There’s an assumption, fed by movies and a romanticized view of war, that every American military member is an e-lite hand-to-hand ninja, martial artist, and/or dynamo in the Octagon. While there are many men and women in the military with particular skill in close combat, that is a fact of prior interest, and rarely a result of training received in the military. It will strike many as odd, but the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines possess no exceptional skill at close combat, despite Hollywood’s glamorized portrayals to the contrary.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have each struggled over the years to develop close range combative skills, both armed and unarmed, within their ranks. We’ll focus on the ground combat oriented services, specifically the Marine Corps, in our case study: the technically focused Navy and Air Force have little need for close combat skills, other than a few niche units like the SEALs (SEAL Team Six recently put out a request for bids to train their sailors in combatives). However, ground combat often requires close encounters of a violent kind — the result of both the changing society mores and the realities of combat.
Thinking is often along these lines: “If we’re getting that close with the enemy, we’ve fucked up”.
Other militaries have developed a reputation for their close combat skill: the Republic of Korean Marine Corps with Hae Byung Do, Thai Royal Armed Forces with Muy Thai, the Israeli Defense Force with krav maga, the Russians with sambo. Some of these systems are grounded in national pastimes, and enjoy a solid foundation of skills learned from childhood on. In the U.S., our organized sports are baseball, football, and basketball. Ask a body of male Marine recruits how many have been in a physical fight today, and fewer than a third raise their hands. Violence may surround us in movies, the news, and video games, but few young Americans have tasted the salt of a fat, bloody lip or squinted through a blackened eye.
Martial Arts vs. Combatives
So, teaching hand-to-hand combat should be fairly easy, right? Pick a style, hire an instructor, and commence training — except most martial arts have morphed from combat techniques into the strikes, holds, and throws acceptable for sport. Most individuals develop their skills from the sport side — few people grow up in a culture of combat, like the Spartans, Samurai, Zulu or Apache. Sport martial arts certainly hone an individual’s skill, fitness, agility, and comfort with close interpersonal distance; however, karate kumite is no life or death event. Techniques developed and practiced for scoring points against a single opponent often differ from techniques effective in quickly killing or incapacitating an adversary pent on the same. Combat is also rarely one-on-one — the battlefield presents a dynamic where a soldier may fight two or more opponents simultaneously, and a succession of opponents with little to no rest. Further, body armor limits the available vulnerable strike zones, and weapons, issued or those of opportunity (i.e., a rock, stick, ammo can) can quickly change the calculus of a fight.
Learning hand-to-hand techniques won’t make a fighter pilot any better at interdicting enemy aircraft.
Choosing the right mix of techniques is also a challenge. With any group of martial artist, “My kung fu is strongest” is the invariable argument that surfaces. Once you work through that, the range of military operations, from stabilizing conditions post-natural or man-made disaster to major combat operations/high intensity combat, requires just as broad a range of techniques. Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department, the U.S. military is expected to scale its use of force against the threat, from non-lethal submission holds and pain compliance techniques to lethal throat strikes or choke holds. A program’s continuum of violence has to offer methods for dealing with someone who offers active resistance, as well as an enemy who intends grave bodily harm.
Priorities, Priorities, Priorities
One of the most significant reasons the Air Force and the Navy don’t train combatives? It just doesn’t contribute to combat effectiveness. Learning hand-to-hand techniques won’t make a fighter pilot any better at interdicting enemy aircraft or avoiding missiles, nor will a sonar technician benefit from knowing how to properly eye gouge. Priorities are easy to distinguish for those services. While the Air Force nominally adopted the Army’s system, it doesn’t receive the same attention as other training requirements. For the Army and the Marine Corps, the equation gets more complicated.
Combat has evolved from first generation, hand-to-hand with weapons, to second generation, where hand-to-hand followed initial gunfire salvos as forces closed, to third generation, where killing often occurs outside combatants’ line-of-sight. Modern weapon systems — assault weapons, precision-guided munitions, aircraft, artillery, rockets — require extensive training to develop proficiency. Combatives compete for time with other pre-deployment training priorities, and unless a commander has a personal interest in it, hand-to-hand often comes out unfavorably. The thinking is often along these lines: “If we’re getting that close with the enemy, we’ve fucked up”. However, the reality of combat involves violence, up close and very personal. We’ll take a look at the Marine Corps’ approach to solving the challenge because I’m most familiar with the evolution of their system. I find it interesting to note, however, that in recent years, the Army has twice turned to former Marines to help with developing a combatives program.
Marine Corps Martial Arts Program
In 2000, the incoming Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Jones, had strong personal feelings about re-energizing martial arts training across the Marine Corps. Coming from the top down, the program had the resources and command support necessary to ensure success. General Jones was strongly influenced by his experiences as a platoon commander in Vietnam. During one operation, he was approached by his platoon sergeant, who informed him they were bound to get enemy contact that evening. When questioned about this prediction, the Marine offered that since they were positioned adjacent to the Republic of Korea (ROK) Marines, and the Viet Cong were deathly afraid of the ROK’s Tae Kwon Do, any attacks would be against the U.S. Marines. Sure enough, the enemy hit Jones’ platoon that night. That experience was reinforced by the general’s anecdotal observations over a 30 year career that Marines with a martial arts background were more centered and less likely look for trouble off-duty. In 2000, he directed a test of two competing approaches to martial arts training, and I was the project manager for the Marine Corps’ test program.
The first approach was the Marine Corps’ existing Close Combat program, directed by Master Gunnery Sergeant Cardo Urso, under the command of then-Colonel John Allen (of recent Afghanistan fame). An officer with extensive fighting experience, Lieutenant Colonel George Bristol, was brought in to oversee this half of the test, and contribute his unique take on combatives. He and Urso held strong opinions regarding unarmed combat training, and together they brought 70 years of combative experience to the project. Their approach combined judo throws, sambo grappling, a small number of strikes, knife-fighting, and rifle/bayonet techniques for a very physically aggressive program.
Body armor limits the available vulnerable strike zones, and weapons, issued or those of opportunity (a rock, stick, ammo can) can quickly change the calculus of a fight.
The second approach was lead by Dr. Richard Heckler-Strozzi, an aikido expert with experience training martial arts and mind-expanding meditation techniques to the Green Berets in the ‘90s. He combined hand-to-hand techniques, including knee and elbow strikes and neck wrestling, with aikido principles of correct body placement, dynamic relaxation, balance, centering, entering, blending and power. The approach concentrated significant time on the spiritual and mental development of the test Marines. Dr. Heckler-Strozzi personally knew General Jones, and his relationship with the general required delicate handling. A lack of focus by the battalion commander, who allowed several of Heckler-Strozzi’s test participants to miss training for various reasons, brought a near instantaneous admonishment down the chain of command.
Both approaches had beneficial elements, and I recommended a blend of the two approaches. General Jones approved that recommendation; however, Lieutenant Colonel Bristol and Master Gunnery Sergeant Urso were put in charge of implementation, and the resulting program strongly favored their philosophy and methods. They disdained Dr. Heckler-Strozzi’s methods as too soft and New Age touchy-feeling. What the Marine Corps ended up with, at least initially, was a program that reflected the personal preferences of the officer-in-charge and his deputy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — the two brought passion and personal investment that pushed the endeavor through a lot of institutional inertia and skepticism. Unfortunately, concepts like body-hardening (repetitively striking body parts to deaden nerves and build resistance to potentially disabling blows) were unsustainable in a broadly implemented program.
The school house gradually moved past the personality-based program to a content-based curriculum with sound training fundamentals that’s in place today. A belt system was developed to recognize advancement and proficiency. With the top general’s backing, the training quickly became mandatory, with all graduates of enlisted and officer initial training required to complete the first level, tan belt. Infantry Marines must obtain their green belt, the third belt level, and promotions are tied to completion of required training. Additionally, the belts provide a visual cue for social validation — this is a group that values martial skill, in all its forms.
While the degree of proficiency within an Army or Marine unit remains strongly influenced by the unit commander’s personal interest, even rudimentary skill in striking, throws, and grappling will put someone in the 99th percentile for fighting ability. Married with the inherent physical fitness of service members and the tendency of soldiers and Marines to travel off-duty in groups, it’s unwise for the average joe to test his manhood with an individual sporting close-cropped hair in a bar close to a military base. A better, more healthy response is to buy that guy a beer. After all, doesn’t he get enough fighting at work?