Jan 07

(Today's post is by Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I studied Tae Kwon Do for six years; I earned a black belt for my time and effort. Though challenging, the time spent gave me confidence, physical endurance, and the ability to defend myself should the need arise.
Everyone who trains in martial arts does so for personal reasons. When I began, it was after my final rounds of chemotherapy, which left me with poor posture and an unusual walk. It was my father's hope that physical activity based on form and body movement would counteract my condition. The reasons for others varied. One man wanted to lose weight. Another worked for the sheriff's department. Some of the kids joined because they wanted to have fun. Parents wanted to give their kids a safe environment and outlet for their energy. And still another woman joined because she was sexually assaulted.
Tae Kwon Do is violent. I have no illusions about this. Indeed, all martial arts are inherently violent. You kick, you punch, you grab, and you throw people. If it wasn't violent, there would be far fewer bloody noses and broken bones. However, in Tae Kwon Do, as in most other martial arts, you don’t learn to do harm to others, but to protect yourself. Learning martial arts is learning self defense.
Specifically, one learns how to “disable” an opponent. To disable is to incapacitate, wound, or injure. In order to disable an opponent, we are taught to act violently. In most situations we are required to do harm to an attacker. This means throwing them to the ground, rendering them unconscious, or in some way wounding them so that they no longer wish to or are able to hurt us. We were learning to hurt someone so that they can’t hurt us.

It’s called self defense. Undoubtedly there are people who learn martial arts not for defense, but for offensive purposes. I call this the “ninja” complex. Basically, some fool learns how to punch and kick properly because he or she wants to be a bad ass or thinks he or she is a ninja. It’s like the Karate Kid. While it’s unlikely there would be an entire dojo dedicate to producing bullies, it must be understood that bullies will result every time power is gained.

Regardless of those who use martial arts to willfully harm others, martial arts exist to promote self defense not persistent violence. It's a paradox. Sometimes in order to maintain personal peace one is required to act violently. Martial arts is the discipline of that violence.

Nov 05

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

It may have something to do with our Viking heritage. The Vikings sought combat for reasons as simple as honor and glory. According to Norse mythology, a man could only earn the honor of an afterlife filled with drunken feasting and bloodless battles through death in combat. But more likely, as much as my father champions our heritage, his warrior mentality is due to his experiences as a soldier.

It’s not that he enjoys taking life. In fact, he is as much a healer as he is a warrior. His role in his unit was as a combat medic in operations of engagement. Later, he worked in civil affairs to coordinate medical efforts in military occupied areas. He was, however, made for combat. He enjoys the excitement, the adrenaline, and the camaraderie that is only fostered from life and death situations.

“Son,” he told me once, “I never wanted to be shot at, but it felt damn good walking away rather than being carried.”

Using the term warrior on a posting dedicated to an intellectual discourse on violence would seem to demonize a man, but allow me to be clear. I do not define a warriors by the desire to end life or to die in vain glory in a manner befitting Viking berserkers. Rather, I epitomize them by their passion and their willingness to fight for a cause.

He volunteered for Vietnam. His aptitude for combat operations and medicine allowed for his assignment to special forces operations. The unit in which he served was elite. Many of his missions were in enemy controlled territory, small squads, with minimal support. Some missions remain classified. Multiple Bronze Stars and combat ribbons adorn his dress uniform. But even more impressive than metals, men have actually sworn that they live today because of my father’s presence by their side. This knowledge is humbling.

Whether because of luck or skill or divine grace, he survived every mission, every assignment, and eventually retired. But what does a warrior do when he is no longer a soldier?

I began to notice his unrest towards the end of his military career. When he was too old to be considered for combat operations, no longer considered elite for his ability in combat, he was considered elite for his experience and knowledge of operations. Rather than fighting wars, he fought to build peace in foreign lands through civil affairs and foreign services.

Once he retired, there were still battles to be fought. He had already begun to channel energy toward another cause, another war. He began humanitarian work, but not the type of aid work that consists of rebuilding houses destroyed by hurricanes or building wells for people without water sources (though both are noble pursuits). As a warrior, there must be risk associated with the cause for which he would fight. He placed himself where there was both danger and a need. He went active conflict areas to assist in medical education, organization, and facilitation. This meant everything from providing supplies to building facilities to training locals in the basics of emergency medicine. And he purposefully faces danger to do this.

It’s about passion. He joined the military because he believed in patriotism and value of citizen government. He continued to serve because he believed that our country needs amiable relations with other foreign powers. And he provides humanitarian aide because he believe third world communities deserve access to basic medical care. As a warrior, it was never about the enemies he fought but the cause for which he fought.

In 1952, there was an unsuccessful attempt to convince General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme United Nations Commander himself, to run for President. He declined saying, “Old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away.” That’s the answer to the question of what becomes a warrior who does not die in combat. They continue to fight, but in a different way. For me that is a true warrior; one who seeks a new peril to their fellow man and faces it like a dragon to be slain. And that is how they go, as warriors still fighting for that which they have passion.

Fighting till they fade.

Sep 23

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I am a hypocrite. On one hand, I oppose violence. To me it is a reminder of how far we still have to come as a species. Yet at the same time, I find it enjoyable. Not that I enjoy hurting others or picking fights in bars, but I do enjoy violent sports, action movies, and even competitive martial arts. Where is the line of that divides when violence is appropriate or acceptable to enjoy? (If there is a line, if it is ever acceptable.)

We use analogies to analyze where we are compared to where we’ve been. The closest and most classic comparison I could muster to our society’s violent entertainment is how the Roman Empire watched slaves battle in arenas; comparing MMA or professional boxing to gladiatorial combat. The only difference seems to be the use of lethal weaponry in combat; one form of entertainment is designed for the kill while the other to test how much of a beating two men can take. Gladiators received the reward of life while our current competitors receive a life riddled with pain resulting from repeated trauma. Consider Muhammad Ali and the results of repeated blows to the head or retired football players who can't bend at the knees.

Now compare the movies we watch. Martial Arts movies demonstrate the subtle beauty and complexity of combat. It entertains us because of it’s intensity and departure from the common concept of fighting depicted by two angry men wrestling each other to the ground and swinging their fist wildly in every direction. The violence portrayed in these films is unrealistic. It’s more art than combat; a choreographed dance between two masters. While there is portrayal of death, blood, and injury; it is depicted with a detachment from the real. In Jet Li's Fearless (2006), the main character uses a single simple strike to kill a man with an impact that resonates through his enemy’s chest resulting in a bulging of the posterior rib cage. It's a feat that defies physics.

Then we come to war films like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Black Hawk Down. The war film depicts violence that correlates to actual events the audience is familiar with. Do these scenes--this manner of depicting violence--cause the same level or quality of entertainment as the martial arts movies? Arguably, no. Watching Saving Private Ryan or the series Band of Brothers, I swell with intense displeasure at shear magnitude of violence that man inflicts on man. Watching a man cry for his mother as he attempts to shovel his own intestines back into his abdomen is not an image that psyches me up. This types of movie attempts to show how terrible actual violence is. They portray the cost of the devastation not just on a landscape, but to those who enact it and those who endure it.
I would end there with this simple distinction, but there is another type of entertainment. One that treats the act of violence as pure entertainment, made guilt free because it is being justified. The most poignant examples are the movies 300 and Inglorious Bastards. In these movie, acts of violence are made to be entertainment in of themselves. The intense and graphic slaughter of Persians by Spartan soldiers or the slaying of Nazi soldiers is made to serve as heart pounding enjoyment. Arguably for 300, you can compare it to martial arts movies because the level of swordplay and combat no longer exists and the action is exaggerated. Yet so is nobility of one half of the conflict and the villainy of the other half. Regardless, where is the justification for action movies that prey on our bloodthirsty nature?
What Tarentino does in Inglorious Bastards is not new to cinema. We have an entire genre called action movies dedicated to senseless mayhem and carnage. And I love action movies. I enjoy it when a good guy shoots a bad guy and throws out a dry quip. I enjoy watching Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson trade bitter remarks as they scour New York for a terrorist or the Governator battling a predatory alien. The moral question is whether I should.
We can justify it all we want. We can say that the good guy is killing someone evil or is righteous in his slaying because his enemy is a Nazi or an impending conqueror or that our hero has no alternative if he values his own life. We can say it’s not real. The truth is that we are still entertained by a man inflicting violence upon another. We are entertained by the worst part of our nature. As much as I enjoy action movies, there’s something morally questionable about my enjoyment.
Aug 26

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Fifteen rounds. That's how many bullets a 9mm Beretta holds. The one I carried was grey. All grey; handle and all. It's heavier than you expect from a hand gun. I didn't know what to do or say when it was handed to me. Ours was a mission of mercy, not a combat mission. Our mission team leader gave it to me for my protection. But it was felt by our team leaders that the location we were heading, to and the people we were helping, could place us in danger. I've used a weapon before, but I’m not a solder; our mission was to deliver medical aide and training.

I just held it and stared at it as if I had no idea what it was. Carrying a weapon on a medical mission seemed hypocritical and wrong. But I wore it. I wore it because it was expected of me.

I was part of a mission to Thailand. Our goal was to assist an indigenous people to the country of Burma(now the Myanmar Republic). They are called the Karen and they technically don't exist. By technically, I mean that they're are not recognized by any of the local governments, including the Thai government which allows their refugee camps within the country. We went because these unrecognized people are being ethnically cleansed by the Burmese military for their religious beliefs (they are Southern Baptist if you can believe it) and we were training their brightest to go back into Burma and provide basic medical services to their own people, everything from basic first aid to bullet wounds and amputations from land mines.   

That's the background. I could talk about the ridiculous number of atrocities enacted upon the Karen (as asinine as it sounds, watching the newest Rambo will give you a fairly accurate depiction of the Burmese military's tactics) but instead I want to relate a story I witnessed rather than the stories I have heard. A story about a 9mm Beretta.

We were in between classes at an undisclosed and remote training sight. I was talking with one of the Karen youths about their eating habits, assisted by a translator, outside by a group of folding tables. They eat their food with their hands which can be a health concern when considering they don't wash their hands before meals. A simple problem with a simple solution that could bolster the health of these indigenous people.  

When the RPG sailed across the river, I didn't even hear let alone see it. The only thing I knew was that a ninety pound man tackled me to the ground in attempts to shield me. Though I weighed more than double he did, I hit the ground hard and skidded on my hands and knees. He put his shoulder and all of his weight to the center of my back and it hurt. I heard gun fire; mostly from our side of the river.

I drew my Beretta and fired.

Fifteen rounds. I unloaded the entire clip toward Burma, toward my attackers. In all likelihood the rounds didn't make it across the river. There wasn't enough gunfire to locate a target at which I could aim. The smoke trail from the RPG was little more than a wisp. So I aimed all my shots in the direction I stood up with my weapon drawn.

Now here's my moral quandary: I didn't think. I only acted. Fear compelled me more than anger. But I acted in a violent manner. I acted with the intent to take a life or many lives. Our Karen advisors believe our attackers were aiming for me as the RPG was within twenty yards of my relatively noticeable light skin and larger stature. So logic would dictate I had the right to self defense. Still, I regret drawing my weapon. It was a mission of mercy. We were there to better and save lives not to take them.
So I tell myself my aim was off. The distance was too far. It was only fifteen rounds...