Interview: Forrest Morgan, Author “Living the Martial Way” (Part 1)

There’s a certain pantheon of martial arts books that are considered classics or must-reads. The most commonly cited examples are The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War, The Bubishi, Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Karate-Do: My Way of Life, etc. Among these predominantly aged texts stands one that is routinely cited as brilliant, yet written during our own generation. That book is “Living the Martial Way“, and it has effected the lives and paths of thousands of martial artists all over the world.

Author Forrest Morgan doesn’t boast epically high ranks in multiple styles, nor does he stand to inherit any deep dark martial arts secrets from hidden masters. Despite that, he has managed to pierce the heart of the matter and create a manual for the ways in which modern day soldiers and citizens can apply the martial way and warrior mindset in their every day lives.

I had a chance to ask Mr. Morgan some questions regarding his background, mindset, and opinions on how he sees the martial arts. I hope you enjoy this interview and gain something valuable out of it!


MA: Thank you very much for participating in this interview Mr. Morgan. First off, could you give a little background about yourself for anyone who may not be familiar with your martial arts or military experience?

FM: Certainly. Put simply, I am a man who has chosen to serve his country and live a warrior lifestyle. That said, I do not claim to be particularly accomplished in either of those pursuits. I spent 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, but was never decorated for valor or even saw combat. I actively trained in martial arts for 30 years, but was never a tournament champion. The highest grade I reached in any system was 3rd dan. However, over the years in which I served and trained I gained some insights or at least I believe I gained some insights, readers can decide for themselves about warrior culture and how martial arts training relates to that culture. I chose to share those insights with other martial artists.

To provide you a short synopsis of my life and career, I began formal training in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan in 1972.  Four years later, then a newly promoted 1st dan, I enlisted in the Air Force. I spent the first three years in the Air Force (after basic training and tech school, of course) as a communications analyst at Misawa Air Base, Japan, where I completed my bachelors degree in night school. On urging from my flight commander, I applied for Officer Training School, and, to my surprise, was accepted.

After commissioning, I became a space operations officer and worked at various levels in that field for most of the rest of my Air Force career. About 18 years in, however, my career took a turn, and Living the Martial Way played a part in making that happen.

That was about a year after the book came out, and I was a student at the Air Force’s highly-selective strategy school, the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). Back then the school chose one student a year to send to a civilian university for a doctoral degree, with the expectation that the student would eventually return to the SAASS as a member of the faculty. It was a competitive selection. As I had written a successful book, I had an edge on the other applicants and was chosen.

As a result, I spent the next several years at the University of Maryland studying under a future Nobel laureate (he received the prize in 2006). From there I spent a couple of years in the Pentagon on the HQ Air Force staff in the long-range strategic planning division. Then it was back to SAASS where I finished the last three years of my career as a professor of comparative military studies.

With the education and experience the Air Force was so generous in providing me, I managed to get a post-retirement job at the RAND Corporation doing strategy research and analysis for the Air Force, the Army, and other defense clients. I’ve been doing that for nearly seven years now. For the last three years I have also been an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. I teach in the security and intelligence studies major.

MA: Could you dive a bit more into your martial arts education?

Sure. As I said, I was a 1st degree when I joined the Air Force. I spent the next seven years away from my instructor. I trained whenever and wherever I could and also taught on a couple of Air Force bases, but back then, I believed in loyalty to style and remained a Chung Do Kwan 1st degree. In the early 1980s, however, I was assigned to a base near my instructor and returned to formal training, earning 2nd and 3rd degree over the next several years.

However, by then I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with taekwondo as a martial art. The rich, combat-oriented system I had learned in the early 70s was being watered down, converted to a pure sport, and repackaged for mass consumption.

Example of Chung do Kwan Sport Sparring:

Beyond that, I had become skeptical of proponents claims that it could be effective in all tactical situations. I could see that even the fuller system I had been taught was deficient in close-quarters combat (where most personal attacks occur) and ineffective on the ground. Therefore, on my next military assignment, I set out to find training to fill the holes  so to speak.  Over the next 15 years or so I studies several different jujutsu systems, earning a 2nd degree in Hakkoryu and a 1st degree in Akayama Ryu. It was several years into this period that I wrote “Living the Martial Way”.

I continued active training until my retirement from the Air Force. About that time degenerative arthritis forced me off the mat and hardwood. I still maintain my physical fitness with low-impact cardio and weight training, but martial arts training is now more than my eroded joints will tolerate.

MA: That is a shame that your joints will no longer tolerate full training! But I suppose the mental lessons learned never go away.

What was it that first got you interested in the arts (self defense, hobby, etc)?

FM: I started martial arts training for self defense and to build my self esteem. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit. It wasn’t the inner city by any means, but it was a rough, blue collar neighborhood nonetheless. I was a tall and gawky teenager tall enough to get the bullies attention, mouthy enough to piss them off, and too skinny to back it up. As a result, I was pushed around on a pretty regular basis.

By my mid-teen years I was fed up with it and determined to study martial arts. My parents refused to pay for it, so I read books and kicked and punched a homemade heavy bag until after my first year of college when I could pay for my own training. I visited a number of schools and chose the one that looked the toughest. Fortunately, it was also one of the few I could afford.

MA: You are the author of Living the Martial Way, a very popular book among traditional artists. What was your original impetus for writing this book?

As I said above, by the mid eighties I had become dissatisfied with what taekwondo had to offer. As a military member, I had met a lot of martial artists from other systems and trained with some of them. I had lived in Japan a couple of years, studied the language and culture, watched the local police demonstrate their empty-hand combative measures, and watched the Japanese military train in their unarmed combat system. I had studied various Asian philosophies in college. As a result of all of this, when I returned to my home organization, I soon realized I was much more informed about martial arts, Asian history and philosophy, and… well, personal combat in general than any of my peers or superiors in the taekwondo association, people who had grown up in a single style, swallowing the pabulum about the supposed superiority of that style that the organization fed them. Consequently, as I explained in the introduction of “Living the Martial Way”, I set out to deliberately learn what my organization was failing to teach me, technically, tactically, philosophically, and spiritually.

Over the next few years, as I researched and learned, I enriched the training I was giving my own students, bringing in techniques from other systems, developing scenario-oriented street tactics, assigning the senior students outside readings, and holding discussion sessions with them (often over pitchers of beer). My senior students and I became a tight-knit group, something of an elite squad, envied by students at other locations in our organization (and resented by some other instructors). It was an invigorating period in my life, but as my assignment at that base approached an end, several of my students became concerned. You’ve got to write a book,  one of them said. We can’t get this stuff anyplace else. I laughed. We had learned a lot, but certainly I didn’t have enough material for a book, or so I thought.

A few years later, while winnowing away the hours on midnight shifts manning a command post at HQ Air Force Space Command, I began outlining my ideas just to see if there was enough there to call it a book. What I discovered was not only did I have enough material for a book, but I had too much for a single book. I had to cut it in half.

MA: Do you feel as if martial sport is growing at a faster rate than traditional martial arts? Are you concerned that sport may push art into extinction or extreme obscurity?

Yes, martial sport is certainly growing faster than traditional martial arts. Indeed, it has been since kumite and randori were first introduced in karate-do, judo, and kendo training in the 19th century. Will it push it into extinction or extreme obscurity? Well, it depends on what you mean by art and, beyond that, what you mean by traditional martial arts.

You may be surprised to hear that I am probably not the traditionalist some people think I am. Rather, I am a warrior in the true tradition. That tradition is not slavish adherence to a particular martial organization, style, or set of katas in the name of tradition. Rather, it is to seek out and master whatever combat methods are needed to assure victory in the specific strategic context in which you expect to find yourself. That does not mean, if you’re a police officer, that you practice sport karate in the belief that it will prepare you for the tactical demands of your job, and neither does it mean that you practice traditional 17th century sword techniques with the same expectation.

Few professional warriors who truly need unarmed combat proficiency for their jobs elite military forces, police officers, intelligence operatives, etc. spend much time practicing what most people consider traditional martial arts, especially the ultra-traditional kodo or classical arts, such as kenjutsu, kyujutsu, jujutsu, etc. And you wouldn’t want them to.

Would you want the U.S. Army trying to defend the nation with swords and spears? What would you think if the U.S. Navy refused to equip itself with state-of-the-art warships because wooden sailing vessels are more traditional? Even the less archaic, non-classical, traditionally-oriented martial arts, such as karate-do, aikido, jujutsu, etc., systems that strive to maintain their customs, training methods, and techniques unchanged from the late 19th or early 20th century, are usually not directly applicable to most 21st century threats without some amount of modification. These systems are not true bugei (martial arts), which are purely utilitarian in nature, they are budo (martial ways), systems practiced for self improvement.

There is nothing wrong with that. Budo training is valuable in itself. I have enjoyed it and gotten great benefit from it, physically and spiritually. Many of the techniques and some of the tactics taught in budo systems are, with modification, suitable for real combat, but they are not martial arts, strictly speaking. They are martial ways.

Whether these systems die out in favor of martial sport remains to be seen. No doubt some of them will. However, true martial arts will never die out. As long as human beings are in physical conflict with one another, they will develop and practice methods to restrain, defeat, and kill their enemies. The methods will evolve in response to changing tactical requirements, or they will (and should) be discarded.

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Continued in Part 2