BOOK REVIEW: Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller

Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World ViolenceMeditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence by Rory Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’ve long realized that all martial arts are models. Models are simplifications; they inevitably leave elements out—sometimes because those elements don’t seem relevant and sometimes because they can’t realistically (re: sanely) be included. Those of us trained as social scientists say two things about models. 1.) All models are wrong, and 2.) All models lie. The question is whether your martial art is the least wrong, i.e. tells the most acceptable lie, for your purposes. Rory Miller’s work illuminates the most crucial part of what martial arts leave aside, violence and the context in which it takes place in the modern world. I say the most crucial part because it’s not excluded because it’s irrelevant; it’s left out because it’s impossible to shun safety / encourage violence without the practice devolving into a last man standing competition. (FYI: If you’re saying, “Man, the martial art I study is completely street realistic,” then you need this book more than anyone.)

While it’s important to have safety in a training environment and, therefore, true violence must be prohibited (simulated, but not carried out), it’s important to understand violence so that one can prepare one’s mind for it and train oneself to recognize various types of violence so that one knows the best approach to avoid a bad outcome. One doesn’t want to end up wondering “how could this happen” as one is bleeding out on the ground as martial artists from a range of styles have experienced. I’m not saying martial arts aren’t valuable, and I don’t think Miller is either (he’s long practiced them, as have I.) While martial arts may not prepare one perfectly for a violent conflict, they move one in the right direction. The only real downside is if one allows oneself to be deluded into thinking one is going to roll through waves of enemies without a scratch like Jet Li or Steven Seagal on the silver screen. That’s why it’s important not only to read such a book as this, but to give serious thought to changing the narrative that plays out in one’s mind about the nature of violence so as to move it away from movie / sport fighting towards an approach that is most likely to get one and one’s loved ones out alive.

The book consists of seven chapters, plus front and back matter. The first chapter introduces two matrices as ways to frame one’s thoughts on the conflict. The first, the tactical matrix, looks at different types of attacks one might experience (eg. surprise ambush through preemptive attack) relative to allowable use of force (can one legitimately injure or kill one’s opponent?) The second, the strategic matrix, considers the various types of combative endeavors (e.g. self-defense, duel, sport, combat/military operations) and there goals, approaches, and dangers.

Chapter two is entitled, “How to Think,” and the emphasis is on “to think.” The central lesson is to not take ideas on faith, particularly ideas about the nature of violence from people who haven’t experienced it—particularly when those ideas seem to run counter to reality. Because violence is such a rarity, it is a subject for which there is a great disconnect between expertise and experience. (i.e. Chances are your plumber has unclogged tens to thousands of drains, but also that the person teaching you knife disarms has never been in a single knife fight.) The chapter considers the various fallacies and how they can be resistant to destruction. Emphasis is given to understanding your goals, making them realistic, and having a pragmatic path to achieving them. The take-away quote is, “Do not let yourself be crippled by something that only exists in your mind.” The chapter ends by looking at decision-making at the speed of a fight, which is pretty quick.

Chapter three gets to the heart of the subject, violence. It differentiates various types of violence, and considers the context (setting, timing, and the nature of the interaction) in which violent interactions take place. Much of the discussion revolves around what Miller calls the “monkey dance” -an attempt to exert dominance that often escalates into a fight. This is differentiated from predatory violence that demands a different approach. This section also addresses the neurochemical cocktail that gets shot into one’s system and the effects that it typically has—which is a leading cause of events unfolding differently than expected.

Chapter four describes the various types of individuals with whom one might find oneself engaged in a violent altercation. This is an important topic because the path to a best outcome varies depending upon the nature of the criminal, and so one’s ability to differentiate types of predator and to know how to best deal with each is as essential a skill as knowing the technical nuances of a punch or choke.

The fifth chapter examines training approaches, and how the typical martial arts education leaves one with blind-spots and built-in flaws. The chapter begins by looking at the many ways in which martial arts make modifications from realistic conditions in order to be safe. Most martial artists realize that they are training techniques or drilled responses into their subconscious so that their bodies can respond automatically–without the need for [slow] conscious thought–during a conflict. However, there’s a further assumption that the unrealistic parts of that movement (e.g. slowness or avoiding vulnerable targets) will go away under real life conditions. In an earlier chapter, there was a discussion of the fact that attacks are usually faster, harder, at closer range, and more surprising than expected (Miller calls it the four basic truths), and this chapter considers some ways that one can prepare for those realities.

The sixth chapter considers how one can make self-defense work. It should be pointed out that this isn’t just about how to engage in the fight, but also how to stay out of a fight or get away from it as quickly as is possible. There’s also a discussion of set rules for determining when one must fight. This is the type of notion that one must think about ahead of time, because one can’t expect to think clearly once the adrenaline has been dumped into one’s system. The remainder of the chapter explores how one is most likely to get out of an altercation alive once the fight has become inevitable.

The final chapter delves into the question of what comes after the violent encounter. This is also a subject on which many martial artists have unrealistic notions. If one survives in an unheroic / ungraceful way, one may have guilt or dismay about how imperfectly events unfolded. On the other hand, say everything works out for one, but one kills the predator. Most people seem to think that this won’t be troubling, because it was justified. This misses the fact that there are many traumatized soldiers who were also completely justified, but if you aren’t a hardcore psychopath, you aren’t wired for killing.

I found a lot of valuable food for thought in this book. The author includes many stories (sometimes funny and sometimes disturbing) that help to make the lessons memorable and poignant. Tables, charts, and the occasional photograph are used to illustrate points as well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s concerned about violent altercations. If you’re a martial artist who has no such concerns because you think you have a lock on it, then you probably doubly need this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Write the Fight Right by Alan Baxter

Write The Fight RightWrite The Fight Right by Alan Baxter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I was going to pan this for being the wrong book, but then I read through the blurb (and even the subtitle) and realized that it was largely my fault that I got the wrong book. Furthermore, I recognized that the information contained in this tiny e-book is good and that it’s packaged in a concise form. I, thus, concluded that this is the right book for someone—just not me nor many of you. I’ll, therefore, devote the bulk of this review to differentiating for whom the book will be beneficial and for whom it won’t. Because of the dearth of books on the topic I was interested in, I can imagine others erroneously purchasing this book and having (the albeit tiny) $2.50 worth of buyer’s remorse.

I purchased this book (and another one that returned on the search for “writing fight scenes”) because I’m rewriting a chapter in my novel in which fight scenes are prominent. I realized that there is a fine art to writing a good fight scene, and that I could use some help in being more effective at it. One needs fight scenes to have fast pacing and to be visceral. At the same time, one must avoid getting bogged down in detail even in the face of multiple attackers or unfamiliar and complex weaponry. This book won’t help you one iota in this regard, and, to be fair, it says in the blurb that the book will not help with one’s writing.

The book is about what it’s like to be in a fight and how to separate Hollywood myth and misconception from reality. As a long-time martial artist with both military and law enforcement training as well as an avid reader, there was nothing new or interesting in this book—though there wasn’t much I would disagree with either.

Three criteria for readership:
1.) You haven’t witnessed or experienced a fight (outside the choreography of the silver screen) since middle school. This book describes the experience and effects of fighting and what skilled fighters try to do in close-quarters combat. It aims to help writers purge theatrical nonsense from their fight scenes and inject some verisimilitude.

2.) Your fight scene is a standard 20th/21st century brawl. What is discussed is one-on-one fighting–unarmed or with weapons that one might see wielded today. One won’t gain insight useful in historical fiction, or anything that doesn’t echo today’s form of fighting.

3.) You don’t want to put a lot of time or effort into reading and / or researching the subject. The author does advise the reader to take martial arts or self-defense classes as a superior way to learn what he is trying to teach. What this book has going for it is that it’s only a 43 page (and a couple dollar) investment. If one is interested in getting a much deeper understanding of the topics covered, I would recommend a combination of Lt. Col. David Grossman’s On Killing in conjunction with any number of full-length martial arts books (I’m reading Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do presently, and it’s certainly an excellent candidate.)

To summarize: this book is useful to teach one about realism in fight scenes, and not about structuring such scenes. There are only three examples (2 short and one long) in the book—none from what would be considered exemplary works. If you’ve taken a martial art or had military or law enforcement experience, there’s unlikely to be anything new or intriguing in this book. Even if you just watch MMA regularly and / or read about fighting or combat, there’s a good chance you won’t learn much.

However, if watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Rumble in the Bronx and say, “So that’s what a fight looks like,” you should definitely give this book a read.

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Kalaripayattu and Single Point Origin Myths

I just began my study of Kalaripayattu this morning. Kalaripayattu is an Indian martial art that is named for the training space (kalari) in which it is conducted. It’s a very different martial art from others I’ve studied, and is a great learning experience—as well as an excellent workout. Kalaripayattu is said to be one of the oldest formal martial arts that has survived into the modern era. I have no reason doubt this. The art is documented in the 11th century by a historian who attributes its development to wars between the Chola and Chera kingdoms.

However, there’s another common claim that is much more controversial, and that’s that Kalaripayattu is the “mother of all [Asian] martial arts.” With all due respect, I’m skeptical of this claim—even if we don’t take it in the literal sense (i.e. Asia is a big place and there are almost certainly places where martial arts were established before contact with the Buddhist diaspora.) I obviously don’t base my skepticism on what I have been taught—as that is, at this point, a miniscule portion of the most basic of basics.

While I can offer no definitive proof to discredit the claim, I do have specific reasons to be skeptical. The theory of Kalaripayattu as the origin of martial arts is based on the legend of Bodhidharma. The legend says that the famous monk shared martial arts with the monks of Shaolin in conjunction with the Zen (Cha’an) form of Buddhism, and from Shaolin as Buddhism spread so did the martial arts. I’ve read myths about the origins of the Japanese martial arts that I’ve studied that place the beginnings of their ancestor arts with Chinese Buddhists fleeing persecution during the T’ang Dynasty (as well as later periods.)

The first problem with this theory is that historians have found it to be unsubstantiated and dubious. While the belief that Bodhidharma introduced the Chinese to martial arts is one of the most widely believed and cited pieces of martial arts lore, Meir Shahar in his book The Shaolin Monastery [] states that the evidence doesn’t support this popular belief. Specifically, the only historical documentation of this theory is a document that was written in the 1600’s that the author claimed was “discovered” from an earlier time—the problem is that the language usage isn’t consistent with the claim that the document was from a much earlier period, and there are many verified mistakes in the document.

Even if Shahar and other historians are wrong, the evidence that Bodhidharma came from southern India and that he studied Kalaripayattu specifically seems to be non-existent. There is at least one popular theory of Bodhidharma that puts the origin of this famous spiritual leader outside of India altogether. If the aforementioned Indian historian was right and Kalari developed during 11th century wars, then it’s late for the life of Bodhidharma by some 500 years.

The challenge is that it’s difficult to compare the modern martial arts and see definitive evidence of historic connections. Some will say, “But Kalaripayattu doesn’t look like Shaolin Kung fu (or any other subsequent arts) at all.” While it’s not true that they don’t look anything alike, it’s true that they look very different. However, what one has to keep in mind is not only did Kung fu continue to evolve in order to optimize to its circumstance, its predecessor system (whether Kalaripayattu or otherwise) would have continued to evolve as well. The Kalaripayattu of today most likely looks quite different from 11th century Kalaripayattu, but we can’t know how so in any detail. This could make for some pretty rapid divergence. Others may say, “But, hey, I do see the similarities in kicks and postures and so forth.” This may be true as well, but can one be sure that one of those commonalities is causal of the other? What if it’s just the constraints of the human body that make all martial arts similar at some level of granularity?

My intent is neither to destroy origin stories nor to discredit any martial art. Obviously, Kalaripayattu has a long history, and the fact that it survived to modern times is a testament to its value over that time. Combat is a harsh evolutionary environment, and things that don’t work for the situations they face are likely to die with the people who practice those systems. However, I think it’s important for warriors to not succumb to false fables because they must see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be.

Krabi Krabong Double Swords: Coordination in Action

Earlier in the month I took a few Krabi Krabong classes during my two-week visit to Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand. For those who are unfamiliar, Krabi Krabong is a Thai martial art that focuses on weapon fighting. However, Krabi Krabong is what one might call a comprehensive martial art. That is, there are a number of different weapons utilized, and there is also an unarmed component. (It’s apparently unclear whether Krabi Krabong was practiced in conjunction with Muay Boran [the old Thai boxing style that predates Muay Thai] or whether they were always independent. Some of the weapons used in Krabi Krabong are sword (singly and in pairs), sticks (singly and in pairs), long staff, shield (used in conjunction with sword or club), halberd, and clubs worn on the forearms called mai sawk (the latter look vaguely reminiscent of the Okinawan tonfa, but upon closer inspection are quite different and are not designed to be spun freely like tonfa.

While I saw the instructor work with both staff and mai sawk, what we learned were double club techniques that the instructor did with double sword as well. The use of twin short weapons is common in Krabi Krabong. Working with two independently operated weapons is fairly new for me. In Japanese martial arts the use of weapons in such a way isn’t that common. Miyamoto Musashi advocated using the long and short swords in unison, and there are a few sword schools that teach this. I learned the fundamentals of one such school, Jinen-ryū Ni-tō-jutsu, but never practiced enough to develop any skill with it. So it took some effort just to get the basic warm-up drills down (e.g. spinning both sticks simultaneously with each stick going in the opposite direction. It’s a piece of cake if they are both going the same direction.) Of course, in any martial art one is likely have to drill a lot of movements where one is doing two or more different things with different limbs at the same time, but it can still be a challenge finding a grove with double weapons.

In most cases what we were doing was moving one stick through a guard position as the other was attacking. This creates a set of exchanges of strike and counter that feels fast.

I learned four basic forms. The first was just alternating downward angled hits at neck level. The second alternated downward strikes first at neck level and then at knee level. (When I was looking through Youtube videos on Escrima–which I’ve heard has dual stick fighting that looks similar to that of Krabi Krabong–I did see a single-stick Eskrima drill that looked quite similar.) The third form also involved two neck and two knee strikes, but it didn’t look like the previous form because it involved a spinning maneuver such that the last two strikes were to the outside of opponent’s same knee with the first one being a forehand hit and the second being a backhand strike coming off the spin. Spinning techniques were brand new to me. Contrary to what one sees Tom Cruise do in Last Samurai, spinning maneuvers (and other “fancy” techniques) are anathema to the Japanese mindset. The fourth form was head strike – knee strike on the same side and then the same on the other. (So unlike form 2 which was head – head – knee – knee, this was head – knee – head – knee.) We then ran these forms together in various orders.

I see the value in drilling this way to ingrain coordination. However, as someone who is relatively slow but has a decent command of range, I’m not sure how comfortable I would be utilizing the approach we practiced as my go-to tactic. In other words, there was a lot of staying at a range the opponent could strike one and relying on being able to get the guard/block/parry in place. This has the advantage of keeping one in striking range as well, but you’ve got to be confident you’ll have the upper hand in speed. Of course, I saw a minuscule part of the system, so maybe there’s more making the opponent reach out for one among the techniques (or maybe we were practicing them wrong and the instructor was just worried about us getting the basic movement down.)

It was definitely an interesting, educational, and humbling experience.

5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

IMG_4014What is Muay Boran? It’s “ancient boxing,” and is considered an ancestor to the more well-known Muay Thai. Muay Boran isn’t a single unified system. Practicing Muay Boran is a bit like practicing “Karate,” which is to say there are a number of different and distinct systems that go by that generic name—some of which bear little resemblance to others. Muay Boran was originally a combat martial art, but came to be practiced as a sport as well. The latter practice included some rules, though relatively few in comparison to Muay Thai. Instead of padded gloves, they fought with their hands and wrists bound with hemp rope.

When I was in Thailand, I had an opportunity to participate in a couple rudimentary Muay Boran classes. I’d just read about this system in the June/July 2013 issue of Black Belt magazine, and was interested in seeing for myself how the discipline was distinct from Muay Thai. I’m fascinated by how martial arts that are more jissen (real combat) oriented differ from systems whose primary objective is something else (e.g. sport, wellness, etc.)  If one looks at a sport martial art such a Muay Thai, one can see how the nature of the rules and equipment subtly shape the nature of the movement. For example, if crotch attacks are illegal and one wears a cup to handle the occasional accidental crotch shot, one won’t worry about that vulnerability and–as one focuses on gaining advantages or minimizing disadvantages–one may end up with a vulnerability that would be disconcerting in jissen martial arts.

Before anyone gets huffy, I should point out that this isn’t a criticism. Sports must have rules so that they can be enjoyably practiced (and watched.)  Given the rules that are in place, one should optimize one’s performance to being as fast, powerful, and effective as possible. In other words, it would be silly to make one’s stance optimized to protecting one’s groin if the opponent can’t attack it (plus one has a little insurance policy against accidents) and if protecting that [non-existent] vulnerability made one any slower, less powerful, or otherwise less effective. I’m also not saying that combative sports are completely ineffective as self-protection. For sports like Muay Thai or MMA there is a huge space of overlap with the no rules combative situation, and—furthermore—the athleticism developed will allow one to adjust to the non-rule environment quickly.

That being said, I’m curious about how Muay Boran is different from Muay Thai and what that might mean in terms of jissen-optimized fighting versus sport-optimized fighting. Here are a few things that I noticed both in the classes that I had at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, in the aforementioned Black Belt article, and from a few videos and articles that I could find on the internet from what I believe to be reputable sources. [I should disclaim that I’m far from an authority here. Full Disclosure: I’ve had 3 hours of MB training and done some reading and research.]

1.)    The basic Muay Boran guard covers the centerline. In other words, one’s hands are one fist in front of the other with both fists aligned on one’s centerline. This is as opposed to the boxing or Thai boxing guard in which either hand is to the outside of one’s head. Practitioners of Wing Chun or the system I am most familiar with, Gyokko-ryū will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I have vague theories about why protecting the centerline might be more advantageous in combat than sport. For one thing, it might help one make contact with incoming limbs in a way that supports transition into grappling. For another, it allows one to protect against coup-de-grace attacks more efficiently.

2.)    The basic stance of Muay Boran is lower and wider than in Muay Thai. I suspect this has to do with ranging and protection of vulnerabilities (e.g. the groin is harder to hit.)

3.)    While Muay Thai is considered the style of “8 weapons”: (leg (X2), knee (X2), elbow (X2), and fist (X2), Muay Boran is based on 9 weapons (i.e. it includes the good ole head-butt.) This isn’t a surprise. Without a head-butt prohibiting rule, one would expect people to use this devastating close-range weapon.

4.)    Muay Boran utilizes attacks against the limbs. In sport Muay Thai, there is little to be gained from this, but in a combative art if one can deaden limbs one gains a big advantage.

5.)    One thing that perplexed me at first is the fact that Muay Boran supposedly uses flying knees and flying elbows prolifically. (I should note these are used in Muay Thai occasionally as well, but they’re relatively rare as they are hard to land and to use without having mid-air vulnerabilities exploited.) What I found strange about this is that jissen martial arts tend to be much less flashy and rely on much simpler techniques than do sports. The old motto of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is often spoken in jissen martial art dōjōs. However, I do have a theory about why the power generated by such tactics might have made them appealing. One mindset difference between sport and jissen martial art practitioners has to do with the role of time. In combat, time is not on your side, and pacing yourself can be a lethal strategy. You want to try to land strikes that have a high probability of putting the enemy out of commission, even if at a risk. That is, of course, just a neophyte’s theory.

I enjoyed learning a few Muay Boran techniques, and I can see how it was an effective combat system.