Friday, October 26, 2007

The nature of knife wounds 2

One of the most common misconceptions I noticed regarding most knife training is the continued belief in the one stab – one kill myth. One attacker thrusts toward the defender, who respond by either evading or deflecting the knife while replying with a stab or slash to the attacker, who simply stands in place while the knife is planted cleanly onto the targeted spot on his body.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, people hardly die instantly from a single knife wound. I can think of less than 5 spots on the body that will instantly stop an attacker when hit with a knife. Those target points are not easy to get to, which is actually a testament to how well our bodies have evolved to protect these vital points.

To get to those targets without getting your own vital points attacked requires considerable skill and finesse. So that leaves a whole range of secondary targets that are worthwhile points to hit in a knife fight but will not result in an instant kill. What I mean by “instant kill” is the immediate cessation of the attacker’s ability to attack again, regardless of is mental state, adrenaline or “recreational pharmaceuticals” in his body.

A stab to the heart is a good example; doing this will certainly result in immediate shutdown on the part of the attacker. But getting to the heart, driving the knife passed the ribcage puts the defender well within range of the attacker’s arms, legs and weapons.

Which is why there’s a lot of truth in the axiom that there are only two outcomes in a knife fight: one side gets badly cut and the other dies. There’s just no other way around it. The best one can hope for is that proper training, which will drill the use of the other hand - the one without the weapon - and proper positioning that opens up the opponent’s vital points while shielding the defenders’, will keep the damage down and end the fight quickly in favor of the attacker.

One exception to my disbelief in the one stab – one kill mindset is strategic; the defender may be better off just getting a clean shot in and running from the altercation. Although running from a fight is a great option – one that makes a lot of sense against people with knives – one has to be prepared to the absolute worst case scenario, which is a drawn out knife fight, a duel. Especially when running is not an option, My current knife training has been for the “cut and run” scenario, as well as learning to deal with the dueling scenario that is prevalent in FMA. The choice is clear cut (pardon the pun): why stick around when all I want to do is create an opening for me to escape?

It’s a lot like Lego

When I explain my understanding of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) to those studying other systems, the best way to illustrate the differences is to describe FMA as Lego.

If you examine FMA as compared to a vastly different system like Aikido, FMA is from another world. The way FMA has been taught to me lacks the ordered structure of a Japanese system. There are no ranks or belts to strive for, no “techniques” to perfect at well defined skill levels. Instead, you’re driven to work on skills or attributes. Ranks in my system are not that important. What does matter is your ability to use what you’ve learned.

In Aikido, you are given a set of attacks and the techniques to neutralize them, and you practice them until you’re able to perform them well enough to move on to a new rank. In FMA – again, as it’s taught to me – you learn angles and the bits and pieces needed to address attacks from those angles. The instrument of attack can be a knife, stick, machete, spear, an arm or leg; it doesn’t really matter since you consider direction and range first rather than the instrument of attack. The response can range from the simplest slip or tap to a series of joint breaks, strikes and a takedown.

An Aikidoka is trained to respond with a choice of techniques, but here lies the key word: techniques. In Aikido, you’re not specifically instructed to take the choice of responses to an attack and break them down and assemble them to make your own response. Whereas in FMA, that’s precisely how you’re trained to think in combat. Instead of responding in a preset pattern, you need to be flexible enough to make your own strategy and technical responses on the fly.

The best way to understand this is to think of FMA skills as Lego bricks. The abilities and attributes you pick up are the bricks and as you progress you pick up more bricks to add to your collection. As you get more bricks, you also learn to assemble them. Rather than play with a complete toy, literally with all the bells and whistles, you need to make you own toy from bits and pieces you’ve gathered.

This is why there are so many different FMA systems, and yet all have some similarities and address similar threats. Each of those systems are made by people who picks up their own Lego bricks and made their own “toy”, based on what they prefer and what they felt suited them. Give children a whole box of Lego pieces, have them build a house, and you’ll see that each of them already has individual ideas on what a house should look like. Yet by and large they are all "functional
" houses.

In comparison to FMA’s “technical flexibility” (for lack of a better word at the moment), an Aikido technique like shihonage ( four corner throw) is an entire “toy”, much like a Tonka truck which works well with other Tonka toys. It’s a neat and workable toy, but I can’t take it apart to make a new one. In FMA, a simple parrying deflection is just one piece of a grand puzzle. That in itself works but it will work even better in combination with other pieces. Only after years of Aikido does the practitioner appreciate techniques as components; as a student you simply do the techniques and master them, you’re not encouraged to be creative with what you’ve learned. In comparison, FMA encourages creativity even at the basic levels. You learn fundamental responses to attacks and you already see that they are in fact simply pieces. I myself was seeking structure in FMA when I began studying it and only after a lot of struggling did I finally understand the futility of searching for something that just isn’t there.

This seemingly madding method of martial study is in fact the best way to deal with the wide variety of threats FMA throws at the student. From sticks you transition to knives and empty hands. By considering angles instead of instrument or method of attack, the problem of using a single counterattacking movement is somewhat easier to dealt with. However, this approach is in itself not easy. It precludes that the FMA student have the technical and mental flexibility to adapt to the circumstances. That adaptability is accomplished by having the technical repertoire that will allow the student to fluently translate a knife evasion into deflection of a punch. You can’t respond with what you think is the best choice if you don’t have a lot of options to choose from. FMA may present an excellent solution for weapon and empty handed attack and counterattack, but it’s not an easy path by far.

Ironically the Samurai had the same attitude toward combat. The most highly skilled among them were able to use more than just their swords. In battle they would be able to pick up any weapon and use it to slaughter their enemies. I’m seen more than a few similarities between classical jujitsu and some of their weapons techniques that hint that they also practiced a similar “Swiss Army knife” approach to fighting.

But the samurai were a dedicated warrior class, having no other responsibilities in that society but to wage war, their weapons now as relevant to the modern age as medieval halberds are to assault rifles. On the other hand, the Filipino warrior was a farmer or fisherman in peace and a guerrilla fighter in times of war, with weapons and fighting methods that are still highly relevant, in the hands of World War II guerrillas and Philippine Special Forces fighting in the jungles of Mindanao today.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A weapon with an image problem

Among the many weapons used by Filipinos, none is as controversial and shrouded in infamy as the balisong. The history of the knife is well known to Filipino Martial Art (FMA) people and I won’t bother going through the well worn facts.

What may surprise foreign FMA practitioners, especially those who have never been to the Philippines, is just how common and reviled this weapon has become. Because of its common use as a mugger’s weapon, getting caught with one by the police is a guaranteed trip to the nearest police outpost for further questioning and probable arrest. It’s fair to say that it easier to get away with having a conventional folding knife than it is to be caught with a balisong.

The notoriety of the balisong is unfortunate, since it detracts from the weapon’s many excellent attributes. By design, the knife’s blade is held in place by both sides of the handles clamping onto the blade's tang, making the balisong one of the sturdiest folding knife designs ever made. The only way the blade will ever collapse onto the hand holding it is if the handle completely shatters or the blade breaks at the tang, which is highly unlike given the metal construction of balisong handles and the hard steel used for the blades.

The knife folds into its own handle. This makes the folded balisong quite compact. It also allows the weapon to be used as a pasak (dulo dulo, tabak maalit). A folded balisong can do damage as a weapon even before it’s used as originally intended. A skilled balisong user can even use one side of the handle as a whip if he’s caught in a bind before fully opening the knife.

Nothing is perfect and the balisong does have its drawbacks. It takes some practice to open one under the stress of an actual self-defense situation. I’m not even talking about learning fancy ways of deploying the knife. Under extreme stress fine motor skills are quickly dumped in favor of gross motor skills, and flipping open a balisong when attacked requires a degree of finesse.

Of course we end up at negative image of the balisong and how it deters the FMA practitioner from carrying one in the Philippines. The decision to carry one in the face of the risk it entails is really up to the user. The risk of being arrested just can’t be disregarded; it’s a reality that has to be taken seriously.

This is all too bad for what is an excellent knife design, one that will always be identified with the Filipino Martial Arts.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The nature of knife wounds

I recently took part in a personal protection seminar for women and I used the case of “Mike”, my wife’s former coworker, as an example of the true nature of knife wounds.

Mike surprised their male servant ransacking their home. The assailant killed Mike with 36 stab wounds. A lot of them were defensive, on this forearms, but the frightening number of wounds would naturally make the average person conclude that the attacker was either crazed by extreme hate toward Mike or was so stoned out of his gourd that he went into a demonic killing frenzy.

As far as I know, the attacker – who later gave up to the police – was neither. He was close to Mike and his family and wasn’t on drugs. So why stab someone so many times?

I think the answer lies in how people think of stab wounds. We naturally think of them as instantly fatal, which isn’t always the case. It matters more where you get stabbed, not how many times you got wounded. A series of stabs that avoid arteries and major organs will do damage and will case shock and pain but it won’t be instantly fatal.

The wounds have to– as Kuya Doug of Rochester Kali puts it – “hit the body’s plumbing”. Hitting a major artery is more or less a fatal hit, and I’m not going to discuss precisely where these spots are on the body. As they say, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Suffice to say getting a major artery cut is serious. But people have recovered from them, if they get to a hospital emergency room in time. Unless you hit the body’s “main switches” (which will turn off the lights very quickly), the person stabbed has a chance to survive the attack.

Mike’s attacker obviously didn’t want him to live, choosing to add murder to a robbery charge. Understanding the nature of stab wounds, it’s now apparent that Mike’s killer kept stabbing until he got the result he wanted: Mike’s death. The first 5 stab wounds might not have dropped Mike and more were needed. Unfortunately for Mike, none of his first wounds were instantly fatal.

Mike’s death is more than an academic topic for me. I met him and he was a good friend of my wife. It’s tempting to go through the whole “what-ifs” on how he should have defended himself but that would be unfair to him. But I can use his example to teach people the nature of violence, and hopefully save lives.