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Training Soldiers to Fight

By SFC Matt Larsen

Two muscular young men square off, deadly sharp knives drawn and at the ready. They slowly circle each other until one of them finally… breaks out in song. On the set of West Side Story, this sort of knife fight happens all of the time, and many in the martial arts community seem to be training for their big break into show biz. Of course the reality of most knife fights is much different. It is certainly different on the battlefield.

The dangerous knife fighter is the one who never lets you know he is armed until his knife is buried deep inside of you. The knife specific and scenario driven training that is common in most martial arts schools simply does not prepare you for what actually happens when fighting.

Most traditional martial arts have a training methodology left over from a day when students started training at a young age and were not expected to be effective fighters until years later. When someone walks off of the street into his local martial arts school, no one has the expectation that he will be a proficient fighter in a few weeks.

The Army on the other hand must accomplish just that. We do not have the years it takes to train our soldiers how to fight using these methods. The problem is that anyone motivated enough to change the way the Army trains, most likely has a long history of training in the martial arts, and therefore has the training doctrine of his art or arts as his frame of reference.

Because of this, the history of the Army’s Combatives program has been a series of manuals that, though they were filled with good techniques, never solved the major problem of training soldiers. If the measures of success are that the average soldier knows how to fight using the techniques of the system, and that the Army produces experts in its own system, then the Army has never before had a successful system. If it had, considering that there are several hundred thousand people in the Army at any given time, the country would be full of experts.

The truth is that, not only has their never been a time when the average soldier could execute the techniques shown in the manuals, but the supposed “Experts” in Army Combatives that you see in the various magazines most likely learned their technique at the local civilian martial arts school. Recently, however this has begun to change. The Army is currently implementing a program that is proving very successful.

The new approach is to teach techniques according to range, with the closer range techniques of ground grappling taught first because of the ease with which they can be learned. As a fighter becomes competent at the closer ranges, learning the more difficult longer-range techniques comes as a natural extension of what they already know. The idea is to have the best fighter possible at each stage of training. This can only be accomplished with a natural progression of techniques. The techniques at each level must not only be simple and effective, but they must teach the movement patterns necessary for success at the next and higher levels.

This brings up a very important point. Any effective martial arts system must have a base that ties all of its techniques together. For example, many Philippine systems use the techniques of stick fighting as their base. Familiarization with the techniques translates into both empty hand and bladed weapon techniques. So the fighter can easily flow between the different types of combat with the same techniques.

Along these same lines, NinJitsu and many Japanese Jiu-Jitsu systems teach stick fighting as an extension of standing grappling techniques. The stick serves more to increase the fighters leverage for the same techniques than as a stand-alone weapon.

In this same way the concept of dominant body position from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the base for our system. The dominant positions are the spine that connects all of the techniques. A fighter always knows what he is fighting for. Even one class can then produce a better fighter by simply giving him a sense of what his objective is. As a fighter begins to learn stand up fighting, it is taught according to range.

The three ranges of combat are: projectile weapon range, striking range, and the clinch. As he becomes more competent and confident moving between the ranges, the concepts of controlling the angle and the level are introduced. Soldiers are taught that the fighter who controls the range, angle, and level can dictate what techniques will dominate the fight.

As fighters progress through the system, they learn the language of fighting, understanding what is happening at any time during the fight. This is a prerequisite to understanding fight strategy. To be successful, a fighter must have a strategy. For instance, a boxer has the basic strategy of striking his opponent with his fists until he is rendered unconscious.

The basic fight strategy that we teach is: close the distance, gain a dominant position, and finish the fight. As a fighter develops higher-level skills he also gains the ability to use the higher-level strategies that are dependent on those skills.

Just as real fights are seldom the same as West Side Story, they are also not the same as arena fighting. In real fights people bite, shove their thumb in your eye, grab your testicles and more significantly have friends with weapons who are more than happy to jump in. These things must always be considered during training. You may never know that your enemy is armed until it is too late. You must therefore always assume that he is. Your techniques must always be grounded in these realities.

Just as we teach techniques in order, based on the ease with which they can be learned, we also teach from the simplest scenarios building to the more complex. The difference is only one of degrees. The techniques and strategies for instance that are used for one on one unarmed fighting must teach the principles and body mechanics necessary to learn the higher level techniques required in more difficult scenarios such as armed opponents or multiple enemies.

There are a couple of basic tenants that we teach all of our students. The first one is that the winner of the hand-to-hand fight in combat is the one whose buddy shows up first with a gun. If you drop an enemy dead at your feet with the Vulcan death touch, and his buddy comes in with a gun, you still lose. The second is that the defining characteristic of a warrior is the willingness to close with the enemy. Any training plan that does not serve to build this fundamental aggressiveness is actually counter productive.

The best training plan then is: (A) Progressive, introducing techniques in a systematic way that builds on a solid foundation. (B) Integrated, with techniques flowing between the ranges smoothly from close quarters marksmanship through ground grappling and everything in between. (C) Comprehensive, covering strategies techniques and tactics across the spectrum of individual and small group close quarters combat. All of this needs to be taken into consideration when confronting the unique circumstances of training soldiers to fight.

Contact Matt Larson at: combatives@benning.army.mil