Modern Army Combatives – an old soldier’s viewpoint

The following is reprinted from my original blog, The Elder Statesman.


From Wikipedia:

“There are several reasons that the combatives course is taught:

To educate soldiers on how to protect themselves against threats without using their firearms.

To provide a non-lethal response to situations on the battlefield.

To instill the ‘warrior instinct’ to provide the necessary aggression to meet the enemy unflinchingly.”

Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA as it is most commonly referred to, has achieved the status previously reserved for combat related sports like boxing and kickboxing.  Its marketing and promotion rivals that of professional wrestling and includes all of the glitz and glamour one would expect from such a comparison.  But, is it actually the system we need as warriors on the battlefield?   I will attempt to address that question in this post.

I returned to the military after a lengthy break in service.  On my first drill weekend after enlisting in the reserves, we had a training session on what I was told was called “Combatives.”  As a lifelong martial artists, I was excited about mixing it up with my new comrades.  And then the training started.

The training started on the ground, one person in the guard.  Various techniques were practiced with regard to passing or maintaining the guard and a simple arm-bar and choke were thrown in for good measure.  It was nothing more than basic wrestling and basic jujitsu; basic, non-lethal grappling and compliance techniques.  As a military policeman, and this being a military police unit, this was nothing new to me as we were trained in such things during military police school.  At least MPs were back in the days when I attended the school.

I asked our instructor, who was certified at level “whatever” (I don’t remember) about the training afterward and was informed that this was not MP specific training but was Army wide.

“Huh? What happened to hand-to-hand combat?” I asked.

“This IS the new hand-to-hand combat, old-timer!” I was told.  Imagine my surprise.  For those not familiar with the difference,  let me attempt an explanation.

Hand-to-hand combat, as was taught to me as a young soldier, and taught by veterans of Vietnam, was designed to quickly dispatch an enemy combatant.  It was about killing.   Killing quickly and efficiently.  You see, you will never be fighting just one enemy.  Behind him is another, and another, and another.

Modern combatives seems to emphasize one on one competition (I call it competition because the techniques are sport related in my mind, not combat related) more at home in an octagon shaped ring than the dirt fields of battle.  These techniques were appropriate for police activities where your goal is to gain compliance and effect an arrest, but not for combat in the real world.

Level 1 Combatives, taught to every new soldier, emphasizes taking the fight to the ground,  which is the last place you want to be in a real confrontation on the street or the battlefield.  I speak from experience, having been in enough street confrontations to last me a lifetime during the years I spent making arrests.  I came very close to getting killed on two occasions because the suspect’s friends were not content to see their buddy go to jail that night.

In the real world, you are never fighting just one person.  Specifically on the battlefields of modern warfare.  When was the last time two armies sent their best warriors forward, letting them fight without interference to determine the outcome of a conflict?  David and Goliath?

Kids today graduate basic and advanced training thinking they know how to fight.  They don’t.  They have been taught how to wrestle and how to initiate a confrontation by proceeding to the ground where they are exposed and vulnerable to attack by others.  Now, do I think ground fighting has merit and value?  Of course it does.  But it should not be where a soldier begins their fight training.  Striking, shooting, knife fighting, tactics and techniques that keep you on your feet and capable of addressing threats in a 3 dimensional space should be drilled into them long before they learn to go to the ground.

Primacy, or “first learned, best learned” will dictate that the soldier will revert to their most basic teachings under stress.  If that first teaching is telling them to wrestle the person to the ground in a combat scenario, we are, essentially,  training them to die.

Prior to deploying to Afghanistan, our unit was required to attend Combatives training as a refresher before seeing combat.  That refresher involved NO striking training.  None.  Nada.  Zip.

We squared off, rotating opponents as we practiced various grappling techniques, the guard, double-leg takedowns, and a simple rear choke.  Continuously, I was trying to school the youngsters to stop trying to take me down.  They wouldn’t listen.  Occasionally, a smart slap to the side of the head was applied as emphasis to let them know their head and neck was exposed while they attempted to grab for my legs.  I gave a Ranger-tabbed officer the hardest slap.  He should have known better, but he didn’t.

“This is when I would drive my bayonet right through your neck, kid.”  I would inform them as I pushed them away with a slap to the head.  They all fought exactly the way they were trained to fight; wrestle, non-lethal, defensively.   In short, they were all going to die in a real fight.  I was outraged by what we were taught.  I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing during supposed, pre-combat hand-to-hand training.  It was useless.

There are no rules in fighting, but there are rules in Combatives training.  The contradiction is a deadly recipe.  The striking techniques and boxing skills taught at the higher levels in Combatives should be the FIRST skills given to our soldiers, not the last.  Its backwards and detrimental to our mission which, in case you didn’t know, is to KILL the enemy.  The end.  No epilogue.

And, if you are lucky enough to have an arrogant instructor, as we did, who seems more interested in displaying his own skill level than imparting any useful knowledge to the troops, you get to have an even LESS educational experience.   He sent two soldiers to the infirmary and seemed so proud of himself.  It was a joke.

The training culminated in two soldiers squaring off against three potential aggressors.  When the rather large instructor decided to sucker punch me as I was talking to another aggressor, the witneses were sure there would be yet another ambulance call.  My “partner” backed away to retreat from the assault, leaving me alone with the three attackers as they all stood there expecting me to go down.  This, my friends, is what happens in real fights.  You are never fighting one person and you cannot count on your “friend” to jump in to help.  It was nothing new for me.

As I was pulled off of the instructor, his head buried under my body armor as he lay on his back, trying to get me off of him, I had to taunt him.  Just a little.

“This is when I would shove my knife through your eye.  Nice try.”

Sports are not combat.  Rules are not combat.  Wrestling is not your first priority in a real, life or death struggle.  Survival is the priority.   Dispatching that particular enemy so you can move on and kill the next enemy is the priority.   Killing is the goal, not submission, not a fancy colored belt around your silly, digital, gravel-cam pajamas.   We have lost our way when it comes to hand-to-hand combat and it will eventually come back to bite us.  We fight from a distance as a rule now in the military.  Some day, it may not be that way.  When the enemy is within arm’s reach, which skill would you rather have?  Wrestling, or killing?

Ross Elder