7 August 2001

Marine Martial Art: You'll Bow to No One

Anthony F. Milavic

Major, United States Marine Corps (Retired)

Last year, I was quite pleased to learn that the Marine Corps was implementing a Corps-wide martial art program. Watching from the sidelines, the program appears to be enjoying both the necessary command attention and rank and file enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm might just reflect an expectation that eclipses the reality of martial arts. A suspicion that springs from my own experience in this area.

On joining the Corps in 1953, I looked forward to becoming an indomitable green fighting-machine. On receiving my Marine Corps emblems at Parris Island, South Carolina, I knew I was one. That conviction was tempered many months later on graduating from a close combat course at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; I'll get back to that point later. As for the trainees, we too were enthusiastic about learning the skills of knife, bayonet, and hand-to-hand fighting. The Marine  Corps' intent, however, was to ingrain in us the "spirit of the offense." This was because we were considered to be amphibious assault troops. That meant, we were supposed to get across a beach quickly, close with, and destroy or capture the enemy. In the face of a determined enemy defending his turf, this was a task that would require a lot of "spirit." 

Apparently, the message has changed. An article in The Wall Street Journal of 9 October 2000 by Greg Jaffe reported the views of the Commandant of the Marine Corps on the new Marine martial art program: "He hopes that the training will be especially useful on peacekeeping missions, where Marines may have to disarm angry civilians with less than lethal force.” The same article described a poster, used in this training, as declaring: "Marine Martial Art: You'll Bow to No One.” This sounds very close to the "spirit of the offense" that we were ingrained with and would appear to have a similar flaw even if the stated goal is not the same. It creates the expectation that what you are learning will permit you to whip anyone: it does not!

From 1957 through 1959, I served in Iwakuni, Japan where I also studied Karate. During a sayonara party with my Karate teacher, Hiromoto-san, who taught Judo on his Karate nights off, I asked, “Who would win in a contest between a Karate master and a Judo master?” Of course, I was looking for the assurance that I had learned the baddest stuff around and would need to bow to no one. Much to my chagrin, he answered that he didn't know who would win. He did suggest, however, that the one who was best at his martial art would probably have the advantage. The best, in this case, included being fastest and strongest as well as most adept at the techniques involved. On further discussion, he agreed that physical size would also be an advantage. Persisting, I asked him, after a few more drinks of sake, “What do you do when someone hits you over the head from behind with a beer bottle while you're sitting at a bar?” With a deep sake affected frown, he said, “I think you bleed takusan.” We laughed . . . and drank takusan more sake.

Years later, that issue resurfaced when masters of two martial arts agreed to a match: Muhammad Ali, a boxer, was to fight a Japanese Karate master in Japan. Well, at the opening bell, the Karate master dropped to the mat, rolled over onto his back, extended his legs and arms, and “fought” from that position for the entire match; this was later described as, “the crab position." The "fight" ended in a draw and they bowed to each other after the decision was announced. 

Those events only affirmed what we were told at that close combat course at Camp Lejeune that I mentioned earlier. During the graduation ceremony, we were reminded that the primary purpose of all this training was to instill that "spirit of the offense," but that "spirit" tended to prompt some to “stand up when they should shut up.” In closing, our instructor, a grisly master sergeant who had repeatedly beat every one of us during the course, gave us our final lesson:

“I know that some of you think that you're the toughest guys on the block and that you're now ready to go into J'ville and clean out a bar. Well, if you're . . . challenged by someone in there that's bigger than you, pick up a stick. If he picks up a stick, you pick up a knife. If he picks up a knife, you pick up a gun. If he picks up a gun, choke him to death with heel dust!"

Semper Advantage,

Anthony F. Milavic

Major USMC(Ret)