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.Â 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
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Martial arts offer us a conundrum. On one hand, we are taught to never seek out violence, and to avoid hurting others at all cost. On the other hand, it is commonly known that there can be no exact substitute in the dojo for the fury and adrenaline of real danger, and thus our life protection skills can never be complete without at least brushing with combat.
This catch-22 is all too familiar for most civilian martial artists, and has helped charlatans stay in business for years without ever having to prove anything.
Modern day artists have one luxury that previous generations never had – the prevalence of video. It’s true that there is no substitute for the feeling of uncontrolled violence, but at least we can see what it looks like and ask ourselves the tough questions regarding our own preparedness.
Today I found an excellent video that demonstrates an all too classic scenario – a muscley street thug causing trouble with a person he thinks might be an easy target. The cause of the confrontation is unknown, but the thug can be found confronting the man aggressively on his own doorstep. Watch as the situation escalates, and what happens when the thug finds out the hard way that he picked a martial artist for a target:
I like this video because it is very ‘real’. The martial artist wasn’t outside of a bar, or at a ruckus sporting event; he was simply at his home when trouble came his way. This is the kind of thing that could happen to anyone, even individuals who make good decisions to stay away from questionable areas.
One thing that impressed me about the martial artist was his patience. He sustained significant verbal abuse, and got screamed at right in his face. That experience causes the hair on the back of the neck to stand straight up and puts a person in a very aggressive mood instantly. Nevertheless he maintained himself and didn’t show any signs of agitation.
Secondly, when the thug went so far as to put hands on him, he didn’t react with an immediate death blow, or ground and pound pummelation. He pushed him away to try and create distance and give the thug yet another opportunity to go away. The martial artist also kept his hands in front of him in a ready-to-use position (not quite as good as Geoff Thompson’s fence, but still good and unaggressive).
Eventually, as the thug noticed he wasn’t getting anywhere, he began to escalate the situation by throwing a trash can around and pushing the martial artist persistently. It was soon after that that the martial artist made the personal decision that he no longer felt safe, and made an attack. Once he made that aggressive motion, he didn’t go back to trying to be passive. He controlled distance and kept his hands up. He waited, still patiently, until the energetic thug, bounding around with unchecked adrenaline, tried to close the gap. At that time the martial artist punched him square in the face with a well executed straight punch.
As the thug limped away the martial artist maintained distance and control, but did not follow up with further punishment. He used enough violence to eliminate the threat, and then allowed the situation to dissolve.
At no point did the martial artist try anything fancy. He kept a natural stance and hand position. He made small movements and kept control at all times.
This martial artist may not win 1,000 tournaments with style and panache, but he had ‘it’ when ‘it’ really counted.
Video and the Law
One very important take-away from this video is that the martial artist behaved well in accordance to the law. He tried his best to de-escalate the situation, and did nothing to provoke the thug. He defended himself once the thug began showing signs of persistent physical aggression. In fact, the martial artist would probably have been justified punching the thug out the first time he went to push or grab him. (Indeed, the one thing that makes me nervous in this video is the possibility of the thug having a knife and being so close inside the martial artist’s personal space).
This video also shows the abundance of video these days. Flip cams and cam phones are all over the place, which means if trouble starts (especially in a crowded area like in the video), there is a very decent chance it will be on video. We as martial artists can use that to our advantage. We can make obvious signs of non-aggression so that later in court we can use that video as evidence of our control and focus on self defense.
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Neil Martin of the blog Urban Samurai recently released a free e-book entitled Street Smart: A Practical Guide to Dealing with Street Violence. Being a fellow e-book type person, I decided to check it out and see what he had to say.
The book is based off of Neil’s training and experience in real life self defense. He takes a pragmatic approach to analyzing violence and how we as law abiding citizens can best prepare ourselves.
Neil starts at the beginning, as it were, and works his way through both basic and complex pieces of street violence. Here is a rough break down of some of the key aspects of the book:
- Self Defense and the Law. The early chapters focus on defining what self defense actually is and how it relates to the law. This is one of the most important areas of study for martial artists as their ability to inflict damage can cause repercussions.
- Attitude, Awareness, Action. Neil explores what he calls the three A’s. These A’s are what he considers to be the most important aspects of analyzing and handling a violent situation.
- Fear and Confrontation. Using personal experience as a guide, Neil explains the role of fear in the human mind and how it can be used as a positive tool instead of negative.
- The Fence. Geoff Thompson, a leader in self defense instruction, has come up with a concept called The Fence. It is a concept that I really believe in, and so does Neil. He explains how to apply it in real life.
- Self Defense Strategies and Techniques. This book isn’t about a long list of specific techniques. However, there are a few key strategies and techniques outlined that are useful in a number of situations. They focus on simplicity and effectiveness.
- Weapon Scenarios. As much as we’d all like combat to be hand-to-hand and even, things tend to work out differently. Neil describes the likelihood of weapon scenarios and how to prepare yourself for the shock of such an event.
- Post Combat Complications. Rarely talked about are the mental effects on a person after a fight. This part of the book helps you to understand what you might expect and how to handle yourself should police get involved.
I definitely enjoyed this book. Neil didn’t get bogged down in a slew of what-if scenarios and techniques. A common problem, especially for traditional stylists, is the in-dojo tendency to practice lots of different techniques in a very controlled environment. This often leads, as Neil points out, to a false sense of security and confidence in ability. Neil’s approach instead explains the unavoidable differences between training and real life, and how to best maximize your training and mindset for real confrontation.
I enjoyed the concrete examples Neil used to illustrate his points. He didn’t rely on hypotheticals, and instead used experience and first/second hand accounts of violent incidences. He establishes good credibility which allows the reader to open up to the concepts he explains.
One thing I thought the book could have used was pictures or more significant structuring to break up the content. The luxury of creating an e-book is that you aren’t bound by the strict standards of old-school books. Pictures and captions could have helped to illustrate some of the concepts he was talking about. Along the same lines, a table of contents at the beginning would have made for easier reference when going back to reread specific sections.
Those are small potatoes though in the broader context of the book. The length was very digestable and the ideas inside were all well researched and valuable.
I would recommend this e-book (it’s free, just sign up for his mailing list) to anyone who feels like they could use a little brush up on street self defense concepts. And if you don’t feel like you could use a little more knowledge, you definitely need to go over and get it.
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