The late ’70s and ’80s was a time of expansion and experimentation as U.S. SOF units digested the lessons of Vietnam and reveled in the Reagan presidency, which meant increased funding for all of the U.S. military, and especially special operations. But, still, hand-to-hand training lagged. It was around this time that “combatives” became the common term used to refer to military martial arts, gradually replacing “hand-to-hand.”
According to Special Forces veteran Greg Hoisington, “We had a few hours of instruction in ‘Combat Judo’ during Phase I when I attended SFTG in the early 1970s. It was fairly basic, mostly throws and take-downs. I think it was mainly to spark our interest in the martial arts after we graduated.” And so the trend continued.
Big John Delavan, an SF veteran, said it seemed to him that “all combatives training Army-wide stopped in either the late 60s or very early 70s. This is not to say individual unit training or special unit training. But from what I could ascertain it included general combatives training for all soldiers in general with the decision to justify and employ combatives training left to the (unit) commander.” Civilian martial arts in the U.S. in the late 1960s through the 1980s was in a major state of flux as martial arts popularity in the U.S. exploded with a large influx of styles and systems. The tendency of American martial artists to mix styles into hybrid systems was also mixing the pot. Masters back in the originating countries, Japan and Korea foremost, tried vigorously to exert some degree of control over those crazy, disloyal Americans and keep them in line and in the fold. But, still, the blending and hybrids continued.
Mike Echanis spent a lot of time on Ft. Bragg teaching his Hwarang Do system to Special Forces troops of 5th and 7th Groups. Echanis remains today a controversial figure, with many supporters and critics, some claiming that he was an outstanding martial artist and instructor and some claiming he was a snake oil salesman. For certain is that Mike’s Hwarang Do system was a hybrid system composed of techniques from numerous styles that he had picked up. Such is the way with all systems: adaptation and evolution. Also for certain is that Mike was talented and charismatic, but also a bit eccentric, and he loved the attention and the spotlight. Echanis was killed in Nicaragua in 1978, at age 27, under mysterious circumstances, while he was working as a military contractor.
Said one SF veteran who trained with Echanis, “His system had lots of cool training, but was too much a personality cult.” This is always a risk with martial arts, but should not be a factor in any military hand-to-hand or combatives program. But, this was not unique. Snake oil ninjas ran amok in America at this time, during the U.S. martial arts upheaval and reformation.
The 1980s and 1990s were also a time of stabilization, reformation, and continued innovation as the snake oilers dissipated and martial artists began to sort through the chaos. Many schools and systems began to focus more on meditation and philosophy in the course of their training. The logic was that students needed to know not just how to fight but when. Such sentiments have always been a part of traditional martial arts, but have historically only been exposed to upper-level students and masters, not white and yellow belts. But such was the culture of the day.
The Trojan Warrior Project was conducted in 1985 by 10th special Forces Group. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, one of the three primary civilian instructors, described his experience of the project in his book, In Search of the Warrior Spirit. The Aikido and meditation instructors sought to turn a test group of green berets into modern-day samurai. Strozzi-Heckler’s wrote in his book, “The point of the Trojan Warrior Project is to increase (their) potential as soldiers and as individuals.” The instructors sought to teach the students how to be better human beings, by being more self-aware, topics, many felt, and feel, is better suited for churches and temples, not for military training or combatives programs.
The outcome of the program was mixed. About a third said it changed their lives. Another third thought it was a total waste of time. The remaining third were ambivalent. 10th Group and the SF community nicknamed the project The Jedi Warrior Project, due to the focus on meditation and mind control.
Culture was a key factor driving the Trojan/Jedi Project. People wanted to avoid another Vietnam, especially another Mai Lai (reference is to the infamous Mai Lai Massacre of March 1968), or any other sort of war crimes debacles. This gave resurrection to the ancient dream of warrior-monks, soldiers who are capable of self-control and self-discipline to the point that command headaches, such as drugs, alcohol, and the misapplication of violence, do not happen. Valiant goals, but difficult, and such training probably should not be mixed in with hand-to-hand. The outcome of the project is that it confused and angered some of the test troops.
A key lesson of Trojan/Jedi was that combatives programs should steer clear of esoteric skills, such as ethics and moralities, things that are better left to the soldier to pursue on his or her own. Another good lesson was the SF and the SOF community disabusing themselves of the warrior-monk fantasy, at least in hand-to-hand training. “Mushin” is a Japanese word that means to act or fight without thinking, reflexively, instinctively. But, how does one teach that to his or her students, and does if it can be taught does that involve more than fight training?
One problem with both Hwarang Do and the Jedi Project was that both fell short due to impractical super ninja monk goals and other esoteric elements that cannot really be taught. And thus the search continued.
In 1989 the USMC adopted the LINE system of combatives, a system of traditional Asian martial arts influences, in particular Judo, of course, but also Muay Thai (kickboxing) and Jujitsu. LINE, which stands for Linear Infighting Neural-Override Engagement, started the new era in U.S. military and SOF combatives. It was much more pragmatic and easily learned that any of its predecessors. LINE did have problems, though, in particular, that it trained the Marine only to react to an attack and was weak in training Marines to initiate attacks. Also, every technique taught in LINE was deadly and did not allow for capture and restraint. But, others took notice of LINE and its results, and in spite of its problems, many credit LINE for ushering in the new era of military combatives.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) came to American in 1993 with the founding of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The Gracie family, founders of Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ) were key players in the spread of the sport. BJJ master Royce Gracie won the first 1993 UFC tournament by submitting three opponents in under five minutes, total, and started a revolution in martial arts.
MMA was a mixing of numerous styles and allowed both striking and grappling. It was seen as barbaric by many traditional martial artists who claimed that a fighter sitting on his opponent’s chest and pounding away at his head and face was not fair sport. What about rules? What about traditions? How do we remain relevant in the face of this new madness? We’re not trained for all this rolling around on the matt! Exactly, said MMA supporters. Demand for MMA dojos and schools began to skyrocket.
Stanely McChrystal was commander of the Ranger Regiment in 1994 and 1995 and decided it was time to reinvent Ranger combatives. That meant standardization. And that meant all “ninja instructors” and traditional systems had to be put on notice. Rangers deserved a better, more effective, realistic, and standardized hand-to-hand system that every Ranger could be trained in and made effective.
Matt Larson was tasked with designing this new system for the Ranger Regiment. Matt had studied several styles and knew that BJJ (Brazilian Jujitsu) was a good starting point, but that it needed more. The traditional systems most influential to modern military combative systems are Judo and Jujitsu, and it’s derivative Brazilian Jujitsu, and Muay Thai, Thai kickboxing, in its many variations. It was, in essence, very MMA, which was to be expected given that Mixed Martial Arts at that time was transforming the sports of martial arts and boxing, some would say, “Turning them on their heads.” And slamming them to the deck.
More traditional systems, such as Karate and Tae Kwondo, were seen to be too sporting and hierarchical and not practical enough for a solid combatives system. Systems such as Aikido were seen to be somewhere in the middle ground. Matt realized that a solid combatives program had to weave in with other unit training, such as with the rifle. Separating hand-to-hand training from rifle training makes no sense given that soldiers when in a combat AO, have their rifles on them all of the time, thus being able to maintain control of and use their weapon in a CQB situation is crucial.
In 1998 the USMC dropped the LINE system and adopted MCMAP, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, which offered more flexibility and fixed the issues LINE has with capture and restraint.
Also in 1998, the Ranger Regiment held its first combatives tournament. This was key for the reason that it signaled that all Rangers were training on their combatives program and that Ranger commanders were committed to that training and supporting it.
That same year, the Special Warfare Center, the command over all SF training, adopted LINE, which the USMC had just dropped, which some saw as a bit ironic. Combatives systems have to fit not just the needs but the culture of a military branch. They are also influenced by broader civilian martial arts trends and popularities, and also by the Defense Department and military branch politics, which is often about funding and who gets the biggest slices of various pies.