Combat & Strategy

One of the great benefits of martial arts in general and personal combat in particular is that we can intellectualise many aspects of their pursuit as activities we engage in with the object of better understanding key principles. Sometimes this can lead to some poor thinking and assumptions made from personal perspectives lacking the support of experience, or depth of knowledge. Don’t make the mistake of confusing shallow, and often prejudiced, ill-informed personal views that we can find on forums with well-argued and researched topics. Also, be aware of concepts that are proposed simply to be contentious for the sake of it, and whilst certain concepts and thoughts may ‘tilt a lance’ at what seem established methodologies anything contentious is a by-product not an intent.

That having been said, and before anyone presses the ‘off‘ button there are hopefully many practical gains to be made from reading further. Martial arts, in its traditional sense, and any practical derivatives should never be considered solely as physical activities. The physical aspects are the very tip of the iceberg that support any goal to be achieved, such as “what is to be done,” “for what purpose,” “to achieve what greater goal” and “with what constraints.” The starting point of all this, from whatever the standpoint of the individual, is ‘strategy.’

On a general front, strategy, as a practice, is the study of the ‘big picture‘ - not the ‘how’ we do something, but ‘why‘ and for what ultimate purpose. Strategy is often the shorthand for the term ‘strategic planning’ and we have two main sources of knowledge and application of this from which we can draw parallels and these are in business and war - the latter being simply a larger version of personal combat. Supporting a strategy are the tactical considerations and the operational plans and, to keep the personal combat comparison, plans we can consider as the techniques we apply, tactics being the methodologies we employ to place ourselves in a favourable situation to exploit the techniques.

However, where, as martial artists, we go astray is that having spent thousands of hours in physical training we over-emphasise the techniques as being the key issues in combat and unfortunately fall foul of reality. This article has a number of terminologies, but will endeavour to explain the distinction between what may appear on the surface titles to describe the same thing. One such title we do use fairly often in combat is tactics, but there is a distinction between it and strategy, as graphically illustrated in this quote;

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu - the Art of War

Combat PlanningIn other words, planning without action is futile, action without planning is fatal In terms of where the various titles fit in a hierarchical order in a war context, tactics, plans, and techniques, are all subservient to and serve the interests of the strategy, which is the means by which we organise ourselves, our resources and our environment to achieve smaller objectives on the way to the big prize.

If we relate this to the broad practice of a traditional Japanese martial art, our mission may be to achieve a 1st Dan, but with the strategy of travelling to Japan to immerse ourselves in the art and, within a determined timescale successfully grade. To achieve this we may have to pack in our day job, travel by whatever means is cheapest, support ourselves by teaching English and enrolling at a specific club - all this before we even get into our tactics and plans for surviving and thriving in the new club.

If we turn to the combat side of martial arts we simply have two ‘arenas’ - the street and the competition space, be that a mat, cage or ring and what I still find a bit staggering after all the years we’ve been trying to get across the message about the skills of one not being comparable with needs of the other, that being able to fight isn’t what’s needed in the street; if you’re in a fight you’ve done something very wrong leading up to that and if you’re in doubt of this as a truism go back to Sun Tzu above.

Success in combat in the street is about stopping a conflict from becoming a fight, during which luck and a whole range of uncontrollable variables may well be against you. So, having a strategy and then arranging our skills, psychology, awareness, resolve and some very simple but effective technique to fit with this is the key to success. Napoleon was well aware of the part luck, or misfortune played in the outcome of a battle;

“There are only two kinds of plans of campaign, the good and the bad. The good fail nearly always through unforeseen circumstances, which often make the bad succeed.”

We can easily think of a broad strategy for surviving street confrontations and other criminal activities, where our ‘vision‘ may be geared to the twin goals of avoidance (personal security) and/or success in an actual confrontation. The confrontational success may have been informed by the strategy of pre-emption and if we look at a strategy in competition the broadest strategy example would be making the decision to be an attacking fighter or a defender. During my years of competition my personal strategy was to attack, driven by that fact that I was a nervous fighter and whilst technically I was a good defender I wasn’t able to be relaxed enough to play a waiting game and had to turn nervousness into action.

I know when there is an absence of strategic thinking when I see self defence techniques, tactics and thinking that amount to nothing more than a ‘dog and pony’ show. These can be identified by complex and evolving techniques that work to some set plan and which require the opponent to act in a pre-determined way. These are predicated on presumptions as to how attacks evolve and that defenders somehow have all the time in the world to see attacks develop and act accordingly.

This can only ever be the case with an attacker who is essentially out of range in the first instance, because someone who is effectively within touching distance has the advantage of ‘action beating reaction.‘ In this instance you simply won’t see it coming and it’s more often the case that an aggressor is ‘in your face’ so to speak not spitting invectives at ten feet...!

Also, an elaborate defensive sequence of techniques is doomed. After the first strike, if you’ve grasped the nettle of a pre-emptive strike, no offender reacts in the same way, so some pre-planned follow-up sequence of techniques, based on a certain offender position is a sign of the Instructor lacking actual experience. After delivering a pre-emptive strike I’ve had people fall back, fall forward, drop on the spot, throw their arms up, drop their head down, or any combination of the above. I determined through years of experience that after the first shot there needed to be a pause before any follow-up to see what was on offer - assuming any follow-up was required; we can only plan so far and no further.

Over-planning is as dangerous as no planning and again we can look at some of history’s foremost military strategists in larger scale conflicts who made a very clear distinction between the very broad strategy for a battle and the actual operational plans and tactics, and these are very telling;

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” Dwight D, Eisenhower

“I never had a plan of operation.” Napoleon

Napoleon added further.... “Engage the enemy and see what happens.”

ClausewitzIn war, strategy is considered a science. But what has the considerations for a war to do with personal combat and my answer is everything and the answer is in the question which is ‘scale,’ Apart from the sheer scale of a war or battle there are more similarities than differences to personal combat.

The greatest military strategist, the Prussian, Carl Von Clausewitz who, although writing in the first half of the 19th century has influenced military strategy through to the 21st, held the view that the actions of the individual soldier were as important to a successful outcome of a battle as some complex tactic. For anyone who feels brave enough to wade through nearly 700 pages of Clausewitz’s greatest work, ‘On War,‘ or preferably an overview, his analysis of war started with a concept that the small details contained the key to large forces, and knowing how and why a man fought was essential to understanding war.

In support of the concept that personal combat and war are made of the same fabric, Clausewitz opened his treatise ‘On War’ with the statement; “War is nothing but duel on a large scale. Countless duels go to make up a war”

He was, like succeeding war strategists, convinced that when a battle commences all will not go according to plan and he is often misquoted in being the author of the famous phrase, “the fog of war.” Clausewitz never actually used the phrase ‘fog of war’ explicitly in his writings, although he did talk of fog and friction, but the metaphor is certainly apt for personal combat, and he wrote that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”

The sentiment of the quotation is that uncertainty holds the greatest sway when battle commences and real-time knowledge from the battlefield has been the challenge for hundreds of years. Even in modern warfare keeping abreast of what’s going on remains the goal of commanders although advances in technology and communications provide them with what we know in military and security terms as a Common Operational Picture (COP), the point being that all these advances are to see through the chaos and ‘fog’ of battle.

One of Clausewitz’s greatest fans was another Prussian and Chief of Staff of the Prussian military, Helmuth Von Moltke who was responsible for a quotation that has always been at the forefront of my mind when I see complexity enter into personal combat;

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

This short quote is a summary of what Moltke actually wrote but which has variations in the translation from German to English, and harking back to my earlier comments about the first pre-emptive strike, the longer translation serves to support my belief and personal experience:

“No operations plan will ever extend with any sort of certainty beyond the first encounter with the hostile main force.”

Somewhat less prosaically, Mike Tyson summed this up for all of us;

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The fog of war and uncertainty very much exist in personal conflict and combat. I came to this stark conclusion very early during my many years of ‘working the doors’ from the early 70s onwards and that the only person who actually had the complete picture of what was likely to unfold was the aggressor, whereas I was solely faced with an array of unresolved questions. I’ve written extensively over many years about how this convinced me of the correctness of pre-emptive action when faced with this ‘pea-souper’ of a fog... Napoleon again summed it up perfectly in two statements:

“Forethought we may have, undoubtedly, but not foresight.”


“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”

As you can see, all the quotes in this article are broad, sweeping statements, with no detail, but that’s their strength and all the people whose quotations I’ve used, sometimes through bitter experience, knew that being too prescriptive about tactics and detailed plans was likely a recipe for disaster, and to support this belief they left their commanders in the field to manage the engagement as it evolved. Napoleon again:

“A commander must put himself in the way of chance.”

From someone on the other side of the Napoleonic wars, Lord Horatio Nelson, who was quite clear about that whilst his role was to position his fleet to the best possible advantage, after which the battle would become individual actions by his captains;

“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”

Although I’m trying to emphasise the importance of moving to action before the opponent does, I’m not lessening the requirement for intelligence and information about the situation.

ClausewitzStrategies work by;
Building on Strengths
Resolving Weaknesses
Exploiting Opportunities
Avoiding Threats

The above are the requirements for executing a business strategy where the information has been assessed and analysed using what is termed a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (in business terms, the first two are internal, the other two would be external factors and equally so an an individual basis).

It doesn’t take a genius to see how we can parallel these with the key issues of a ‘face-to-face’ encounter and in this regard I developed my own SWOT model which flowed from my active situational awareness and alertness to anything incongruous in that environment or people that might demand further assessment. This was my 4 D’s which I’ve written about previously but which I’ll go over again in a later article.

I wanted this article to serve as a warning note, which is that if you see complexity in supposed combat drills - run a mile - as they will be fiction based on assumptions, not fact based on reality.

Lastly, and supporting the proposition that war is only about smaller duels, it’s interesting to note that as an infantry weapon early rifles doubled as a stabbing weapon with bayonet. During the Napoleonic Wars, more men died of bayonets than gunshots, due to the time needed to reload and Napoleon famously said;

“For a brave man a gun is only the handle of a bayonet.”

Peter Consterdine

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