Sunday, May 18, 2014

Civil War: Battle of Atlanta: Keokuk, IA

Background: As a Canadian the American Civil War has fascinated me for years. It is a pivotal event in world history and marks the greatest loss of American life in war. Hundreds of thousands of young men sacrificed their lives in a conflict that pitted the North against the South. The implications were vast and far reaching effecting countries far beyond the United States. The Civil War provided much of the necessary backdrop for Canada’s Confederation and the drive to become a country.
Confederate cannons explode furiously on the field of war. 

Knowing that this event has played such a pivotal role in world history I jump on the opportunity to visit Civil War sites. I have had the chance to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga, visiting the areas where armies crashed together. I can’t describe the eeriness of a battlefield and the ghosts that haunt the earth. Personally Chickamauga spooked me more than Gettysburg. I was familiar with the latter from the film of the same name and visited it on a bright, crisp fall day. I knew of Chickamauga through the work of Ambrose Bierce. He was a Civil War vet and wrote brilliant works about his experiences. I will put a link to his work below and highly recommend you read a couple when you have a moment. The description of the horror of the battle and the twilight streaked battlefield matched exactly what I saw.

When I heard that there was going to be a historical re-enactment happening close to the Quad Cities where I live, it was beyond doubt that I was going to attend. Keokuk, Iowa was a short two and a half hours away and completely worth the drive in order to see this new adventure.
A cannon in the foggy woods of Chickmauga still fending off ghosts.

What did I learn: I was blown away when I arrived at Rand Park. Battle Lines were drawn up and the armies were beginning to shuffle into position. I quickly decided that I was going to set myself a couple of quick goals. Despite there being an announcer I figured that his voice would quickly become lost over the roar of cannons. Since I wouldn't be able to hear the announcer I didn't know how the battle was to proceed. The only thing I knew was the final outcome. Therefore, I was profoundly curious about how terrain, noise and action effected my perception of the battle. What I saw versus what really happened might be two totally different things. Obviously, as a spectator I was not involved in the re-enactment, rather witnessed it from the sidelines.
Smoke obscures the battlefield blocking our vision. 

My suspicions about the announcer were confirmed the moment the first cannon fired. His voice was gone, lost to the roar of man-made thunder. I was standing slightly to the left of one of the cannons and a little in front. The shockwave from the blast rippled across myself and the spectators standing close. It was fantastic and I was laughing and smiling. Within seconds there was cheering and crying as small kids broke down under the noise. There was a full range of reactions in the second it took for the next gun to go off and blanket us once more in smoke.
Volley fire was amazingly terrifying to witness. 

I imagined trying to relay orders in the chaos and to make out what was going on. While I was pondering this the Union guns cut loose across the field. It was eerie to see the enemy line suddenly vanish behind a cloud of white smoke. A split second later the report echoed across to us which would have heralded a storm of death.

The Union cannon shroud their line in smoke.

Since we were embedded with the Confederates when they chose to advance we moved with them. We dropped down behind small rise and lost the right-hand side of the battlefield. The group we followed flanked a Union unit and proceeded to shoot them to pieces. I was so focused on the action in front of me that I completely missed the cannons being advanced till they announced their presence with a cacophony of sound.

Moreover, the Confederate unit I was shadowing succeeded in capturing the Union group and for all visual purposes “winning”. It wasn't till we change position that we saw a huge number of southern soldiers had been captured as well. I have read in a number of stories where one group would claim victory yet the vast majority of the army would lose. Ernest Yunger details it in his accounts of the first world war in “Storm of Steel.” Xenophon and the March of the 10 000 is another story where a highly successful group of Greek mercenaries win their portion of the battle while their employer is killed and the cause lost.
Confederate forces shelter behind a fence.

What was similar: The similarities called back to my time in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. During my seven year tenure in the cadets I grew to be hugely familiar with the joys of marching and parading. Although the commands were different the units behaved much like the units of my youth. Unit Leaders badgered and cursed their soldiers into a line and got the dressing down proper. Once the troops were in line they marched forwards trying to hold that dressing as best as possible. Over the uneven ground it was nearly impossible yet they did a respectable job.
A plume of smoke heralds death.

I have also seen cannons fired in the past and was reasonably aware of the procedure that is required in order to shoot one off. However, there is something wholly different about seeing the a whole field of cannons roaring at each other. When I was in Halifax there was a whole ceremony that went with the discharge of the weapon. However, on the battlefield the orders where given and carried out in a fraction of the time. There was no ceremony, just simple and swift military precision executed flawlessly over a dozen cannon on both sides.

Conclusion: If you have the opportunity to ever check out a re-enactment of any sort you shouldn’t pass on the opportunity. History is buried in the past yet for a day you can unearth it and get a feel for how our ancestors lived. Nothing helps you appreciate the present like seeing the tools of the past. When you look at the tools of a battlefield surgeon and you compare that to the facilities that we have today it makes our current technology look nothing short of miraculous. Although we no longer fight in the manner of the Civil War you can still grow from the experience. 
A wonderful day filled with wonderful experiences.

Best regards and keep training,

Martin "Travelling Ronin" Fransham 

If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you. 

On Facebook:
On check the video of my experience with the Civil War: Travelling Ronin
Check out the home of the 9th Virginia Calvary:
Read Ambrose Bierce's short story "Chickamauga:"

Monday, May 5, 2014

Krav Maga: Krav Montreal: Montreal, QC

Background: I have always heard that Krav Maga was intense. Developed from lessons learned in the Second World War, it was needed to prepare the Jewish people in the newly formed country of Israel for hand to hand combat. Following the genocide of their people at the hands of the Nazis, the Jewish people were preparing to take every contingency against something similar occurring again. It didn't take someone with eagle eyes to realise that the creation of the Jewish state was contentious and that they were standing on hostile territory. Although the Western countries had pledged their support Israel was not foolish enough to depend on them alone.

Before the start of World War II the west had been a hot bed of anti-Jewish sentiment as well. Hitler was named Time Magazine’s man of the year in 1938. After the “night of shattered glass” where Germans broke the windows and smashed shops belonging to Jewish business owners, Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King supported the action. Perhaps one of the most damning examples of Western indifference was the plight of the “S.S. St. Louis.” A Jewish refugee ship bearing people fleeing the gulags was turned away by the United States, Canada and Latin America. No one was prepared to help Jew refugees. Regardless of your views on the creation of Israel, you have to appreciate that the Jews knew that they couldn't count on anyone for aid.
Multiple attackers changed fight so it was no longer like a ring.
Your situational awareness had to be spot on.

Enter Imrich Lichtenfeld who began amalgamating the best techniques that he could find in order to create a highly effective Martial Art. The system had a few requirements. First, it needed to be simple at the early levels for mass adoption. However, it also needed to be complex enough that with more in depth study it could be adapted for a variety of functions. Second, it needed to help simulate the stress and pressure of real combat. Lichtenfeld was a boxer and wrestler by training. Yet, he had learned that real combat was very different from competition. Due to this harsh reality, Krav Maga was born and began to spread becoming one of the most respected self-defense Martial Arts.

Determined to get a better understanding of Krav Maga I contacted Thierry Cimkauskas. He runs a Krav Maga school out of Montreal just north of downtown. Within moments of sending him an email I got a response back that I was more than welcome to come experience the Israeli IMI System. I had watched a couple of Youtube videos and they really seemed to know what they were doing. I was confident that Thierry would put me through the paces of Krav Maga and I wasn't disappointed.

What did I learn: One of the major criticisms levelled at Reality-Based Martial Arts (RBMA) is that they never push students. It is a bunch of people pretending what they would do it in a contrived, virtually improbable scenarios. Israeli IMI blows that out of the water. Chief Instructor Thierry creates an environment of stress from the moment the class starts. An excellent example of this is the running warm up that his school does. Just about every school does some form of running and it is necessary but boring. I must have done thousands of laps around various gyms running forwards and backwards, sideways and crossing over. In a decade of Martial arts it is likely the most common exercise I have done.
People are running everywhere trying to tap your head, knees and feet.

In one night Krav Maga turned this most basic exercise into a challenge loaded with stress and fun. Instead of running in a circle everyone started running in all directions. Coupled with this everyone was trying to tap you on the head meant we were all sprinting and dodging across the training centre. As soon as we got the hang of defending our heads we were sweeping down to attack knees and feet. Then we put it all together to create a room of running, jumping, ducking students. It was awesome. Attacks could come from anywhere and we pushed ourselves much harder than just running in circles. Also, while this worked on our situational awareness it also had us do all the same basic running that that running in circles had us do. To avoid attacks we were crossing over, running backwards, etc… It was a great twist on a mundane exercise that had real application.

The other thing I learned from Israeli IMI is their focus on “Tactics over Technique.” Chief Instructor Thierry told me about this concept as he pointed around the class showing how everyone had a different body type. Having been around Martial Arts forums often enough I could understand where he was coming from. Go on any Martial Arts forum and you with see something like this. “What is your favourite technique to accomplish X” or “what would you do in situation Y.” Quickly the forum degenerates into people disagreeing with each other and saying why the other individual is wrong. However, tactics are reasonably universal regardless of the physique.
Ben immediately clears the weapon from the line of his body.

Consider the drills we did that night for example. We were working on threats from both blunt and edged weapons. Knives will always be contentious because the results of a failed technique can mean serious harm or death. Blunt weapons are slightly more forgiving yet can also lead to massive trauma in the form of broken bones and, of course, loss of life. When viewed from a technique level, small variations in how you perform a maneuver can radically alter the result giving two people different outcomes. Thus, they disagree.

The way Chief Instructor Thierry teaches is to look at the situation tactically. First, assess your situation and opposition. This could take a split-second or minute depending on the scenario. Second, when engaging the threat make sure that the weapon is no longer aligned with your body. If possible take control if not ensure you are cognisant of its location. Third, limit your assailant’s ability to engage you. This can be anything from a submission to a strike but make sure they can’t continue to attack. Finally disengage and retreat. Again , the range of options is enormous. Did I turn the assailant over to the police or did I run for my life? Yet fundamentally the tactic did??not alter.
I whip my leg in between Benoit's legs after seizing his wrist.

This isn't to say Krav Maga doesn't have any techniques. Rather, we worked on a plethora of techniques and it came down to the fighter to choose which techniques they wanted to use. This lesson is invaluable. Too often as Martial Artists we concentrate on “what we know works” drawing on the depths of personal experience to govern what we consider functional. However, along with that, we have consider that everyone we teach will be different and have different experiences. Chief Instructor Thierry does this very well with his “tactics over technique” approach by averaging his experience yet allowing his students to grow along their own path.

What was similar: One of the drills that we did that was similar to what I had done before was to close your eyes and when you open them you will have to deal with whatever your partner is throwing at you. It forces you to really step up your game in terms of reaction time. You have to open your eyes and take stock of the situation immediately. It is a great way to raise the stress of a drill you have been practising.
Knives, sticks, guys, girls, left-hand, right-hand, etc... You could never predict 
what would happen next. 

Israeli IMI never likes to stop at adding just a little bit stress and Chief Instructor Thierry takes this drill to the next level. Normally you have your partner just switching the weapon in their hand making you deal with a left or right-handed attack. Only having to deal with two possibilities really means that although the stress is greater you are really just playing the odds. To prevent his fighters from doing this everyone lines up facing each other. One side of the room closes their eyes and the other side switches randomly ensuring that you never know who your attacker will be. Also, having worked on a variety of weapons the attackers are all armed differently. Now when you open your eyes you have to account for an unknown attacker armed with an unknown weapon in an unknown hand. It really gets your blood flowing.

The attackers normally get the easy job of presenting a weapon and then getting “beaten up” with simulated hits. In Krav Maga they believe that you learn better if you make contact. If you don’t train with contact all your distances are off and when the time comes to use your techniques you will fail to strike properly. Therefore, they train contact on all their techniques including groin strikes. This doesn't mean that you need to punch someone in the face or kick them in the crotch full force. The goal is to train to the point of contact and not to the point of injury. On a side note, if you want stress go to a school and learn they are going to be kicking you in the balls. When your partner and everyone around you mentions it would be a really good idea to wear a cup you know that you are going to be pushed hard.
Seriously, those kicks make you pay attention. 

Conclusion: I had a great introduction to Krav Maga thanks to the Israeli IMI System team and Chief Instructor Thierry. Krav Maga was way harder than I had anticipated and I loved that the pressure kept increasing throughout the evening. I really look forward to the next time that I have the opportunity to try it again. 
Awesome night with a great class. I learned a ton.

Best regards and keep training,

Martin "Travelling Ronin" Fransham 

If you are interested in training together I would love to get together with you. Drop me a line on facebook and we can connect. I would love to learn from you. 
Check out Israeli IMI System: