Men of Iron

The International Hoplology Society defines a combative system as “a body of organized, codified, repeatable movement patterns, techniques, behavior, and attitudes, the primary intended function and planful design of which is to be used in combative situations.”

In addition to the objective and descriptive approach, however, I believe that the internal context of any combat scenario ought to be approached from the most basic and yet, most neglected element: the individuals involved.

The protagonists in any fighting scenario are living, breathing human beings whose actions more often than not depend less on proprioreceptive conditioning, their mastery of motoric and strategic skills, than on the subjective psychological effect of the situation. While the outsider may focus mainly on the weapons and biomechanical responses exhibited, combat activity itself is first and foremost a combat of minds and wills.

The role of angst in single combat

Combat situations are high stress scenarios. The level of stress is determined by the subjective evaluation of the opponent and the subjective perception of risk to one’s own welfare and bodily integrity.

According to the working definition brought forward by John Keegan in his remarkable book The Face of Battle, single combat is characterized as hand-to-hand fighting of individuals:

Single combat demands, by definition, equality of risk and foreknowledge of the consequences. It also appears to presuppose consent by both parties (it was in that chivalry saw its glory.)1

A crucial element of single combat is mutual consent. This need not mean voluntary consent. Entering a combative situation as an active participant implies that other options–such as running away, deserting, or passively submitting to violence–have been rejected in favor of active defense or counter-attack. Involuntary consent can be coerced by discipline, threat of court martial, even anticipated ostracism.

But before consent can be given to join in edged-weapons combat, it is necessary to examine the element of individual fear. After all, this most formidable hurdle to actually entering into serious single combat first needs to be overcome to make consensual engagement in battle possible at all.

Garden of fear

The French 19th-century military theorist Ardant du Picq2 stated that most soldiers fight out of fear of the consequences of not fighting–either punishment, even death, meted out by a firing squad–and then of fear of not fighting well (i.e., not surviving the fight).

A subtle but even more powerful coercion often emanates from the fear of being disregarded by one’s fellow fighters, endangering one’s “reputation as a man among other men.”3 In civilian life, peer pressure could be exerted by the nemesis social opinion–as would be the case for a declined challenge or breach of etiquette during an affair of honor.

This phenomenon is already documented in Homer’s Iliad where “the driving force is called honor,” i.e., a preoccupation with the hero’s status in the eyes of other people:

Possessions and property are an outward sign of ‘honor’; (…) A hero will not court death–indeed it in no way increases his honor to be killed. He will not fight for his country, nor for his leader; but he will die rather than lose face, So he will fight bravely in the front rank because the eyes of the others are upon him.4

(The Greeks used the term timé to describe this complex interaction between self-esteem and peer acceptance.)

Considering that strong elements of fear are present in most serious armed conflicts, consent implies at least an intuitive if not rational weighing of alternatives, a conscious decision to set aside fear and choose fight over all other options–including that of letting yourself be killed without making an attempt at defense.

Paralysis of fright

Any fight scenario that involves the actual possibility (if not probability) of injury or death subjects the fighters to a veritable cocktail of competing, barely containable emotions. These include panic, extreme anticipation, passive and active aggression.5 For the sake of argument, I will refer to this complex nightmare as “personal fear.”

The degree of fear encountered by an individual fighter may vary according to the level of intuitive expectation and possible severity of injury. The exaggerated focus on the opponent and the opponent’s weapon tends to trigger an equally distorted perception of subjective risk. Ritualized encounters, such as ordeal, duel, or Mensur, maintain and sublimize high fear and stress levels over prolonged periods, whereas the emotion triggered by ambush and unexpected (“self-defense”) encounters is more immediate.

In combat with edged weapons, fear’s paralyzing force can be documented from historic sources.6 It quickly becomes obvious that no matter how high the level of skill and mastery in play with blunt weapons, most of the fighter’s conditioned responses get overlaid by natural, barely controllable reflexes as soon as the mind of the combatant focuses on the potential destructiveness represented by the opponent’s sharp weapon. Friedrich von Schiller described this mental state in his Jungfrau von Orleans: “And never erring in the shaking hand, the sword rules itself as if it were a living spirit.”7

Mind over matter

An example that vividly illustrates this can be found in Aldo Nadi’s account of his duel as published in American Fencing.8

A photograph taken during the duel shows Nadi attacking the sword arm of his opponent Adolfo Contronei. What is most interesting, however, is the fact that Nadi’s left foot is off the ground–not only inches but well over a foot high! One would expect to see this movement in raw beginners who are practicing their first lunges with the foil. But in a champion of the stature and level of mastership achieved by Nadi, this basic blunder would be difficult to explain unless the element of fear is taken into consideration.

Nadi’s student Weldon Vlasak wrote in a letter to the editor:

As a former student of Nadi, it is very difficult for me to believe what I saw in these photographs. Nadi was always the picture of perfection. He never raised his left foot as shown in the first picture. A flat left foot is one of the first things that he taught. Further his right foot is askew in both photos–another blunder. Further, his right arm and hand are not characteristic. This hand was held high, fingers together, straight, and pointed towards his head.9

Nadi’s near perfect conditioning could have been all but destroyed by the pervasive element of visceral fear and a sky-high level of adrenaline. The photographs taken during his duel illustrate that “unnatural alertness and strong concentration easily cause a cramping of the muscles.”10 Martincic, in his wonderful analysis of Kevey’s system, repeatedly points out that “fear makes slow and generates defensiveness.”11

(These observations, by the way, are at the core of the theory of proprioreflexive conditioning as embraced by most modern sports fencing training programs.)12

Nadi is fully aware of what went on during the encounter with Contronei. Without envy or embarrassment, he concedes that fencing and using swords in a duel with the actual danger of injury or death being present are fundamentally different. He comments on the alienation between real combat and the abstract art of fencing:

In a duel, the fencer is compelled to execute an ultra-careful form of fencing, which, indeed, is an almost unworthy expression of the science he knows. No matter how courageous and great, the all-out movements with which he nearly always scores in a bout would be unthinkable in a duel, because it’s far too risky.13

More than he is willing to admit in his memoirs, the swashbuckling Italian champion has been reduced to the same situation as the average junior member of a German duelling fraternity. An off-hand comment later on sums up the dominating sentiment of the duellist in combat: “Young man, you must never be touched. Otherwise, the blood now coming out of your arm may instead be spurting from your chest.”14

Where Angelo feared to tread

Nadi, you might argue, at the time of his duel is a young, Italian hothead–but a product of the 20th century: The Olympic sports fencer par excellence. But the duel with sharp duelling swords is already an anachronism.

How would an 18th-century master have regarded the usefulness of Olympic or Olympian expertise in antagonistic combat?

None less than Henry Angelo found himself running as fast as his legs could carry him to keep two of his students from killing each other in a duel with smallswords:

Here was a commencement, far different to those methods they had previously practised before me in the Haymarket, as caution and skills are necessary when opposed to the point of a sword. It was not now a button covered with leather–a lesson to the many I have seen violently rushing on, who, after repeated efforts, have succeeded in giving a hit. This is not fencing. It is not scientific in the school, and is dangerous in the field. As I mean soon to write my opinions of what I have experienced during the space of fifty years, and of the French school, where the science is practiced more for self-defence than as an accomplishment; whereas here [ie., in England] it is more for exercise, for the improvement of the carriage, and the promotion of health, so well recommended by Sir John Sinclair.15

Angelo has watched enough students of his–soldiers, officers, gentlemen–go to their deaths wielding a sword for self-defense in the dark streets of Paris and London, or on muddy, misty duelling grounds to know why he doesn’t want the two men go at it in earnest. He also is businessman enough to realize that the death of either duellist might pose a major problem to his livelihood.

Preparing to die

Would-be duellists had at least an inkling of what psychological pressures they would be facing. After all, in Central Europe, the First Blood principle was held in low esteem–which meant a debilitating injury was required to terminate the duel. And for every fencing master preparing a prospective duellist for the most frightening experience of his life, there was at least one approach on how to beef up the psyche of the fighter.

Still, the actual danger triggering the fear was hard to re-create. De Beaumont observed:

An épeé bout cannot, however, be made exactly to resemble a duel, because the wearing of protective clothing and a mask destroys most of the psychological effect of naked steel. When the writer was a member of the Salle Mangiarotti in the 1920s, training someone for a duel was a common occurrence. The method used was to fence stripped to the waist, without masks and with especially long points d’arrêt. No one who has had this experience will retain the illusion that normal épeé fencing with masks and jackets can be made to resemble a duel.16

The duel proper died with a whimper after World War I. A few paunchy Frenchmen took a shot at reviving it in the fifties, without being able to capture as much as a sparkle of its dashing history.17 In the West, the German Mensur remains as one of the last living traditions of antagonistic swordplay–and as such the only source to gage the psychological effects of pre-combat and combat fear. The following passage describes the phases of self-assertion, doubt, fear, and surprise that are integral parts of the Mensur experience, as valid today as they were a century ago:

The Fuchs18 means to show himself a plucky fellow in the presence of his patron Mossy Head. He can scarcely await the time of his first encounter. Secretly glowing with heroic purpose, he hastens to the field of honor; sees there his antagonist surrounded by a crowd of sympathizers; among the philistines who have crowded in, he recognizes his own over-curious landlord.

The surgeon unpacks his apparatus, with dignified and earnest air, although, in fact, this surgeon is a practical joker and takes out ten times as many instruments as necessary. The Fuchs is taken aback, begins to feel uncomfortable, in spite of himself loses some of his previous confidence. A tremor runs trough his limbs. The Mossy Head, a connoisseur in Foxes, marks this in his protégé and reproves him with a quieting look. The Fuchs recognizes this, makes a hypocritical show of pulling himself together, but for all that cannot prevent a slight weakness in the knees. At last the stiff leg bandage, perhaps sticky with blood, is put on; his arm is carefully wrapped like a child in swathing clothes; a heavy thick pauking cravat is tied around his neck, and the surgeon affects great solicitude.

Of course, when the command ‘Los!’ is given, he has forgotten all the points and advice of his patron, and just hacks away blindly. What his opponent is doing–whether he guards or attacks–he does not know. What he himself is doing, he knows just as little, until there is a cry of ‘Halt!’ and the seconds interpose. Whether he or his antagonist is hurt, he has no idea. In fact, while this thing was going on, he did not know if it was day or night, for the blood which streamed over his eyes. While the surgeon is examining his head, he asks, with astonishment: ‘Am I wounded?’ The surgeon replies. ‘And how!’

Now, for the first time, he begins to recover from his excitement.19

(The duelling students used this state of mind to play practical jokes on their pledges. On occasion, two Foxes would be squared off against each other in a sham match. The typical high level of stress, fear, and excitement made the poor guys oblivious to the fact that they had been armed with blunt blades. Between rounds, an attendant would squeeze out a sponge with water over their heads–while seconds and doctors made serious faces as they gingerly examined their heads. Finally, a bucket with cold water would be emptied over the confused fighters in a subtle display of wit and amicable humanitarian concern…)

Great expectations

A certain level of individual fear–be it only the heightened adrenaline level experienced before a sports fencing tournament–is present in all encounters with edged weapons that are fought with intended results (as opposed to scenarios intended to produce an intended effect, such as in theatric fencing).

Practice bouting and proprioreceptive conditioning serves to control some, in certain cases most, of the subjective fear that is being experienced.

Primal emotion

If you have never faced a hostile opponent’s sharp blade, you will tend to underrate the effects and influence of personal fear on individual skill level and coordination. The difference between facing a foil, saber, or blunt practice Schläger and seeing yourself face to face with a live blade is about as dramatic as encountering a black bear safely behind the moat and steel bars of a zoo–and running into the same animal in the rain and fog of a Shenandoah Valley night.

Much like the grunting and growling of the bear is enhanced by the lack of visibility–and the heart-pounding apprehension of a brush with primal chaos–the eye of the fighter encountering a hostile opponent’s steel for the first time magnifies the unyielding, heinously sharp point, or the jagged, wavelike reflections of the edge, translating the impression into instant anticipation of the stinging slice that will change your physiology for ever…

It was this kind of fear that had to be mastered in the face of battle, either by natural inclination or by conditioning, much to the chagrin of some anti-duelling pamphleteers who lambasted the duellist’s decision to overturn dictates of sanity and conscience to face his opponent:

That a certain kind of coolness, and deliberation may exist in connexion with all this untractable obstinacy, we are not disposed to question. But their existence here, form the most terrible feature in the man’s whole character. They give tranquillity to his frightful purpose, permanency to his rash resolve, undeviating conduct to the paroxysms of a persecuting hatred, and a fatal certainty to the final action. But under these manifestations, they reflect no honour, or semblance of courage that the assassin may not claim, who can direct his knife with steadiness to the palpitating bosom of his victim.20

In many people, civilization has built up a strong barrier against consciously inflicting injuries on others. (Despite my seven Mensuren, I feel compelled to apologize for every cut with the sports saber that I feel hit my opponent a tad too hard.) Take the pioneer of sword and sorcery fiction and father of Conan and Solomon Kane. While his gore-splattered super-human heroes wreak red ruin on entire armies with their blood-dripping blades, he himself is somewhat less sanguine:

Howard was fascinated by Price’s discussion of the martial arts, such as fencing. He later wrote [H.P] Lovecraft regretting the fact that fencing masters were rare in Texas and that, when he and a friend tried to teach themselves using army swords as foils, he ran his sword through his friend’s hand. After that, he never tried to fence again.21

It was exactly these uncivilized qualities Patton had in mind when he defined the mental attitude that his ideal cavalryman would have the natural inclination to assume before the charge:

And we expect that a man (…) shall, in an instant, the twinkling of an eye, divest himself of all restraint, of all caution and hurl himself on the enemy, a frenzied beast, lusting to probe his foeman’s guts with three feet of steel or shatter his brains with a bullet. Gentlemen, it cannot be done, not without mental practice.

That is why it is easier to attack on foot than to charge mounted. It seems more refined. There, in front, are those dear futile bushes of maneuvers, the bullets sing and whisper but there is more time to get used to them. It takes courage, higher moral courage to walk to death than to gallop at it. But, it is the form of courage which our civilization has given us. It is the courage of the burning house; not of the bloody nose.

Therefore, you must school yourself to savagery. You must imagine how it will feel when your sword hilt crashes into the breast bone of your enemy. You must picture the wild exaltation of the mounted charge when the lips draw back in a snarl and the voice cracks with passion.22

But even the most macho fighter would be subject to the sobering influence of cold steel, as Bartunek observes:

During the duel, when the bare chest suddenly is exposed to the threat of the opponent’s sharply honed weapon, nature–which wild fencers or brawlers try to deny–demands its rights, so that most are induced to the instinctive parry, rather than cutting simultaneously.23

The Austrian echoes comments of Joseph Swetnam’s, made 300 years before:

But I say there is great odds betwixt fighting in the field and playing in a fence-schoole, for in the field being both sober, I meane if it be in a morning upon cold blood, then every man will feare to kill as to be killed, againe a man shall see to defend either blow or thrust in the field then in a fence-schoole, for a man will be more bold with a foile or a cudgell, because there is small danger in either of them.24

Mastering fear could provide a short-cut to terminating the duel: Henry Angelo, after breaking up the above-mentioned duel of Monsieur Chevalier vs. Mr”M’D–t” (McDermott?), sums up the observations he made during the first bout:

The Frenchman, endeavouring to intimidate his adversary, kept making a noise; though he made the first lunge, he took good care to be out of distance at the time, whilst the other whom I had often seen not so cool and collected with a foil, now, with all that sang froid, laughed and cried ‘poh!’ on his first receiving the attack, and at Chevalier’s not coming nearer. This faire semblant of the one to appear courageous to frighten, or the other’s fierté, could not have continued long; the result may have been dangerous, or fatal.25

Grain of salt

I stated above that fencers who never faced a hostile opponent’s sharp blade are prone to underrate the pervasive effects of self preservation, stress, and anticipation on a fighter’s state of mind. I also would like to remind you that the cathartic element of antagonistic combat centers on overcoming that fear.

Indeed, most Comment scenarios–like the duel proper or the Mensur–focus heavily on building up pre-combat stress by having the combatants live in ever-increasing anticipation for hours, days, or even weeks. During the day of the encounter, the routine of the normal day is replaced by the somber rituals of seconds, witness, and umpires, even the doctors, each more disconcerting than the other. The German poet Hanns Heinz Ewers, himself a veteran of several heavy saber duels, countless Schläger Mensuren, and a pistol duel in which both participants ended up drilling holes into the cold morning air of the Kottenforst near Bonn, works his experience during these encounters into his novel Alraune and his short story “Der tote Jude”. In both instances, one of the duellists is unable to control his bowels as he steps up to his position.

Yet both men remain in their places to fire–and in one case, kill–despite their bodies’ violent rejection of the situation. And thus many, if not most fighters manage to have their conscious will overcome their self-preservation instincts in the moment the combat begins in earnest. At that point, the Olympian skill level in using a particular weapon may have decreased by fifty, seventy, even ninety percent.

But it is this moment of the will emerging to rule the body that represents the true victory–and sole purpose–of most Comment combat set-ups. This state of mind will not only determine the fighter’s own retrospective attitude toward the fight, when even severe wounds are discounted as coincidental in contrast to the personal victory, it frequently determines the actual outcome of the bout.

Of course, it may work both ways … and unless a man is actually put to the test, it is impossible to predict when or if this emergence of the will as the dominating engine of combat will take place: If it fails to occur, every subsequent detail of the fight will further erode the moral foundations of the unlucky fighter until his self is washed away in a flood of uncontrollable chaos.

(continued in part two)

Copyright ©1998 J. Christoph Amberger. All rights reserved. Reproduced here with permission of the author.

This article first appeared in The Secret History of the Sword, 1998.

  1. Kegan, John. The Face of Battle, London: Penguin, 1978 (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1976); p. 145. ↩︎
  2. du Picq, Ardant. Battle Studies, New York: Macmillan, 1921, based on the French original from 1870. ↩︎
  3. Marshall, S.L.A. Men Against Fire, New York: William Morrow, 1927, as quoted in Keegan; p. 71. ↩︎
  4. Willcock, M.M. The Iliad of Homer, London: Macmillan, 1978; p. xiii. ↩︎
  5. Given my own experiences with sharp edged weapons combat–which are, of course, limited, entirely subjective and not representative–I believe the role of aggression in antagonistic combat scenarios may be negligible, as the dominant element tends to be the instinct of self-preservation. ↩︎
  6. It is interesting to note that most first-hand accounts of high-stress antagonistic combat scenarios are very vague about the actual techniques, sequences, and details of the fight. This might indicate that the actual motorics of the fight are steered from a different level of consciousness than during practice bouts. It could also explain why drills for antagonistic combat focus on imprinting short clusters of simplified action that occurs independent of (or at least non–reactive to) the opponent’s action. ↩︎
  7. Schiller, Friedrich von. Die Jungfrau von Orleans, Act II: “Und nimmer irrend in der zitternden Hand regiert, Das Schwert sich selbst, als wär es ein lebend’ger Geist.” ↩︎
  8. See American Fencing, Boulder, CO: USFA, vol. 42, #4 (April, May, June 1992); p. 19. ↩︎
  9. See American Fencing Boulder, CO: USFA, vol. 43 (July, August, September 1992); p. 6. ↩︎
  10. Martincic, Albert. Kevey und seine Fechtschule, Graz (Austria); Self-published, 1983; p. 19: “Unnatürliche Anspannung und starke Konzentration verursachen leicht eine Verkrampfung der Muskulatur.” ↩︎
  11. Martincic; p. 30: “Die Angst macht langsam und erzeugt Defensivität.” ↩︎
  12. Nadi’s shortcomings of form during the duel have been explained plausibly by some of his students: “Stop-thrusts, according to Maestro Nadi, must be performed going forward, to meet the attacker, thereby gaining time on his attack. To gain time on the attack, it is not sufficient to make the thrust from immobility, by merely extending the arm. If the front foot is not moved then the body must be leaned forward with the thrust.
    “It would be a mistake, of course, to execute a retreat simultaneously with the stop-thrust–any advantage gained by the leaning forward of the body would have been lost. With the épée, however, because of the extended target and the vulnerability of being hit even after hitting first, a step back (or a jump back) may be necessary and is made immediately after the stop-thrust, by lifting the rear foot and starting the movement of the rear leg backwards, while leaning the body forward for the thrust.
    “I might add that Maestro Nadi advocated following up virtually every épée stroke with an immediate second thrust sometimes referring to such combination as a “double shot”. Used in conjunction with stop-thrusts, this second thrust may follow so quickly that the rear foot, raised for a (half) step back, remains airborne (though not motionless) during the process.
    “I think it would be fair to say that the picture in Figure 5 was snapped at some point between the start and finish of a stop-thrust movement. Yes, the maestro was caught with his left foot off the ground. But he appears to be in control and not off balance Whether that foot actually completed the first half of a step back, or was subsequently brought forward to a postition close behind the right heel is immaterial” (from a Letter by Alexander Rivera, published in Hammerterz Forum vol. 3, #2 (Fall 1996), p. 19). ↩︎
  13. Nadi; On Fencing, p. 29. ↩︎
  14. ibid. ↩︎
  15. Angelo, Henry. Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1904; vol. 2; p. 230. ↩︎
  16. de Beaumont, C.L. Fencing: Ancient Art and Modern Sport (London: Nicholas Kaye, 1960) South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1971; p. 108. ↩︎
  17. One pre-war example, the 1938 encounter of Edouard Bourdet and Henri Bernstein, was recorded in Life magazine. Bourdet, sporting an impressive Homburg-style hat, is fly-fishing for an opening with his épée, blade whipping backwards. No wonder he ended up with a scratch on his arm, which led to a photogenous hospital-bed reconciliation… ↩︎
  18. Fuchs (lit.: fox) is the term for a pledge or freshman member of a duelling fraternity who has not yet fought a sharp Mensur. ↩︎
  19. See Wilcox, M.”Dueling at a German University,” unattributable, post 1882; p. 599 ff., in the author’s collection. (Could be identical with “Dueling at Jena University,” in The Hawk, Feb. 2, 1892, as listed in Thimm.) This passage is an adaptation from Roux, Friedrich August Wilhelm. Deutsches Paukbuch, Jena: Mauke, 1867; p. 79f–in which Roux, in his characteristic sarcasm, draws a quick vignette of the reality of the Mensur, as opposed to the ideal of technical and mental perfection he and his dynasty of fencing masters attempted to instill in their students. ↩︎
  20. Colton, Walter. Remarks on Deulling, New York: Jonathan Leavitt and Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1828; p. 26. ↩︎
  21. deCamp, Sprague et al.. Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard, The Creator of Conan, New York: Bluejay Books, (1961) 1983; p. 305. ↩︎
  22. Patton, Major George S., Jr.”The Cavalryman”, 1921 (Copyright 1996-97, The Patton Society). ↩︎
  23. “Im Duell, wo der entblösste Oberkörper plötzlich der Bedrohung durch die gegnerische scharfgeschliffene Waffe ausgesetzt ist, tritt die Natur, die [wilde Fechter oder Raufer] verleugnen wollen, wieder in ihre Rechte, so dass die meisten, statt mitzuhauen, zur instinktiven Parade verleitet werden.” See Bartunek; p. 33. ↩︎
  24. Swetnam, Joseph. The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence, London: Nicholas Okes, 1617; p. 5. ↩︎
  25. Angelo, Henry. Reminiscences, p. 231. ↩︎