Martial Arts Meet the New Age: Combatives in the Early 21st Century American Military

During the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military began devoting significant resources to planning and conducting "military operations other than war" (MOOTW). "Although MOOTW and war may often seem similar in action, ...MOOTW are more sensitive to political considerations and often the military may not be the primary player." Additionally, military personnel had to "understand the political objective and the potential impact of inappropriate actions" (Joint Chiefs, 1995, vii). In other words, early 21st century warfare would take place under the gaze of both spy satellites and television cameras.

At the same time, futurists predicted that in the coming years, the "jewel in the military's crown" would be special operations forces trained to perform both "international housekeeping and wet-work." These special operations forces would be "capable of precisely applying technologically superior weapons" and engaging in hand-to-hand combat (Szafranski, 1995: 81). Accordingly, both the U.S. Army Rangers and the U.S. Marine Corps began looking into upgrading existing training in close-quarter battle and hand-to-hand fighting.

In 1979, the U.S. Army War College published a futurist document entitled "First Earth Battalion." The tone of the document is hyperbolic and imbued with New Age jargon. On the other hand, it did predict the role that the Internet and cable news networks would play during the coming decades. Therefore, despite the hyperbole and New Age jargon, author Jim Channon's crystal ball proved clearer than cynics expected (Channon, 1979/2000; see also Dare, 1998 and Chevalier, 2001).

Among Channon's suggestions was that future soldiers practice "battle tuning," which he described (in so many words), as a combination of yogic stretches, karate kata, paced primal rock, and Belgian waffles (Channon, 1979/2000). Although "battle tuning" was a bit esoteric for most soldiers, in 1985, the Army hired former Marines Jack Cirie and Richard Strozzi Heckler to provide several dozen Special Forces soldiers with training in aikido, biofeedback, and "mind-body psychology." (Aikido was chosen because the project's purpose was not to train barehanded killers, but to research increases in awareness.) After six months, the soldiers were not aikido masters. Nonetheless, most claimed greater self-awareness, and they were on average 75% fitter than when they started (Heckler, 1992). Navy SEALs received an abbreviated version of this course in 1988.

As a rule, however, the U.S. military of the 1980s neglected training in close-quarter battle and hand-to-hand fighting (Wood and Michaelson, 2000, 107). Firstly, the American leadership envisioned a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and in a nuclear war, skill in hand-to-hand combat is inconsequential. Consequently, commanders did not devote resources to training in hand-to-hand combat. "In no way did the Army or Marines of the 1980s provide purpose, motivation, and direction for their combatives programs," said Matt Larsen (personal communication, July 2002), who was the primary author of Field Manual 3-25-150, Combatives. "The missing element was any sort of plan other than 'Commanders should dedicate more time."

Secondly, science, in the guise of "non-lethal" technologies, was supposed to solve the problem of military operations in areas filled with hostile civilians that it was impolitic to forcibly relocate or shoot. Sample "non-lethal" technologies included chemical sprays, electronic stun guns, sticky foam, net guns, rope sprays, blinding lasers, and acoustic weapons (Alexander, 1999; Wright, 1998).

Thirdly, martial arts (at least as taught by Heckler) were believed to develop soldiers who knew how to "maintain their stand, coordinate with multiple opponents and maintain their dignity" (Krawchuk, 2000). Yet, as a former Special Forces officer named Alan Farrell (1994), put it, the leaders of a nuclear military did not really want self-actualized soldiers. Instead, the ideal soldier of the nuclear-armed military was rigid, conforming, inhibited, and totally obedient. (See also Heckler, 1992: 153.)

Then came the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and a series of messy "peacekeeping operations" in Liberia, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia. During these latter operations, soldiers and Marines whose average age was under 23 years were exposed to violent situations in which the use of firearms was not authorized. Meanwhile, the new "non-lethal" weapons proved "less lethal" rather than "non-lethal."

Nonetheless, they still required soldiers and Marines to use (and equally importantly, not use) them. Consequently, during the mid-1990s, U.S. military leaders started paying new attention to close-quarter battle and unarmed combatives. In the Army, the impetus involved mid-level officers and NCOs, whereas in the Marine Corps, the driving force was the Commandant himself. Thus, two entirely different programs emerged.

During late 1994 or early 1995, then-Lt. Colonel Stanley A. McChrystal, the new commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, decided to reinvigorate hand-to-hand combat training in his unit. "We got out the FM 21-150," said then-Staff Sergeant Matt Larsen, "and started doing just what it said to do. After about two or three months we went back to the commander and told him that it was a waste of our training time. He told us that it if was a waste of time, then there must be a reason, and told us to come up with a better answer" (personal communication, July 2002).

There was no money to create a Ranger-specific system, so the program had to be reasonably off-the-shelf. Toward determining the best system, the battalion organized a committee of experienced martial arts practitioners. "Our criteria for success was simple," said Larsen (personal communication, July 2002). "The average soldier in the Army had to know what the literature said he should know, and the system should produce its own experts independently of continuing outside instruction."

The style that the Ranger Battalion eventually decided to adopt was Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. It wasn't because other systems were less valid, or that the battalion wanted its soldiers rolling around on the ground with armed enemies. Indeed, Larsen (personal communication, July 2002) readily admitted that a "weakness of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is its focus on unarmed, one-on-one arena fighting." On the other hand, it "fit the realities of the world" (Larsen, personal communication, July 2002.)

First, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was reasonably easy to learn and use. Thus, within the few hours per week that commanders were willing to dedicate to combatives training, individual soldiers could become quantifiably more proficient than they were when they started. Additionally, associated injuries were usually no more serious than a black eye or split lip, and fitting it into existing conditioning programs didn't put new demands on already crowded training schedules.

Second, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu allowed competition. This allowed both individuals and units to compete among themselves, thereby building morale and encouraging improvement. "Competition," said Larsen (personal communication, July 2002). "is a key element to the implementation of a successful combatives program. If you can be the unit champion, then there is a reason to excel."

Third, during the years that this program was being designed, the Gracies were winning Ultimate Fighting Championships. Consequently, it was easy to show skeptics that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu worked. Finally, said Larsen (personal communication, July 2002), "The lesson that the Gracies had to teach was that a realistic training plan is necessary if you expect results. The guys they fought in the early Ultimate Fighting Championships had unrealistic training plans, whereas the Gracies' had a training plan specifically geared toward that sort of competition."

Therefore, for a variety of reasons, Rangers took to practicing Gracie Jiu-Jitsu without unreasonable pressure from supervisors, or too much complaining from trainees. Subsequently, former Rangers spread the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gospel to other commands, and in January 2002, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu became the cornerstone of the U.S. Army's combatives program. "Soldiers have a surprising degree of skill retention from one month to the next," said an Army National Guard sergeant who started training his men in these methods later that year. "I think the fact that they actually enjoy the training contributes greatly to that!" (Jeff Cook, personal communication, July 2002.)

Like the Army's combatives program, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) began because a new commander decided that he wanted his unit to train in combatives. However, in this case, the commander was not a lieutenant colonel, but the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Thus, the Marine Corps program was custom-designed rather than off-the-shelf, and it became doctrinal within two years.

Shortly after taking office on July 1, 1999, General James L. Jones, the 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, initiated a study designed to determine the feasibility of having all Marines study a martial art such as taekwondo or aikido. First, Jones believed that martial arts training (and discipline) might prove useful during operations other than war. Second, as a company commander in Vietnam, Jones had been impressed by Korean Marines going through their taekwondo exercises. Years later, as a battalion commander in California, Jones noticed that junior enlisted who participated in martial arts training had higher morale and fewer discipline problems than did other Marines. Finally, during the mid-1990s, he met (and was impressed by) Richard Strozzi Heckler, who had written a book about teaching aikido to Special Forces.

The Marine Corps study took place at Camp Pendleton, California, during the spring of 2000. Its first year budget was about $173,000 (FAQ, 2002). To ensure objectivity, two separate programs ran concurrently. Lt. Colonel George Bristol ran the control group. Bristol was a reconnaissance Marine with extensive experience in Japanese martial arts. His motto was "One Mind, Any Weapon," and his trainees went through graded combative performance tests (fighting with pugil sticks, hitting and throwing one another, etc.) following forced marches, river crossings, patrols, and assault exercises. In between, they heard lectures about Zulus and Spartans. According to the Wall Street Journal (October 9, 2000), Bristol's goal was "to give the Marines a sense of the fear-and pain-of combat, so they can surmount it" (Jaffe, 2000).

Richard Strozzi Heckler ran the other group. During his instruction, Heckler stressed personal accountability. "During combatives," said Heckler (2002), "accountability became a living concept in regards to how, where, why and with whom one trains to be combat ready." This accountability applied equally on liberty, in garrison, or in combat. In Heckler's world, combatives were part of the force option continuum of a Marine rather than "simply something to do if his rifle malfunctions." Nonetheless, practical hand-to-hand and bayonet skills were necessary.

For Heckler, the hand-to-hand techniques that a Marine needed to know included knee strikes, elbow strikes, and neck wrestling. At first, these techniques were done slowly. Later, they were combined with the "aiki principles" of "correct body placement, dynamic relaxation, extension, balance, centering, reading your opponent, entering, fluidity of motion, blending, and power," and done at full speed.

After reading the after-action reports, the Commandant directed the establishment of MCMAP. The program officially started in October 2000, and in February 2001, Marines began graduating from its instructor training courses. Full implementation throughout the Corps was expected by September 2002.

MCMAP included elements from both Bristol's and Heckler's programs. Thus, training included "warrior studies" as well as tests of physical skills conducted in simulated combat environments. Of course, since Bristol was program director, his ideas (and those of his chief enlisted man, Master Gunnery Sergeant Cardo Urso) predominated. Well, at least they did until Bristol and Urso were reassigned. Said an observer of an instructor training course conducted during the summer of 2002, "Urso is gone. So is Bristol. Some of the crazy stuff they did is gone too. And it is not uncommon for one of the instructors to say 'the Colonel ain't here anymore' or 'Master Guns isn't running this' when explaining why something has changed" (DT, personal communication, July 2002; see also USMC, 2002c).

As of this writing (September 2002), both the Army and Marine Corps combatives programs are still evolving. Because both programs are new, it is impossible to predict how they will do in the future. Nevertheless, continuing doctrinal emphasis on "operations other than war" and smaller (but better-trained) special operations forces suggests that combatives are likely to play an increasingly important role in U.S. military training. At least until the next time doctrine changes.

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Article by Joseph R. Svinth Back to top