Interview: Forrest Morgan, Author “Living the Martial Way” (Part 2)

This is a continuation from Part 1 of the Forrest Morgan interview. Forrest Morgan is author of the popular text “Living the Martial Way”, and is also a veteran of the United States Air Force. He currently works with the Rand Corporation doing strategy research and analysis and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

* * *


MA: Do you see any conflict in civilians seeing themselves as warriors yet having no combat or military experience?

FM: None whatsoever.  That was the purpose of my book, to help those practicing combative sports or budo systems enrich their training by putting it in the context of living a warrior lifestyle.  It was written for everyone, regardless of occupation.

MA: What advice could you give people who eventually discover that they are in a non-warrior dojo or style? Can they become warriors too?

FM: Absolutely.  That was my situation, precisely.  With “Living the Martial Way” I sought to help people enrich their training by filling in some of the holes left behind in sport or budo training.

I suspect, however, that truly serious aspiring warriors in non-warrior dojos will eventually seek additional training elsewhere, just as I did, to fill the technical and tactical holes you can’t fill with a book.  Remember – all systems are artificial, so no one system can fill all of a warrior’s needs.

MA: Could you talk a bit about kata training and if you still pursue it?

FM: In short, kata is both the curriculum and principal training method used in traditional systems.  It involves doing the techniques in series over and over again until they can be executed flawlessly and without conscious thought.  Although we take it to a higher level in martial arts than is done in most other activities (we strive for mushin), there is nothing particularly mysterious about the method in itself.  It is used in many modern activities outside of Asian martial arts, from CPR training to small unit infantry tactics.  Relentless rote practice and drill, with an instructor correcting every flaw, is the way to train people to perform critical actions under stress.

As for my pursuit of kata, like I already said, I am no longer in active training (degenerative arthritis), but when I was, I practiced kata several times a week.

MA: Do you think the focus of martial arts has changed over generations? In feudal Japan the arts were used by Samurai on the battlefield, but now we have some arts that are never used in military combat. Is there a sense that martial arts are now about life preservation and self defense over the killing of enemies?

FM: In the broadest sense martial arts are no more or less focused on preserving life today than they were in feudal Japan.  Now, as then, martial arts are about training to defeat adversaries in order to protect a designated individual, group, or institution.  In feudal Japan it was the daimyo and his family.  Today it is your own family and friends if you are a private individual, your community if you are a police officer, and the nation if you serve in the military, intelligence community, or a federal police agency.

That said, the late martial arts historian Donn Draeger argued that true martial arts are not about self defense because a samurai’s duty was not to defend himself, it was to protect his feudal lord.  Well, as much as I respect Draeger, I think his position on this point was a bit overly restrictive.  Although the samurai were expected to die in the service of their lords if necessary, even they needed to preserve their own lives to the extent possible to fulfill their duties. Similarly, although modern soldiers must sometimes die for their country, they are not expected to do so needlessly.  They must defend themselves to the extent possible in order to accomplish their missions today and live to fight again tomorrow.

In sum, true martial arts incorporate both objectives: preserving life and taking life.

MA: Do you have any tips for taking a dance or sport art and enhancing it to put it more inline with warrior training?

FM: That’s a hard one to answer in brief.  The short answer is read “Living the Martial Way”, but I know that is a bit of a cop-out.  So allow me to offer an answer only slightly longer.  First, recognize from the start that you aren’t going to get all you need from a sport art and certainly not from dance.  You will need to broaden your training.  Second, once you come to that conclusion, ask yourself why you are practicing the sport or dance.  If you get pleasure from that activity separate from any expectations of warrior training, fine, carry on.  But if you’ve been deluding yourself in thinking you are practicing a martial art when you’re dancing or playing a sport, it’s time to face facts and assess your tactical training needs more objectively.  Dance is dance.  Sport is sport.  Neither are martial arts.

MA: How have you balanced the demands of the warrior training lifestyle with your military duties, professional duties, and home life?

Well, my wife’s answer to that question would be, “Not very well.”  Between a demanding fulltime job and teaching at Pitt, I work six-to-seven days a week.  I am in the gym four-to-five days a week, averaging two hours per workout.  I have a never ending list of things I want to get done in my “spare time”, something I never seem to have.  My wife and I tend to have different priorities for the items on that list, and she frequently asks why I haven’t gotten things done that I haven’t even thought to add to the list.  Need I say more?

Seriously, though, we are a warrior family on the go.  My two youngest daughters train in Chito-Ryu karate-do (I also have grown children).  The older one, a shodan, is in college. The younger one is a high school honor student active in multiple extra-curricular school activities. My wife (a sandan in jujutsu, by the way) does a lot of volunteer work, maintains her own workout schedule, and takes care of the rest of us.  We do our best to juggle life’s demands and keep our priorities straight: family first, obligations to employers (and school) second, fitness an important third, lots of other stuff next, and personal entertainment a distant last.  My daughters would not necessarily agree with that order, but they’re learning.

MA: As you’ve continued your study, have you found more and more connections between applied psychology and martial arts mysticism? Is there anything in the martial world that still simply baffles you?

If there is an area in which my thinking has evolved since writing the book, it is on the issue of mysticism.  Maybe it’s a function of age or maybe it’s a byproduct of extended education in a field which insists that conclusions be based on evidence, but I have grown increasingly skeptical about the mystical aspects of the martial arts.  Applied psychology is another matter.  That will always be a facet of combat between human beings.  And I don’t discount the possibility that martial training can create internal phenomena that can’t be objectively measured.  But when warriors convince themselves that such phenomena will give them an edge in deadly combat, they risk deluding themselves in the tradition of the Chinese secret societies who, believing their chi would protect them from modern weapons, rose up against the Western Powers in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.  In sum, if you believe your training has enhanced your chi (or ki), that’s great, but when the bullets start flying, I’ll take Kevlar.

MA: How has your pursuit of the martial way enriched your life on the whole?

FM: Well, that’s another question that would take a book to answer.  To avoid trotting out my accomplishments more than I already have, I’ll just say that, to a great extent, I owe the ambition and discipline that has helped me to achieve whatever I have managed to achieve to the martial way.

MA: Where would you like to see the martial arts taken by the next few generations?

FM: I would like to see future generations get more objective about their martial training, neither mistaking it for, nor pretending it to be, something it is not.  I would like to see professional warriors take a more analytical approach to assessing their tactical requirements and tailor their training accordingly.

The Readers Ask…

Reader: Should traditional martial artists be more concerned about putting modern knife and gun self defense and tactics into their training?

FM: The answer to the question above, which I directed to professional warriors, goes equally for serious practitioners outside the warrior professions.  If you are a warrior, you should objectively assess the threats you are likely to face in the environment in which you live and work.  If those threats include the possibility of armed assailants, then you should be training for that, whether the system you study includes it or not.

Reader: Should female traditional artists be concerned about changing techniques to fit their body and capabilities (it seems as if traditional arts were developed and designed for men)?

FM: That is an excellent question, one that speaks to a warrior’s tactical mindset.  The answer is yes.

Most traditional arts were indeed developed by men, for men (and right-handed men, at that).  That said, a few women warriors have developed their own martial arts.  For instance, according to legend, Wing Chun Gung Fu was developed by a Buddhist nun with a woman’s body in mind.

Samurai women also developed certain arts to defend their households (naginata-jutsu, for example).  But the overwhelming majority of martial arts are designed for men fighting other men of approximately equal size.  So yes, women need to assess the kinds of threats they are most likely to face, objectively appraise their own physical capabilities, and tailor their techniques and tactics accordingly.  Instructors should help their female students do this.  If they don’t, women should seek training elsewhere.

By the way, this answer also applies to men of small stature.  But women face additional threats that most men do not.

Reader: Have you changed your mindset or approach to training since the publication of your book? Has the exposure from the book itself changed anything about your mindset?

FM: Well, as I mentioned above, my attitude about the mystical claims of some martial arts has grown more skeptical over the years.  However, the only area of the book I truly regret writing, because I’ve since learned I was wrong, was where I offered dietary advice.

In “Living the Martial Way” I advised readers to adhere to an extremely low-fat, hi-carb diet.  I based that advice on the writings of Robert Haas, author of Eat to Win and several subsequent books, and my own experience with that kind of diet.  I’ve since observed that the hi-carb diet was just one of a long history of fad diets, and there are aspects of it that may not be healthy.  My lesson in this is twofold: first, I should stay in my own lane.  That is, I should not try to advise people in a field in which I have little expertise.  Second, if I do venture into scientific areas, I should do my research in the published results of credible scientific studies, not popular writers.

As for whether exposure from the book has changed anything about my mindset, I am happy to report that it has opened my eyes to just how many good, traditional martial arts instructors there are in this country, striving to provide their students high-quality training.  When I wrote the book, I felt as if I was the proverbial lone voice in the wilderness.  While I had come to believe that martial arts instruction should be about realistic combat training and the pursuit of excellence in a warrior lifestyle, all I could see around me was a bunch of dancers, prancers, and players.  After the book was published, however, serious martial artists began contacting me, and I discovered I was not alone in the values I hold dear.

There really are a lot of people out there who take this stuff as seriously as I do and are striving to maintain warrior traditions.  Folks like Bruce and Ann-Marie Heilman, and my daughters’ sensei, Terry Valentino.  We are still a small minority to be sure, but to quote an old X-Files cliché, “we are not alone.”


I’d like to extend a big thank you to Mr. Forrest Morgan for his excellent insight! He is a strong voice in the martial arts community and has a rare talent for putting things into perspective. I’d also like to thank the readers for coming up with some great questions that I am sure I wouldn’t have thought to ask.