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Building the ethical warrior: How the United States Marine Corps embraced martial arts


AP Photo/Altaf Qadri

The shift in the focus of modern warfare to counterinsurgency has created a need for a new kind of warrior - a warrior with the ethics to protect all life, and with the training and intelligence to respond with the correct and appropriate level of force.

Counterinsurgency puts warfighters into very difficult situations, often amidst unarmed civilians, where the line between innocents and hostiles is blurred.  Recognizing ethics and character training as central requirements for the modern warrior, Marine Corps Order 1550.54 officially established the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program in 1999.

The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, or MCMAP for short, is modeled after Eastern martial arts.  The program  focuses on the threefold development of mental discipline, character discipline, and physical discipline to create the ethical Marine warrior. 

Like traditional martial arts, MCMAP uses a belt-ranking system.  The ranks range from the lower belts of Tan, Green, Gray, and Brown, to six degrees of Black Belts.  Instructor-qualified practitioners are entitled to wear an additional stripe on their rank belts. 

The belts are standard issue web belts, and since every Marine is required to participate in MCMAP, every Marine wears a rank belt with his or her Marine Corps Combat Utility UniformThis is perhaps the most overt symbol of how MCMAP is deeply embedded into Marine Corps culture and doctrine.

MCMAP is not the first attempt to introduce Eastern disciplines to the military - there have been others, such as the Trojan Warrior Project, and the semi-mythical Project Jedi.  These programs tried to inject external disciplines into the cloistered culture of the military but were never fully assimilated into that culture. 

MCMAP, on the other hand, was built from the inside out, with the Marine Corps values of honor, courage, and commitment at the core.  The goal was to create "a martial arts lifestyle created for Marines by Marines."  MCMAP was integrated fully into the Marine Corps' daily life, with its lessons permeating all aspects of Marine doctrine, training, and operations.

To develop physical discipline and ensure that every Marine is capable in close combat, MCMAP combines unarmed techniques from karate, jiu jitsu, judo, and other disciplines, with knife, bayonet, baton, and other weapons combatives.  In keeping with the ethical goals of the program, the focus of many techniques are non-lethal applications.  In addition to extensive full-contact drills, physical conditioning is emphasized.  The difficulty of the MCMAP instructor trainer course is informally believed to favor comparably with the U.S. Army Ranger course. 

A key aspect of the training is to learn to use the appropriate level of force:

Applying the right technique with the least required force to prevent situations from escalating beyond control is especially important in military operations other than war.

Mental discipline is developed through constant study of the art of war - from classroom training in decision-making, risk assessment, and other skills, to professional reading programs.  The goal of mental discipline is to enhance situational awareness through technical and professional knowledge, and to educate warriors who:

possess the virtually instinctive impulse to do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way.

Possibly the most critical discipline for modern warfare - and the practice that sets MCMAP from traditional military training - is the emphasis on character and ethical discipline.  As such, the ethical warrior training component is considered to be the core of MCMAP.  

Under certain circumstances, character discipline and ethics have proven to be far more effective than firepower in the modern battlefield.  The U.S. Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency vividly illustrates this point by relating the story of an American patrol that, when confronted by an angry Iraqi crowd whose mood was rapidly deteriorating into potential violence, took a knee and pointed their weapons at the ground. 

At the sight of the kneeling soldiers, the crowd's anger rapidly dissipated, and a violent confrontation with unarmed civilians was avoided.  MCMAP attempts to capture the ethics and decision-making that led to this courageous order by the commanding officer of that unit:

Without an inculcated code of ethics, U.S. warriors might win the war and still lose in the court of world opinion if the methods they use are dishonorable. MCMAP aims to develop self-discipline and self-control to restrain oneself in the heat of the moment and to use force responsibly.

When the ethical and character component of MCMAP is distilled to its basics, the central tenet of the ethical warrior training is the protection of life:

The ethical warrior shows respect for the value of life, regardless of the relative values of culture and behavior.

All life.  Not just innocent civilians, but, under certain circumstances, even those of enemy combatants.  However, the idealism is tempered with a dose of reality:

Let's not be naive.  Marines will close with and kill insurgent combatants.  That is our job.  However the role of an ethical warrior is not only to kill but also to protect life.

The ethical warrior is primarily a "defender/protector" rather than a killer, and a protector of life, not just for the benefit of others but for the benefit of retaining one's own humanity under the most appalling circumstances:

...there is a great measure of satisfaction in a life lived according to the precept of protecting others - and is the key to trumping the conflicting relative values between us.

Like many traditional martial arts, MCMAP seeks to develop the ethical warrior holistically, and with the implicit goal of improving the whole person.  It requires the warrior to protect all life, not the least of which is his or her own.

The Yagyu Shin Kage Ryu school of Japanese swordsmanship makes the distinction between satsujinken, the sword that takes away life, and katsujinken the sword that gives life.  Yagyu practitioners are admonished to wield katsujinken, the life-giving sword.  It is with a modern reflection of this admonition, that the today's ethical warriors are sent into battle. 

This article is dedicated to Marine Officer Candidate Michael Miller of Chicago, an Aikidoka who heard the call to serve his country and is currently undergoing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico.


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