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Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Living the Martial Way

Living the Martial Way
Forrest E. Morgan

This is my second time reading this book. The first time was probably about ten years ago, and back then, I thought it was awesome. This time around, I have considerably more mixed feelings.

Living the Martial Way is "is a concise manual for training in warrior-ship". The goal, according to the author, is to provide an outline whereby someone seeking to follow the true warrior's path can learn how to do that. Morgan breaks his book into three sections: the first, The Way of Training, discusses the actual physical training, from how to choose a style and school, to how to adjust your training to meet your goals. The second chapter, the Way of Honor, gets into a variety of philosophical discussion about codes of behavior. The last section, the Way of Living, is a sort of catch-all section that includes fitness, the relationship between martial arts training and religion, and the subject of "mastery" in the martial arts.

So what's good about this book? Honestly, a lot of things. The first section is probably the most valuable; Morgan provides a solid outline for a practitioner to decide what kind of martial art they should be studying, or how to adjust their practice if they are already training. Morgan's ideas about strategy and tactics are extremely useful, and anyone who wants to be even vaguely successful in the martial arts would do well to understand them. Some of the "mystical" ideas I found a bit hard to swallow, though Morgan apparently has become a greater skeptic as he's gotten older.

The section on honor is...interesting. How valuable it is will probably depend on how much the reader has thought about these sorts of issues previously, and how much they sync up with Morgan's attitudes. More on that in a minute.

The final section, as I said, is a bit of a hodgepodge. I actually didn't re-read the Fitness section, since Morgan himself admits that the information contained therein is hopelessly out-of-date. The religion and mysticism section didn't have much for me, but it might be a good starting point for a new martial arts student. If nothing else, Morgan warns prospective martial artists about the dangers of martial cults, something that should be repeated loud and often.

So, there's a lot of really useful, interesting ideas here. What's the issue?

The issue, for me, is Morgan's voice, tone, and the way he chooses to phrase, well, everything. I am, at this point in my life, skeptical of the idea that practicing a martial art is in any way concurrent with being a warrior. I am certainly skeptical of the idea that warriors are the sort of magical elite that Morgan holds them up as being. Understand that I have the utmost admiration for those people who actually willingly suit up to go into combat in service of their country, and I even understand the idea that one can be a warrior in a philosophical sense without being an actual serviceman or woman. I am, however, quite skeptical of the idea that spending your time outside of your office job devoted to the study of a combative system that hasn't been relevant to modern warfare for half a century somehow makes you into a warrior.

Morgan's information is good, but it's buried under a constant self-aggrandizing tone that manages to come across not as the humble warrior he exhorts his reader to be, but as a pompous ass who thinks he largely superior to everyone around him. While that tone is not constant, it pops up more frequently than I like, and enough that I found it setting my teeth on edge more than a few times.

Do I still believe this book is worth reading? If you're a practicing martial artist, probably. While the writing sets my teeth on edge at times, it does contain some ideas that are certainly worth considering. The entire first section alone makes the book worthwhile. The rest of it, I would approach with a bit of skepticism.

If you are not a practicing martial artist, but are considering it, I'm not sure this is the place I'd want you to start. While there are ideas I'd want you to consider here about goals and directions, I think that there are better, more reasonably written books out there that might serve you better. Rory Miller's Meditations on Violence will give you a better reference point, without all of the "you must become a samurai warrior!!1!" stuff.

If you aren't a practicing martial artist, and aren't considering, I have no idea why you would even be considering this book.

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