Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ancient Traditions – Bushido III

The bottom line.

Training in the martial arts has many virtues: discipline, concentration, physical conditioning, and, sometimes, an indefinable elevation of the spirit. "Cheated death again," I often say at the end of a class, and it feels like a real accomplishment.

Many of the Asian martial arts are also suffused with various philosophies, Buddhism in one or another of its variations being common, and that is the one that often appeals to Western students. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba Osensei, was a devotee of Ōmoto-kyō, a mystical religion deriving from Shinto.

But martial virtue is martial virtue, and it would be foolish to believe that the Asian arts are somehow intrinsically superior to Western arts like fencing, boxing, wrestling, or long bow archery. The Western arts likewise have "ancient traditions" and if the links to ancient times is as tenuous as the connection of the modern Olympics to its Greek predecessor, well, that is par for the course, isn't it?

Likewise there are many philosophical and spiritual covers for the practice of warfare and the arts of war. I've mentioned Chivalry, which included the Christian doctrine of the "just war," and I'm sure that both sides often find their cause to be just, and that is course par as well.

When all of life is nasty and brutish, then the nasty brutishness of war does not seem like such a breach. But what does one do when the nastiness is lessened? What is the state of man when peace is an option?

I have, upon occasion, justified Aikido with these words: You understand the calm serenity that is the object of meditation exercise? Those practicing meditation spend long hours in darkened, quiet rooms attempting to find that center of peace. It is the goal of Aikido to reach that peace even on the battlefield.

A paradox, perhaps. But what to make of those who attempt to find war even in the midst of peace?

We train. Aikidoka train in that art. Other martial artists train in their own arts. Soldiers train. Competitive athletes train. Do we train for combat, real combat? If that combat never comes, do we feel that we have wasted our time?

What happens to the athlete who trains and trains but never gets to play the game?

What happens to the soldier who never fights in war?

Those seem like they should be different questions, because playing the game rarely kills people, so there is no obviously creepy downside to the simulated combat of competitive sports. Except perhaps that the sports themselves are considered simulations of war, and the winning player of games looks to find a more exciting game.

They sometimes call it that. That's how the British referred to the contest with Russia for control of central Asia in the 19th Century. Quite a lot of blood was spilled. The idea was to "civilize" Asia—a truly laughable notion given the respective age of the civilizations involved.

Warriors are rarely philosophers and philosophers are rarely warriors. But warriors do fascinate philosophers, who often yearn for the "reality" or the "authenticity" of war and fighting. Read Norman Mailer on boxing, or Hemmingway on bullfighting. But do not read them for real insight into boxing or bullfighting; what you will find instead is the writers' projections of their own internal conflicts onto the external reality of the fight. If you want to learn about boxing, put on the gloves and find a teacher.

When the philosophy of war is formulated, the Necronomicon is opened. People who read and fantasize about war puff themselves up with martial spirit. They imagine themselves as heroes, never as cowards. They lose their real selves in the distorting mirror of wannabe. They feed off what they imagine to be the experiences of others.

Is there a martial artist alive who has not imagined himself/herself fending off an attacker with some artful move or maneuver? God knows I have. Sometimes I also make myself pay penance, by imagining myself simply handing over my wallet to the mugger, or darting down the alleyway, running away, as fast as my aging legs can take me. But the lure of the imagined fight remains. I'm lucky; I get to put these fantasies into fiction, where I know that I'm the puppet master pulling all the strings.

Find the strings. I guess that is the nub of what I'm saying. Follow the strings back to the fingers that pull them. But don't be surprised if you wind up staring at your own hands.


TStockmann said...

And now a segue into an examination of military and authoritarion sf, from Heinlein and Dickson to Pournelle and Drake?

Not that you ever said you'd take requests.

James Killus said...

I'd like to oblige, but I can't. With the exception of Heinlein, I haven't really read any of the military SF sub-genre. I just don't find it at all interesting.

For that matter, I haven't read much military fiction generally. I did read some in my omnivorous youth, but none of it ever rang true for me, and military fiction as a branch of fantasy also leaves me cold. I even tended to skim past the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

But a friend of mine has found this essay, to remind me that it is possible to write truth about war, but it may require actual experience with war to read that truth, so I'm confessing my own inadequacy.

Jason Caraballo said...

I have been a warfighter for some 13 years now, and I must confess that from time to time, I pull those same strings on phantom enemies. Admittedly, I prefer to keep the killing blows more simplistic, but I understand both the corporeal and philosophical foundations to which you refer.

As to your question about what happens to a warfighter during a time of peace... Well, it is not the easiest thing for the one bred for the purpose, however, we all abhor the realities of combat. It is a level of ambivalence that all too few understand.

We cannot stand the bloodshed and death, nor are we completely settled without it. It is a life of demons and ghosts.

I have met many like myself who have nearly gone mad trying to make sense of war and death, and I know why the Samurai-authors like Miyamoto Musashi spent the end of their days immersed in philosophy. When one speaks to Death, they spend the rest of their lives wondering why. Ours is not a life (necessarily) of regret or remorse, but without purpose--without a cause to believe in, we live a life of pain and confusion, and training is never a waste of time. Preparedness for combat is the best deterrent for combat.

Just opining.

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