Rory Miller is an interesting character, a self-defense expert who has written some thoughtful books on violence: how to avoid it, deescalate it, or—if it is unavoidable—how to emerge as uninjured and safe from litigation as humanly possible.
He’s no “stolen valor” case, standing in his author photos in his blackbelt and karate gi in front of some strip mall dojo trying to impress you with his pose of badassery. He’s got decades in corrections, in everything from intake to extractions (donning protective gear and shields and storming cells). Somewhere in there he found the time to serve in the National Guard as a medic, in combat, in addition to training Iraqi corrections forces. I hope I don’t offend him when I say this, but in active duty we called the Guard “weekend warriors,” because there were such large gaps in their training cycles and service times.
But that’s what made their jobs so much more dangerous when they were in-theater. Regular Army soldiers drill, drill, drill. Guardsmen work, live, get called up, drill a little bit, and then get thrown into the thick of the shit.
But that’s another topic for a different day.
Returning to Mr. Miller, notice I didn’t call him a “violence expert.” Neither (I think) would he ever apply that term to himself. Why not? Well, because, due to the nature of violence, a “violence expert” would be a contradiction in terms. One cannot be an expert in something so chaotic, so full of passion and confusion. Something so mutable.
Weird shit happens in combat, both the staged variety (contact sports) and in the real thing. I saw a boxing match once in which a boxer was hit in the jaw, lost his mouthpiece, hot potatoed the piece from gloved hand to gloved hand, and actually caught it. One of the two commentators, Andre Ward, said he’d never seen anything like it. And Ward had been involved in boxing since childhood and retired undefeated, having not lost since he was twelve years old in the junior Olympics. In that time he had seen pretty much everything a boxer might see, every style and slick feint, every toe-stepping, elbowing, eye-gouging dirty trick in the book.
But pretty much everything is not everything.
It’s hard, perhaps impossible to think in the midst of violence, aside from in the most limbic and primal sense of muscle memory. As superlative boxer “Sugar” Ray Robinson once said, “You think and you’re dead.”
It’s not just that violence is so immune to analysis and understanding, though, nor that it clouds the faculties of even the most analytic or philosophical.
It’s ultimately that the learning curve is too steep for one to gain knowledge without sacrificing too much (like limb and eventually life) in exchange for the experience which might lead to technical mastery.
You don’t need me (or Malcolm Gladwell) to tell you that if you want to get better at something, you need to do it as often as possible. You want to learn to play the guitar, you start plucking the strings. For awhile you wince on the disparity between the sounds you produce and what you hear in Stevie Ray Vaugh solos. Meanwhile, your neighbor in 3B makes it even harder to learn, pounding your floor-his-ceiling with a broom handle. He adds even more dissonance to the general cacophony by making various threats against your dog as well as several unprovable insinuations about your mother. You are suddenly faced with a choice: either continue through your wincing and the neighbor’s brooming until those harsh sounds become songs, or take that once-cherry axe down to the pawnshop and try your callused hands at something else.
How do you train with violence, or practice it in a safe way? Sure, you can spar with a friend, practice on a dummy, or read a manual. But just as the map is not the territory, sparring a friend with headgear is not the same thing as streetfighting a guy on PCP trying to disfigure you with the jagged glass shards of what was once a beer bottle.
If every time you plucked a guitar string, you risked losing a finger (even if the risk was infinitesimal), you might be tempted to give up the guitar and try tickling the ivory; there, at least, you’d only have to worry about the heavy wooden fallboard clapping shut on your fingers.
Combat sports are not combat, but even there the gulf between theory (sparring) and praxis (fighting under hot lights in front of a screaming crowd) is wide indeed. Boxing even has its own version of the map-contra-territory maxim. “Everyone has a plan,” Mike Tyson once observed, “until they get punched in the nose.”
People who’ve dealt with violence often understand as much. As do astute artists who write about violence or depict it in films. Good movies and literature are rife with examples of this. Think of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Man. He’s an implacable black-eyed killer, whose odd denim suit and weird pageboy haircut only add to the unsettling surreality of the man. And that’s before you factor in his choice of weapon, the captive bolt stunner that hisses like some impossible-to-taxonomize snake. He uses it to blow holes in doors, human heads, and anything else that either gets in his way or earns his ire.
He does quite a bit of killing in No Country, and proves resourceful enough to do everything from escaping police custody to tracking a man across the open range. Yet it all comes crashing down for him in the end—when he gets t-boned by a car at a four-way intersection. And it’s not even a very sexy car that wrecks his universe and turns him into a bloody, staggering mess. It’s just some old wood-paneled station wagon.
The caprice of fate, its randomness, has caught Chigurh with a car just as it previously caught his potential victims with that coin he liked to flip.
Another great example of this is in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I resisted reading the book for years. Mostly because every time I caught scenes of the movie on TV, it looked like the standard romanticized view of the West you see in Hallmark productions, about love blossoming between ranch hands and widows walking hand in hand against a backdrop of chestnut criollo running off into painterly sunsets.
But the book is a hell of a lot different from the movie.
There’s a scene, near the end of the book, when the cattle herders have almost completed their arduous trek from Texas to Montana. Montana’s God’s country, with all the wonder and fury that implies.
It’s rough, but the men, well-seasoned in previous range wars and cattle raids, are up to the challenge. One of the saltiest and smartest of the lot is Deets.
Deets is a black cowboy with a savvy for navigating land and reading weather patterns and other omens. He’s so good that even the most bigoted, racist cowpoke has to tip his hat to the man and acknowledge not just his handiness, but his supremacy in a few areas. And yet Deets is finally killed by a young Indian boy, not even a brave, just a runty tintype who’s trembling with fear when he does the deed.
The West was pretty much won at this point (from the White perspective). Indians were mostly drowning their sorrows over their shameful conquest on the res, sacrificing dignity by appearing in various medicine shows, or collaborating with whites as trackers and guides. And yet this boy spears the seasoned old cowboy, a veteran of various range wars and cattle disputes, as much due to confusion and fear as anything else.
Sure, Deets had let his guard down by indulging in an ill-advised show of compassion, rescuing a swaddled baby, abandoned in his papoose by a squaw who took off at the first sight of the palefaces and their buffalo-maned black guide.
In the scene (perhaps the most moving in a truly affecting epic tale), Deets is holding the baby out to the young, quaking wannabe brave, who rewards the black man’s noble gesture by skewering him clean-through with his flint-tipped spear.
There’s a poignancy to the miscommunication, but also the sowing of the seed of a smoldering rage that explains how people can go from having good intentions to engaging in war crimes. Human nature’s always mutable, even when it seems fixed. And nothing can make it come unstuck faster than violence.
What the hell kind of “expert” (in violence or anything else) could have predicted such a random, ignominious death for the skilled and battle-tested specimen that was Deets?
You can mitigate the risks, but ultimately violence is a well you don’t want to go to unless you absolutely have to.
I’ll shut up now and just let Old Bull Lee have the last word: No one controls life, but anyone with a frying pan controls death.