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Fightin’ Words: Clausewitz & “Suspicious” Discipline

Let’s ask a question about your local martial arts school, MMA club, “combat hard” discipline du jour. Hell, you can even ask this question of yourself, and that is likely the most valuable subject to ask it of as you can alter course in a heartbeat if you don’t like the answer and get on the path to truth not theory or supposition—or mere show.


We will look to the answer in the great unfinished work Vom Kriege (On War) by the acknowledged brilliant military mind of the Prussian General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. In the below passage he is referring to peacetime armies in comparison with combat-hardened troops.

“One should be careful not to compare this expanded and refined solidarity of a brotherhood of tempered, battle-scarred veterans with the self-esteem and vanity of regular armies which are patched together only by service-regulations and drill. Grim severity and iron-discipline may be able to persevere the military virtues of a unit, but it cannot create them. These factors are valuable, but they should not be overrated. Discipline, skill, good will, a certain pride, and high morale, are the attribute of an army trained in times of peace. They command respect, but they have no strength of their own. They stand or fall together. One crack, and the whole thing goes, like a glass too quickly cooled.”

Let’s unpack this a little.

I’ve had the honor and the privilege of standing in many a fine school, dojo, club, warehouse, cage, garage, alleyway, hell, any place that rarin’ to go folks gather to work on improving their fighting wares.

It has been my observation that the more spit polish, the more hard-assed the discipline in manners of protocol not on the mat or in the training grind but in the overall Parris Island Marine DI shouted “YES SIR!”, “NO SIR!”, the more dogmatic lip-service given to titles and tenets as recived wisdom the less, well, pragmatic ability I witness.

I will not further define what I mean by this description, but I’m wagering if you’ve been around the martial block a few times you know exactly what I’m referring to.

That observation is a broad-brush and does not hold 100% of the time, but enough for Clausewitz to prod the observation.

Often the uniforms are spotless, the politesse of respect is observed to the nth degree, and the drilling is often of machine precision.

But… and remember this is a general observation, most all spit polish schools I’ve had the honor of treading in, overall there is little contact or chaos introduced outside of the drill-sets.

That is, the focus or be-all end-all is eloquence and elegance in drill execution. Demonstration performance standards are valued highly and far less (or in some cases, no time) spent gloving up and banging, getting tossed willy-nilly, or at least taking those fake blades outside when it’s raining and shoving one another up against old Fords and pulling sweatshirts over heads old school Detroit Wheels style.

The first sentence of Clausewitz’s observation has also been mine. Those who tussle or who have tussled have their own version of discipline, their own version of drill, their own incarnation of respect and tenets.

In many cases the rough and ready garage, warehouse, and alley trainers I’ve gotten to know are more than ready with their “Pleases” and “Thanks yous” and “Yes sirs” and “No ma’ams.” It also strikes me as organically generated and not matter of rule.

The conditioning and drills are manifested from actual combat scenarios and not a textbook idealization of what scenarios should be.

Contact is above the norm and mighty frequent.

And the post-training BS sessions often devolve into ad hoc talks on, well, what it means to be a good person. How to be in this world. These discovered tenets are revealed by inquisitive minds probing one another and sharing their own views and allowing those views to re-shape plastically in the face of an idea considered of value. These conversations are of an open and loose nature and not mere recitations of a placard on a wall.

Overall, what Clausewitz sees, is not a flaw in people where we elevate some as warriors and condemn others as wannabes. He is advising us that, there is more to be being a warrior than the show. The warrior is created not by the drill, not by the norm, not by the title conveyed, but by the knockabout time put in with other willing spirits and the stick-to-it-iveness to keep going back to sessions that ask us to get knocked about.

The bumps and bruises that lead to intelligent analyses and drills to reduce our own bumps and bruises while raising the contusion ratio for others is very often the only real discipline that is required.

It is quite possible that much of what looks good, merely looks good.

If you are uncertain about your own pursuit, ask a wrestler to shoot a hard-double leg on you. Ask a boxer for a 1-minute demonstration of wares wearing full protective gear. (If you’ve not been hit before, really hit, you don’t want the full 3-minutes.)

Take your big athletic brother-in-law out in the yard, give him a training knife, and ask him to shove you up against the wall while you try to disarm his rubber blade.

Ask your BJJ friend to slap that triangle on you as you bite just like your Krav Maga instructor advised.

Such experiments, such contacts with reality are mighty informative and often ain’t as pretty as drill.

Clausewitz asks us never to go through the motions of battle. We will learn nothing that way.

The learning motion is within the battle itself.

The tenets are learned in the real-live conversation had after while you brag and bitch about your “war wounds.”

That has been the way of soldiers from time immemorial, it fails to be no less true today.

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