Hiding in the Shadows of the Warrior

The strategic adversary is fascism, the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.

–Michel Foucault

A certain guru once led a meditation workshop, the theme being the salvation of all living beings from the wheel of karma. All was going well until the swami asked for prayers for the soul of Adolf Hitler. Outraged voices rose from all corners of the room, that some beings were too evil to be redeemed, and that his very proposal was an obscenity. The swami took in all the rage, and then wide-eyed asked, “Do you want him to come back, then?”

–Paraphrase of a story told by Ron Kurtz

Descriptions of battlefields and of massacres, the most recent of which I have read being My Lai, describe men, women, and little children pulped: shredded by bullets, with bone shards sticking out of a mess of brains, meat and liquified internal organs. After a few days in the sun, the bodies swell and burst through their clothes. Their flesh boils with maggots and the air is thick with flies, drunk on blood and gobbets of meat. Men scream, crying for their mothers, crying for release of pain, crying for death. Others, glassy-eyed, if they have eyes left at all, are beyond screams, are beyond life itself.

Only a short time ago, the Hutu people of Rwanda killed almost all of their Tutsi compatriots, mostly with large machete-like knives. Can you imagine the cloacal stench of slashed-open bellies (“Cut, don’t strike,” Miyamoto Musashi cautions us in The Book of Five Rings), the air fecund with excrement and rotting meat? For a time, I was rabid with hatred for the Hutu. In next door Burundi, the Tutsi are embarking on a slaughter of the Hutu: men, women and children. I am rabid with hatred for the Tutsi. I find myself a fool, with the attention span of a gnat; outraged by the latest news, earlier atrocities receding into the past like old reports of the weather.

Araki-ryu, my primary study, always prided itself on its realistic, no-nonsense methods of close combat. Battle in the raw: no prettiness, no aesthetic flourishes, just gut-wrenching survival by any means necessary. Being a so-called classical martial tradition, the principal method of training was pre-arranged forms. However, we sometimes did freestyle training with oaken weapons, as close to the edge as we were willing to go. This necessitated trying to pull or redirect our blows at the very last fraction of a second. My instructor’s injunction was, “we are trying to kill each other, but somehow we must not hurt each other.” Although there were only occasional minor injuries (bruises, broken fingers, a concussion or two), it was a very frightening way to practice, and I often approached the dojo with my mouth dry and my stomach in knots

One day my instructor came in with shinai (bamboo sword) and kendo masks and gloves. No chest protectors. He said that as long as we clung to form practice as our mainstay and in freestyle practice had to pull our blows, we would never know if our techniques had any integrity at all. He conceded that we ran the risk, using “safety” equipment, of covering ground already walked over by modern martial sports like kendo, but he felt we could counter this with two things: maintaining our kata training and freestyle work with wooden weapons, and making the whole body a target. In addition, by minimizing our protection, with no body or leg armor, we would not lose our flinch reactions, because bamboo weapons promised pain if not minor injury. This would keep us honest, as unlike martial sports, there would be no designated target areas for strikes. Just as in a fight to the death, the whole body was a target.

Training in traditional martial arts, whether for the acquisition of power or self-perfection, is a harsh process. It is often difficult to distinguish whether one is resisting out of fear of what one needs to learn, or resisting what one finds oneself required to do, in spite of profound and sometimes quite appropriate misgivings. I often felt myself pushed in directions that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in this particular dojo, and this was one of those times. Practice was already so severe, as much on a psychological as a physical level, that out of possibly one hundred people who had joined at one time or another, there were now only four of us left, including my instructor.

One man and I had become very close. He was my senior by about a year. I will call him Maeda here. For a period of several years, he and I met every Sunday morning for an extra period of practice. He had a 4th dan in Yoshinkan aikido, a 6th dan in Hakko-ryu jujutsu, a 4th dan in kendo, and some level of certification in Kashima Shin-ryu kenjutsu. Nonetheless, he was, innately, a gentle man. In the roil of emotions which this martial study aroused in me, a combination of pure adrenaline intoxication, fear, resistance, pride, and joy, I had become increasingly irritated by his reluctance to push himself out to the edge over that past year or so. This irritation was, in fact, an excuse for me to avoid facing my own reluctance to approach some of those same edges. I was often afraid, and I was also ashamed–pushed, less by my own true desires than by a need to conform to my teacher’s will and to have him approve of me.

We began to practice, and it soon grew very intense. Each match felt like a duel; everytime the shinai struck one’s body, it was interpreted as a wound. This was not only experienced in the abstract. Any part of the body was a target, and the split bamboo sent jolts of pain whenever it slashed on unprotected flesh. My instructor and my other fellow student, whom I will call Kawashima, were in the thick of things. All of us were in alien territory here, and it was frightening, and yet exhilarating. On one level, at least, we were testing if our techniques worked, if we had the skill to execute these techniques, and if we had the courage to try.

A couple of hours went by, at once endless and very brief, and as Maeda grew fatigued, his fear began to master him. Called out to face me again, right after Kawashima and my instructor, he began to whine. My instructor curtly told him to take the floor. He complained again. This was ugly to me. “Amdur and Kawashima haven’t practiced nearly as much as me. It’s not fair,” he said.

“Maeda-san,” I roared. “Onegaishimasu!” (if you please!) And at that second, I came at him, slashing at his head. He blocked my weapon with his, but being much larger, I twisted and smashed him with my shoulder, sending him falling to the mat. He didn’t get up, and said something about wanting to stop. Angry, I began to hit him, full force in the body with my weapon, again and again. I could hear the blows thud, then crack, depending on whether I struck bone or muscle. He somehow rolled and came to his feet, but I continued to rain crushing blows upon him, so powerfully that they smashed his own weapon into his face protected by the kendo mask. Once again he blocked me and I knocked him over. He rolled uncontrollably for a moment, and ended up crouched on one knee about ten away. I sprung forward to slash him with all my might. Like a cornered rat, curled protectively around himself, he suddenly leapt upwards, teeth bared and screaming, and swung his shinai up from the ground, whistling through the air. The very tip of it hit the very tip . . . of my penis. To say it hurt is meaningless under the circumstances. For a moment, I was in total shock, every nerve in my body screaming, no, gibbering in burning, scraping agony. I bent over myself, thinking that my instructor would stop practice. “I need a break,” I thought, praying for release from the pain, (easy enough for me to say once I was the one hurting), but Maeda sighted along the line of my bent-over neck, and raised his shinai, rising on tip-toes to smash at right angles to my exposed spinal column, and my instructor yelled, “Maeda!”

This shout, so powerful, caused him to pause a fraction of a second (the whole exchange had only taken two or three) and I whirled and butted him under the chin, rammed him against a wall, and then down to the floor, me on top pinning him. I had lost any sense that this was practice.

He was a coward, I tried to help him by fighting him hard to bring him through his fear, he hurt me, and now I would destroy him. (No, these were not my thoughts. That was the curve of my rage.) I head-butted him several times, mask upon mask, and frustrated with this, ripped his mask off of his head.

He was absolutely helpless. His eyes, wide, were vulnerable as a baby. I raised the butt of my weapon to smash him between the eyes, and my instructor grabbed me from behind, hauling me off, yelling at me for losing control, as if to say “What’s your problem, it’s only training!” Yet I felt he approved of all I did, except for the moment I doubled over in pain. Maeda was more or less ignored.

We practiced a while longer, me against my teacher and against Kawashima, but the intensity was thankfully gone for that day.

This method of training became central for us over the years ahead. On one hand, what I learned was invaluable. I acquired knowledge about myself, my skills, my weaknesses, my own fears and strengths. I even had several wonderful experiences doing similar sparring with men from other schools. Not dojo invasions, but agreed upon, respectful training. Through this training, one man, Meik Skoss and I overcame years of rivalry and became more than friends. He is the godfather of my younger son.

I didn’t intend to talk about this episode when I began to write about war atrocities, smugly telling myself that I was immune to such moral failure. And then I remembered. I recall changing clothes after this training, Maeda, Kawashima, and I, all of us covered with welts, one part of me still singing a melody of pain I had never imagined experiencing.

My instructor and Kawashima had that hearty, somewhat stupid satisfaction that perhaps only men know, the afterglow of smashing each other around with no malice at all–a hug with impact, as it were. Maeda and I both imitated this joviality. But we could not meet each other’s eyes. We were best friends, and we tried to kill each other. But we were not equal in this. For Maeda had only arrived at that killing rage in righteous self-defense–whereas I had listened to him plead, heard him say that he couldn’t take anymore, and I hated him for his weakness.

“Wait at minute,” the tougher among you might say. This was shugyo (ascetic training), we were striving to burn out the flaws from our character, the defects which kept us from exerting our will with integrity and bravery. How is this story so different from older stories we’ve all read of rugged training where an individual might face one hundred opponents a day for three days? Some of you may recall incidents in your own training, equally harsh, but carried out to a positive end. Still, at the end of my encounter with Maeda, such a philosophical stance was meaningless. I was no longer training in those minutes. At the moment I ripped his mask off, I would have hit him with the butt of the weapon, trying to drive it into his brain, smashed him in the eyes with my forehead, bit his face off.

He was shamed in a number of ways, but most centrally, he was betrayed. For me, the only shame I was aware of then was the few seconds of doubling over when my genitals were struck. My only conscious concern at the time was, “How could I have given in to pain?” Of course, that moment I curled up in agony made me exactly the same as Maeda; our breaking points were different, but as human beings, breaking points we had. This was beyond my capacity to accept at the time; I simply had a queasy sense that, for a second, I had failed my image of myself.

Maeda never returned to our dojo. Ten years of training; then he was suddenly gone. I called, and left messages that were not returned. Two weeks later his phone number was changed. We continued our training, just three of us. By the end of the ’80s, two; my instructor and me. For quite a few years, I regarded this as something to glory in. I saw our dojo as a microcosm of Darwin’s theories where only the strong survived. We were not a preservation society of an antique cultural artifact. We were still attempting to live the values, the spirit of this red-handed tradition. I suppose that, on one level, I was truer to Warring States period martial arts than I would with any other attitude, this attempt to achieve a cool indifference to the claims of vulnerability. But the bottom line is that, enraged, I betrayed my friend, and if I hadn’t been grabbed, would have done my level best beat his head to a bloody mess.

They did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages, behind trees and stone walls, and out of the woods and houses… [The colonists are] as bad as the Indians for scalping and cutting the dead men’s ears and noses off.

–anonymous British infantryman, 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord1

On the road, in our route home, we found every house full of people, and the fences lined as before. Every house from which they fired was immediately forced, and every soul in them put to death! O Englishmen, to what depth of brutal degeneracy are ye fallen!

–anonymous British officer, 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord2

Life is a knife edge, and each step is deadly, both in falling off or in standing on that cruel, cruel blade. Had I been swept up in Vietnam, or in any other war at the age of twenty or even thirty, I have to accept that, given certain circumstances, I might have committed ferocious atrocities. There is no way I can deny that if I look clearly at the terrible implications of the incident above. What if I had found myself, green, callow, alone within a group of other young boys, in chaos, in incomprehensible fear and violence, ordered hither and yon by superior officers upon whom I depended to get me out alive, in a war I couldn’t imagine understanding? As William Gray writes in The Warrior: Faces Of Men In Battle , once on the battlefield, the soldier no longer fights for god, no longer for country, nor for ideals. He fights to be seen as worthy in the eyes of his fellow soldiers.

I imagine, as happened in My Lai, my platoon shot up by snipers and land mines, we survivors riven with hatred not only for the enemy, but for the civilian population as well, and my unit running rampage in a village. Would women have been safe in my presence? Would children? Would I have murdered? Committed atrocities?

I have some trust in my own integrity now, but only because I have staked my life on the answers, provoked, among other things, by the loss of a best friend at my own hands. I try to never let my guard down–against myself. Like any other human being, I am allowed anger, but I try never to be moved to rage. I thank God I have, comparatively, so little to answer for in learning this lesson, for it could have been far worse. And in my own system of values, I believe there is no atonement for what can only be called sin. One must live with one’s guilt and one’s shame. One cannot wipe it away with an excuse, with a sociological or psychological explanation. If there is any expiation, any redemption, it lies in the continued, unremitting acceptance of the burden of guilt and shame. Only then is there any hope that the act will not be repeated.

Some of us, readers and this writer alike, have taken pride in practicing koryu (a “warfare” art). As I write in Chapter 4, “A Conversation with Daito Ryu’s Other Child,” “When I practice my koryu, I make every effort to reach the spirit of the founders, who were born and died in a bloody era of survival. Such practice has both kept me safe, and enabled me to help and protect other people. But as I practice, I often stop and think, ‘What are you doing? There are millions of people, right this minute, slaughtering others using methods not too different from what you are practicing now.'” A good friend, a man whom I respect very much, wrote to object, saying that he did not feel it was justified to equate what we did (practitioners of koryu, descendants, in spirit, of a bushi tradition) with the kind of brutal murderers of Bosnia or Rwanda. This is my answer. There surely is a difference in a group with a code of behavior and honor, and in one which seems to have none. Yet I also believe that killing on the battlefield is always the same, at least at the moment of most significance. In my own small way, about to smash my friend’s face to a pulp, I found myself no different than any other of the morally insane. This is not to call all people who deliberately walk or find themselves on a battlefield or in a fight for their life to be evil. But at the moment of the coup de grace, with the angel of death hugging us from behind as sweetly as a bride, whether I am a Serbian sniper, a U.S. Marine with a collection of Japanese skulls acquired in the battles of the Pacific and featured in a wartime issue of Life magazine, a terrorist in Palestine setting off a bomb or an Israeli guard at a torture camp in Gaza,3 a young man smashing an opponent head first into the side of a car in a street fight, or a bold samurai, leaning over the neck of his horse to slash the throat of an enemy footsoldier, each of us is a murderer. Is there then any self-defense or justifiable homicide? Of course there is, but a part of the justification lies in having striven with every fiber of one’s being to never be in such a position that one is forced to take a life.

Which leads me to a couple of questions: Because early Japanese war chronicles do not talk of rape or other atrocities very often, some of us are inspired by tales of bravery and chivalry, and we cling to an image of the samurai as honorable warriors, beyond the degenerate acts of soldiers in the mass. But, was it not the samurai who had the right of kiristute gomen (to cut and throw away), the right to cut down any commoner who offended them? And in the larger part of the Muromachi period, was there not wholesale slaughter? And in the Tokugawa period, during times of famine or abuse of the farmers by their feudal lords, did not the bushi engage in the violent suppression of over 3000 peasant rebellions, mostly with the use of firearms against farmers armed with hoes and picks? Nobunaga’s troops, who burned alive 11,000 men, women and children of the Ikko Buddhist sect, were not of a different breed than other warriors nor were all those who took part in the slaughter of thousands of Christian Japanese. Each group of warriors had a certain leader who led them in certain directions, gave them certain orders, drove them into certain circumstances–that is all. Were the warriors of Nobunaga haunted by the sweet smell of the burning bodies of children, the crackle of their body-fat, the explosions of the skulls as the moisture in the brain turned to steam? I wonder if Zen, practiced by so many warriors, was truly an attempt to cultivate non-attachment and a freedom from fears of one’s own death. Or was it, instead, an attempt to silence the ghosts of the dead and dying that such warriors left on the battlefields, in ditches and fields and on the executioner’s ground?

And a final question: The late Donn Draeger, a man I consider a teacher and a forebear in this odd and sectarian world of martial arts, extols the bushi of the late Heian and early Kamakura as the most perfect, most glorious of Japanese warriors, and certainly, among themselves, there was an elaborate code of honor and chivalry. Yet we have contemporary pictures of famous battle campaigns, the bushi arrayed in many colored armor, glittering and helmet-horned like iridescent beetles, magnificent in the cold mechanical beauty of men at war. Some of these pictures show the invasion of a manor or castle, rooms in flames, men put to the sword. And women running. Why are the women running, if the bushi are made of finer stuff than ordinary warriors? What do they have to be afraid of?

New-Age America produces books and workshops on the “New Warrior,” a man or woman who lives impeccably–austere, protecting the weak, willing, perhaps, to stand his or her ground and fight, but more important, calm and graceful–the warrior as metaphor. We imagine the warrior in bed, in the boardroom, in marriage, the warrior on the golf-course. But these writers seem to forget that the warrior’s values, as admirable as they may be, are won at terrible cost. The warrior as metaphor often offends me, because the battlefield stinks of blood and shit, and sings of screams and flies. Certainly the values that such writers as Dan Millman extol are admirable, as he describes them, but I would hesitate to call anyone a warrior unless we are talking not about a mellow ubermenschen, but instead, a deeply flawed and guilty human being, who strives at the risk of the loss of comfort, of home, of even his or her own soul to protect what must be protected, to maintain a moral sense in a place where no morality can conceivably exist.

It is not known if Ueshiba Morihei went to battle in the Russo-Japanese war. It is also not clear what atrocities he may have witnessed in his adventures in Mongolia with Onisaburo Deguchi. We know he was traveling with a troupe of bandits, in a land of no government and no law but force, so we can easily imagine what he must have encountered. We do know that he stood in front of a firing squad there, seconds from death, after seeing others shot down, and that later he surely saw the terrible effects of war upon his own people in World War II. He trained in rough martial arts with hard men, one of whom, Takeda Sokaku, described the battlefields of Aizu as his playground as a little boy, running wide-eyed from place to place, gazing on bodies and sights of horror.

I believe that the creation of aikido was, for Ueshiba Morihei, a matter of life-and-death. I believe that aikido was created as an act of desperation, by a man hoping, groping to find a way out of obscenity. At least I would like to think so, for then, all it’s so-called weaknesses and martial insufficiencies are relevant only in the ways that they obscure or impede this intention.

We do not only dance with our victorious ancestors who created charismatic, fascinating martial traditions, which either offer us self-protection or enhance our lives. We also dance with their dead. We dance on altars of bones and lakes of blood. Our music is not only glorious bugles and bagpipes aswirl. It is screams of the wounded and the cries of their children, the crunch of skulls beneath our feet. Bravery and self-sacrifice are glorious things, the flower of a man’s life. But root and stock are embedded in a command to commit no unnecessary harm, to murder no one, at the risk of one’s soul. Life walked on a sword edge. Stand or fall, we are slashed either way.

  1. From Vincent J.R. Kehoe, We Were There, privately printed, p. 169. Available at Minuteman National Park, Concord, Massachusetts. Quoted in Tim O’Brien’s The Lake of the Woods, p. 262. ↩︎
  2. ibid. Kehoe, 113, in O’Brien, p. 263. ↩︎
  3. I single this one out, in particular, because as a Jew, I take this very personally. This was documented by Ari Shavit, “On Gaza Beach,” in the New York Review of Books, July 18, 1991, by an army reservist who served his tour of duty in such a camp. ↩︎

Copyright ©1996 Ellis Amdur. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Aikido Journal #106, 1996. It has been republished in Amdur’s essay collection, Dueling with O-Sensei.