Rising Crime, Self-Protection, and Finding Honest Martial Instruction

Since the horrible summer of 2020, crime has risen precipitously in cities throughout the United States. This alone should be sufficient to convince decent American citizens to train in self-protection. Those interested in doing so should be cautious, however, lest they fall victim to, as Richard Feynman referred to it, “the ignorance of experts.” 

It doesn’t take much of a critical eye to discern that the overwhelming majority of the martial arts instructors on YouTube convey, at best, mixed messaging. At worst, they are demoralizing. 

In any event, they set their students up for failure. 

A particularly instructive illustration of this phenomenon is a recent exchange between two skilled martial artists, former Navy Seal Jocko Willink and Tim Kennedy, an Army Ranger. Kennedy was a guest on Willink’s podcast. A viewer asked the two special operators how a “non-fighter” should train for self-defense. 

The host turned the query over to his guest. “Anything is better than nothing,” Kennedy insisted. Even “CrossFit training,” given its self-defense component, is a viable option. While there is no right or wrong course of action to take when it comes to training in self-defense, there are “degrees of better.” 

For Kennedy, one can’t go wrong with the “foundational martial arts”: wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, and Jiu-Jitsu. Elaborating, he said: “You know, you step up against a guy that has a little bit of knowledge in any one of those . . . they’re a pain in the ass. And if he has a little bit [of knowledge] in all of them or he’s really good at one of them? Just kiss your ass goodbye. You’re going to sleep.”

Willink unequivocally agreed. Yet he also informed his sizable audience that they already have a “natural defense,” which is to “run away.” If someone comes at me and “you’ve got a knife, or whatever,” Willink said, “I’m going to run from you. It’s OK. It’s defense. I’m being defensive. I’m running away from you.” 

Kennedy replied: “I 100 percent agree with you.” He added that if someone came up to him and demanded that he give him his wallet, Kennedy would reply: “You’ve got to catch me first.” 

Kennedy and Willink are representative of an attitude that pervades the contemporary world of martial arts. While martial artists generally, and Tim Kennedy and Jocko Willink specifically, are good guys, the attitude they’re exhibiting isn’t just lamentable—it’s outrageous. It’s outrageous because decent human beings, recognizing, as they do, the Kennedys and Willinks of the world as authorities on the subject of self-protection, turn to them for assistance in helping them surmount their own fears of being preyed upon. 

Their advice is terrible, in more ways than one. 

A capable martial arts instructor must ask and answer for himself the following questions: 

1) What is a martial art?

Let’s get back to basics and remind ourselves that “martial,” as in martial art, means “of or pertaining to war.”


The martial arts, then, are, historically and etymologically, the arts of war. 

Martial arts instructors, then, have a singular task vis-à-vis their students: They must instill martial prowess, i.e. the skill and the will to incapacitate the enemy by whatever means necessary. The violence for which a student of a real martial art trains is the violence that is necessary to prevail in a conflict that could become lethal.

2) What is the context within which martial arts students will prepare themselves to use violence?

Given the definition of a martial art, the only appropriate mode of training is one that prepares students to unleash violence within the context of a potentially life-threatening attack launched by a determined assailant against innocents, whether those innocents are students themselves, their loved ones, or other innocents who can’t fend for themselves. 

Put another way, martial arts students should not be training for duels, matches, contests, bar fights, or street brawls. They should not train to brawl at all. Like soldiers, students of the martial arts should train to dispatch potentially homicidal assailants with ruthless efficiency. 

Students pursuing self-protection training in a martial art should be trained to encounter, not “opponents” but, rather, “enemies.

There are only enemies, anti-humans who have divested themselves of their humanity by choosing instead to become bipedal predators who feed off of the blood of innocents. 

3) Against whom am I preparing students to use the skills that I instill in them?

To repeat the last point: Students should be training to become as capable as possible of destroying the enemy. And the enemy is anyone who won’t think twice about raping, robbing, bludgeoning, and murdering innocents in order to get what he wants. 

Let’s put this another way: Students are not training to win contests. They’re not training for sport. The enemy is not likely to be an athlete, a boxer, or another martial artist. Nor should students be training to kick the ass of some guy who is acting like a douchebag. 

In other words, boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—the arts Tim Kennedy and Jocko Willink recommend for those who are interested in learning self-protection—presuppose a context fundamentally other than the context of a martial art, the context of war. They presuppose an opponent, someone with whom one can “square off” or with whom it is safe to go to the ground. This assumption is at once wholly intelligible and appropriate within the context of a sport. It couldn’t be more inappropriate, more dangerous, within the context of a possibly deadly confrontation, of war.  

As far as grappling is concerned, most of the pioneers of World War II close-quarter combatives were grapplers. So too were many of their students. And yet they have always insisted, forcefully and repeatedly, that the ground is the last place to which one wants to go in a real violent confrontation—however masterful a “ground game” one may have achieved. The ground, given its solidity and the potential it has to be uneven and strewn with debris and broken glass, isn’t remotely as accommodating as a mat in a dojo. And considering the likelihood that the enemy could have a weapon and/or fellow belligerents waiting in the wings to whom a defender will be that much more vulnerable while on the ground, training in a grappling art leaves much to be desired for the only kind of (non-sportive) confrontation for which decent civilian adults should ever prepare.  

When we turn to the standing arts, things are not much better. The conventional fighting stance that students of boxing and many other martial arts are taught to assume reinforces this fiction—an invidious fiction—that it is some single opponent against whom they’ll be “squaring off.” Yet squaring off, putting up one’s dukes, is likely to be neither necessary nor desirable against a scumbag or gang of scumbags who are resolved to cave in the side of your skull with a crowbar or a tire iron, or who sucker strikes you in the back of your head with a rock. 

The point is that the only type of violent transaction for which it is both morally and legally permissible for adults to engage occurs everywhere but comes from nowhere. It is a life or death situation, whether or not the assailant or assailants intend to extinguish the lives of their targets. There’s nothing sporty or organized about it. 

Since microseconds count, it should be obvious that there is no time for a person targeted to square off. Not only is it not likely that there would be time to do so while under attack. Even if there was time to do so, it would be a waste of time, for it takes more time to stand in a guard position and then strike than it takes just to strike! 

And by throwing up the hands in front of one’s head and face prior to pre-empting the enemy’s assault, one renders exponentially more difficult to sustain any argument from self-defense one may try making upon severely injuring or killing an assailant. This is because if one had time to assume a conventional fighting stance, then, presumably, one had time to walk away or otherwise diffuse the confrontation. In squaring off, one consents to “fight.” 

Again, in a ring or within the context of sport, this makes sense. In the context of self-protection, it most assuredly does not. 

So, to put it simply and contrary to Tim Kennedy’s suggestion, a person is not likely to be violently attacked by a practitioner of boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, or Jiu Jitsu. One must train accordingly. 

4) To whom will I impart this training?

The people most likely to pursue training in an art of war for the sake of defending themselves and their loved ones generally possess various peculiar characteristics. 

First, while they may be of any age, those who are seeking training in a combat art tend to be older. Since they want to learn how to maximize their odds of being able to successfully defend themselves within their unique bodies, they are not aiming to compete, so styles and systems that specialize in flashy, choreographed, but largely impractical techniques are not going to appeal to them. 

Second, they are not, then, likely to be especially athletic, if they’re athletic at all. Every drill, every habit sown, must be conducive to the end of making students ever more efficient at neutralizing those who would prey upon them. 

Third, they are most definitely not troublemakers. They don’t need their instructor to repeatedly warn them against using the skills they acquire in their training for nefarious or otherwise illegitimate purposes. 

Nor do they need to have the very fears that motivated them to pursue martial training in the first place reinforced by the people—their instructors—to whom they turn for help in surmounting their fears!  

What this means is that instructors who go about with a long face, as if they lament having to train their students in the use of violence, who indiscriminately (without any attention paid to circumstances) tell their students to run, and who deluge them with ominous tales of the “prison-trained monsters” up against whom they may come further ensconce the anxieties, and possibly the trauma, that motivated their students to take up the study of self-protection.

They do their students a grave injustice by failing to deliver the goods.

5) What motivates people psychologically to pursue training in martial arts?

To reiterate the last point, it is fear, the fear of not being able to successfully defend oneself and one’s loved ones from verminous bipedal predators that fundamentally accounts for why your average person, particularly your average adult, takes up the study of a martial art. This being the case, instructors have an obligation to help their students manage and channel that fear for the purpose of annihilating the enemy, if the occasion should ever demand this course of action.

Instructors who fail to know their students by strengthening this fear fail their students.  

6) How will I do right by my students in satisfying this longing?

Instructors fulfill their calling by refusing to peddle fear porn consisting of tales of invincible bad guys, life imprisonment for decent people who defend themselves and their loved ones from the bad guys, and orders to run from the bad guys! 

Yet they have a duty to do more. Martial arts instructors need to spare no occasion to instill in their students both the physical skill and, critically, the moral will, the mental focus, to excise from the planet like the malignant cancer they are, any and all who would imperil the innocent. 


The enemy is not invincible. He’s mortal. Whatever his race, religion, or tribe, and whether he is a drug kingpin, a terrorist, a mafia hitman, a gangbanger, or an ex-con—the enemy bleeds, breaks, and dies. 

He can be critically injured, maimed, and killed. 

Instructors should continually remind their students of this axiomatic truth. Students of the martial arts, specifically, the arts of war, don’t need to be told how dangerous such lowlifes are (as if they would go around looking to pick “fights” with these types, or any types, once they got a little training in a warrior art under their belt!). They need to have it drilled into them that the godless are not only mortal but will in fact be forced to come to terms with their mortality if the evil are ever so stupid as to attack them!

This is the martial spirit. We need more of it in the world of martial arts. 

And those American citizens who are willing to assume responsibility for their own protection by pursuing the study of a genuinely martial art should take care to seek out an instructor who has asked and answered the foregoing questions.

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About Jack Kerwick

Jack Kerwick earned his doctorate degree in philosophy from Temple University. His areas of specialization are ethics and political philosophy, with a particular interest in classical conservatism. His work has appeared in both scholarly journals and popular publications, and he recently authored, The American Offensive: Dispatches from the Front. Kerwick has been teaching philosophy for nearly 17 years at a variety of institutions, from Baylor to Temple, Penn State University, the College of New Jersey and elsewhere. His next book, Misguided Guardians: The Conservative Case Against Neoconservatism is pending publication. He is currently an instructor of philosophy at Rowan College at Burlington County.

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