katas, for example, while valued by many for what may be perceived as their spiritual, aesthetic, and historical richness, can readily be incorporated within a training modality suited for MAS—but most certainly not one suited for MAW.
The bottom line is this: The martial arts world is inhabited by two kinds of people, those who conceive of the martial arts in terms of war and those who do not. The latter subscribe to what I am referring to as MAS.
Logically one cannot simultaneously endorse MAW and MAS because to do so amounts to violating the Law of Excluded Middle, or the Law of Contradiction. For example, “MAW is true and MAS is true” translates to, “MAW is true and MAW is not true.” The martial arts are warrior arts and they are not warrior arts. This proposition, however, is self-contradictory. It is necessarily false.
And it is illogical precisely because of the ontological status, the natures, of MAW and MAS, respectively. War and sport, it is intuitively obvious to all who have so much as the slightest familiarity with both, are ontologically incompatible because they are fundamentally different types of things. For example, the likes of Audi Murphy and Miyamoto Musashi would undoubtedly lose a sports match to the Muhammad Alis and Connon Macgregors of the world, but the latter would lose their lives to the former if the milieu in question was not that of a competition but, rather, that of mortal combat.
These examples also illustrate the mutual incommensurability of MAW and MAS: Between the two paradigms there is no common measure.
Amongst philosophers, the notion of incommensurability is a controversial one, for it has been used—it has been abused—by some to suggest that truth itself is either relative or even non-existent. But this conclusion does not follow from the premise that the propositions peculiar to one frame of reference may not admit of translation into the language of another framework embodying a radically different vision.
While there is no common substantive standard shared by incommensurable paradigms, this emphatically does not mean that “truth is relative,” there is no truth, or (what amounts to the same thing) that there is no rational way of evaluating the merits of the truth claims made by competing paradigms. Not at all. While there is no shared substantive standard, there are indeed formal standards whose demands no theory, no proposition, no thought can resist.
The cannons of logic are unforgiving (however much contemporary academic philosophers may pretend otherwise).
So, in other words, if a paradigm lacks sufficient resources to resolve the very problems to which the paradigm itself gives rise, then it stands condemned by its own lights. The Law of Excluded Middle allows for no other verdict. The measure of success of a paradigm is its ability to surmount the very paradoxes that it generates. If, though, the paradoxes prove insuperable, then the paradigm reveals itself to be incoherent.
In light of this, we can now return to consider the paradigms of MAW and MAS. The latter, it shouldn’t take us long to realize, is indeed incoherent.
Martial arts are not sport. “Martial” means “of, or pertaining to, war.” Yet this is not just a question of semantics. Etymologically or denotatively, it’s true that no matter how many terms are lifted from their natural home, the paradigm of MAW, and smuggled into the foreign land of MAS, such terms can never possess anything more than an analogical significance within this new universe of discourse. However, even connotatively speaking it’s the case that spectator and participant alike know all too well that the so-called “combat” sports, being sport, are designed to preclude serious injury, to say nothing of maiming and killing.
Such things, though, are of the essence of war.
Sports have all sorts of rules that exist for no other reason but to ensure that the games can continue. These, then, are restrictions meant to guarantee the safety of the contestants.
This is emphatically not the case with respect to war, the raison d’etre of which is the destruction of the enemy.
So, it’s not that there is anything illogical or self-contradictory about any of the individual “combat” arts that comprise MAS. Rather, it’s self-contradictory or incoherent to conceive of them as martial arts. Thus, it’s self-contradictory to classify their participants as warriors.
Participants are undoubtedly athletic. They may very well be brave, just, and virtuous in any number of respects.
But they are not warriors, for they do not train for war, for potentially mortal combat with assailants the intention of whose actions is to end their lives.
This leaves us with the paradigm of MAW. To put this point another way, the martial arts are the warrior arts or they are nothing. Arts conventionally recognized as “martial” arts doubtless deliver a variety of benefits. Yet martial arts they are not as long as they disavow, whether in word and/or in their training modalities, the intrinsically martial character of the warrior arts.
Any and all instructors who purport to teach a martial art while failing to regard their students as soldiers who are about to enter the field of battle are martial arts instructors in name only.
To put it even more bluntly, until and unless a purported martial arts instructor is determined to instill within his students both the skill and the will to kill those who would prey upon innocents, he is not a martial arts instructor.
That it is the crux of a martial arts education to supply students with the ability and the resolve to annihilate the enemy does not mean that it consists of nothing else. More exactly, it is precisely the unequivocal underscoring of this principal objective that seamlessly supplements the development of situational awareness and other behavioral characteristics that render dramatically less likely the odds that students will ever find themselves in situations where they would have to get violent with anyone.
For instance, it is precisely because students are trained to achieve mastery of lethal violence that they are that much more mindful of—they’re more skilled at—avoiding circumstances that could legitimize their use of that kind of violence:
No bars, clubs, drinking parties with strangers, or hanging out in otherwise potentially troublesome environments.
No eye-fucking, chest-thumping, shit-talking, or dick-measuring.
Those who are trained to unleash unrelenting violence upon the violent are unassuming. They don’t seek to draw attention to themselves and they aspire to be kind and friendly to others—even those who they sense are assholes but with whom they have to interact for whatever reasons.
Violence, in other words, is the last resort.
Yet when one must resort to it, then—like a nation that must resort to war—it’s all or nothing. There is no point in attempting to harm a single hair on another person’s head unless one’s person, or the persons of one’s loved ones, are endangered. So, if violence is what is necessary to protect one and one’s own from possible death, then the violence must be ruthless to guarantee that the threat is incapacitated, and incapacitated within as short a frame of time as possible to minimize the odds of innocents being harmed, or harmed any more than they have to be.
The violence must be ruthless.
And in order for an otherwise decent person to become ruthless, he or she must be trained to feel in the very marrow of his being that violence in the cause of self-protection is righteous. It is a moral, an eminently moral enterprise. It is indeed a matter of survival. But it is not only a matter of survival. Bacteria and viruses aim to survive. Human beings, when the choices of others have foreclosed all other courses of action, at long last go to war in order to achieve victory over the enemy.
Warriors don’t regard life as an unqualified good, and don’t value bare existence at all.
They wage war in order to live good lives, to flourish.
While MAW is the only paradigm of the martial arts, it nevertheless is the case that within it there are systems that contain incoherence. It is in light of the standards of MAW that these systems—so-called, “Reality-based Self-Defense” or “combatives” systems—reveal their flaws. They either incorporate into their training modalities methods and techniques that are more proper to sport, or they infuse into their students attitudes that not only have no place on the battlefield, but are all but guaranteed to get them harmed or killed.
It isn’t that these systems must necessarily be discarded. They do, though, require revision.
In a future essay, we will examine more carefully specific MAW systems.