Andrea Molle. 2021. Krav Maga and the Making of Modern Israel: For Zion’s Sake. Rowman & Littlefield. 2022. $105 Hardcover, $38 Kindle.
“There is also another function of violence, and it is to reduce uncertainty through promoting solidarity among individuals. I call this effect “social vaccine.” As in any organism, the introduction of a pathogen stimulates the reaction of the immune system. Societies can be understood as complex organisms, where social institutions and every single individual act like its parts. Uncontrolled violence is certainly a pathogen that can, if left uncontrolled, compromise the health of society and bring it to its demise. A society that refuses to experience violence, and is fragmented in its reaction to it, is left unprepared and incapable of facing it. But if said society has experienced some low and controlled level of violence, its antibodies are ready so that it is capable of recognizing when violence is actually out of control. I see martial arts, combative disciplines, self-defense systems, and combat sports as different kinds of vaccines.”
Andrea Molle, page 136.
A World Changed
I must admit to being distracted as I finally sat down to read Andrea Molle’s long anticipated monograph on the development of Krav Maga. We had discussed this project several times and I was intrigued that he was writing a book on a system that he did not practice. Andrea is dedicated to Aikido and other budo systems. Yet he wanted to give our field a book that would raise its awareness of political science as a core discipline that should be part of the conversation going forward. With its strong connection to nationalism, both in Israel and abroad, and the possibility of recentering some of the ways that our fledgling field thinks about violence, Andrea was convinced that Krav Maga would make the better case study. Besides, he asserted, it is always better to go into a project without a strong personal bias.
All of that seemed very reasonable at the time. Yet so much has happened in the last 2-3 years. Covid badly disrupted everyone’s plans and Molle was forced to alter his research methodologies. But it goes well beyond that. We all write books and articles about martial arts that are firmly ensconced in certain unconscious assumptions about domestic and international political systems. Globalization, understood as an economic, social and political process, has determined what could be imagined, and hence what was possible, within a martial system. It is true that cracks had been showing in those regimes for some time. But in the last few years the pace of change has quickened. The rise of populist and extremist politics is seriously threatening liberal domestic institutions around the globe in ways that we have not seen since the 1970. Global markets are facing strong headwinds and, for various reasons, international trade does not seem ready to return to the pre-covid status quo any time soon. Worst of all, the we are now faced with a brutal war in the heart of Europe in which a great power is brazenly attempting to dismantle a weaker neighbor simply because it can. It would be no exaggeration to say that every government in the world is meditating on what this all means for its own security environment and defense budget. Even providing enough food to compensate for the supplies that will not be coming out of Ukraine this year will be an overwhelming challenge for many smaller states.
Even if most people have not realized it yet, globalization as we have known it seems to have collapsed. This is not the same as saying that global exchange has vanished. Yet the economic, social and political order that provided stability in the post-war, and then post-cold war, periods has been seriously challenged. In the current security environment, it is unlikely that any small state will have much faith the ability of international organizations to ensure the peace, or trade ties and cultural diplomacy as a means of securing the favor of great powers. To paraphrase Thucydides we are wavering on the threshold of a world in which “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”
The type of globalization that allowed for the rapid dissemination of martial arts in the second half of the 20th century is coming to a close. I do not think that this means that anyone’s appetite for hand combat training is going to vanish. Indeed, we have every reason to think that training will become ever more popular as people face economic strain at home and existential threats from abroad. But the playing field, or the global market, that facilitated the previous exchange of ideas, images, practices and communities is already being upended.
What will modern martial arts practice look like in this very different landscape? And just as importantly, how will I write a keynote talk for a conference in Switzerland about “Martial Arts, Globalization and Tradition” at a moment when the neo-liberal global order that so much of our research assumes is in free fall? Perhaps unfairly I turned to Andrea’s book with these questions in mind, hoping to discover some hints that would guide my own thinking.
Unsurprisingly I found Andrea’s writing just as engaging and fresh as our personal conversations always are. Best of all, his study of Krav Maga does begin to suggest some answers to my larger questions. This is all the more remarkable as the current manifestations of war, plague and famine (supply-chain disruption?) were not on anyone’s radar when his project started to come together. Still, in our conversations both Andrea and I had agreed that a book showcasing what political science could offer was long overdue.
In this work Molle tackles a number of themes relevant to the discipline of political science through the lens of Krav Maga’s modern history. Core topics include martial arts as they relate to nationalism, diaspora, cultural diplomacy/soft power and violence (both real and feared). More fundamentally, Molle begins by challenging recent arguments that we can (or should) separate martial arts practice and combat sports from our understanding of violence. Instead he asserts on theoretical and empirical levels that these practices are inescapably violent, and rising to meet the threats of the present moment requires us to at least acknowledge that. It is the violent potential of martial arts communities that makes them so interesting to states around the globe at seemingly every point in time. Simply put, martial practice must be understood as a potent expression of both social power and identity. Hence martial arts, almost irrespective of how you choose to understand your personal practice, are something that is intrinsically political. It is no coincidence that so many states seek to regulate martial practice domestically while promoting some version of it internationally.
Yet Andrea’s theoretical aspirations go beyond this baseline observation. If the practice of martial arts is so often political, our tools for studying it must rise to the occasion. In his view martial arts studies must be an intrinsically political field simply because of its subject matter. Nor does Molle see it as the only venue to approaching the subject.
Whereas most current researchers dismiss hoplology (as understood by Don Draeger) as something that died in the 1980s, Andrea understands it as a going concern which is in some ways more focused on the core issues of practice than martial arts studies. In his mind hoplology is the discipline that encompasses the study of violent conflict. Molle will be the first to admit that there are problems with the current state of hoplology and in intellectual terms the pursuit as has seen better days. More specifically, it has become too smitten with the promises of the natural sciences and biological determinism, becoming blind to the political and social nature of these practices. In other words, hoplology is a discipline in need of a fundamental rethinking.
Molle concludes that Martial Arts Studies, as it exists now, is an interdisciplinary research area which, with a few notable exceptions, has been more interested in the humanities than the bedrock political and economic foundations of martial practice. Yet it does provides us with a more relevant set of tools to connect discussions of the martial arts to developments in the various disciplines. This leads Molle to propose the creation of “political hoplology” as a necessary bridge that remains focused on the technical reproduction and functioning of these fighting systems, but does so in ways that their social and political nature can be studied.
Krav Maga as a Political Case Study
Molle positions his examination of Krav Maga as a test case for this new type of political hoplology. Still, I think that old schools hoplologists who pick this book up are likely to be disappointed with what they find. This is not manual of Krav Maga fighting techniques. Nor will there be any carefully curated charts documenting the types of rubber training knives used through the decades. Indeed, little is said about the technical content of these various schools. Nor does this book engage in the polemics as to what constitutes “authentic” Krav Maga, or the competing historical claims that seem to motivate so much of the social life of any martial arts community. Anyone looking for that sort of material would be better served with an afternoon on YouTube.
This is not to say that Andrea does not discuss the historical development of Krav Maga, or its approach to training and combat. He certainly does. Yet these subject are positioned in such a way that they arise naturally out of a larger discussion of 19th and 20th century nationalism, Zionism, military/diplomatic history and several modes of politics. Each of these topics is supported by a theoretical discussion of how we should understand these developments in more general terms. That sort of background applies equally to all of the competing Krav Maga schools and, with a little extension, to a great many other martial arts as well.
His book emerges from the “social-constructivist” turn in international relations and comparative political theory and anyone who has worked in this area will immediately recognize most of the names that are cited. Molle also makes extensive references to such classic thinkers as Weber (important for delineating the relationship between states and violence), Durkheim, Benedict Anderson (on diasporic nationalism) as well as Erving Goffman and Randal Collins for their work on interaction rituals. The latter two individuals serve has his primary theoretical tools for understanding what actually happens within a martial arts school, and how these institutions are capable of performing social work.
Nevertheless, Andrea goes beyond using these authors to illuminate the evolution of Krav Maga. He demonstrates that such fighting systems expose the shortcoming and margins of these theories and can be used to proposed more workable alternatives. The various disciplines will only take martial arts studies seriously to the extent that we can advance the criticism and development of their core theoretical debates. This perspective is missing from much of the martial arts studies literature, but it’s a challenge that Molle takes very seriously.
The reward for these efforts is a description of the social and political functioning of a martial arts system that is realized at such a granular level that one can begin to imagine how these mechanism might operate under different versions of globalization, or perhaps in its absence all-together. More immediately, he is able to generate a way of explaining the perpetual tensions between martial arts as a vehicle for exclusive and inward looking community building (often in the form of very explicit appeals to nationalism) but also as a vehicle for outward expansion and cultural diplomacy. This task takes up much of the mid-section of this book.
That material will be most interesting to other political scientists, or those seeking to ground their work in the mainstream approaches that you might find in that discipline. However, the final two chapters of the work return to a question that is perhaps more relevant to current discussions within martial arts studies. If competition and training is consensual, can it really be violent? And what is lost when we intentionally shift our theoretical focuses away from acknowledging the fact that a violent acts remain as such even if you can all go out for a drink afterward?
Like most political scientists Molle starts from the assumption that concepts like “violence” and “power” are value neutral. That alone is different from how these terms are often used in other literatures. Within our field these are the central concepts that we study and they cannot really be reduced to being intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Rather, these are basic building blocks of human society. They are sharp tools. And whether any given outcome is good or bad depends very much on how they are used are what your personal interests as an observer are. Refusing to acknowledge this doesn’t change anything about the nature of society, but it does deprive the theorist of an ability to understand how some of its subroutines function.
Perhaps this preamble will help those coming from outside political science understand why Andrea does not hesitate in asserting that much martial training (though perhaps not all) is intrinsically violent. Even when nothing obviously physical is happening, students are still subjected to verbal, social and psychologically challenges that would baffle many non-martial artists. However, the sorts of training that Molle observed in Krav Maga classes, and that which was reported by his informants in his survey research, went well beyond subtle borderline cases. He goes to some lengths to describe the physically abusive and sadistic behavior that has been observed, particularly in courses that are set aside for “instructor training.” Much of this is subsequently rationalized and understood by the participants as a sort of ritualized hazing that is essential for conveying the culture and “reality” of their practice.
Yet Molle does not stop there. The penultimate chapter of the book presents a supporting case study on the development of MMA in the United States which raises many of the same questions as his earlier observations of Krav Maga. Andrea concludes that on a broader theoretical level it is important to accept many martial arts practices as instances of “real violence” (even if they are carefully monitored) precisely because violence has been, and continues to be, a way in which resources are allocated within society and a critical tool by which states regulate social life.
If we exclude all of this from our discussion of the martial arts, and refuse to see the existence of violence in the every-day functioning of society, we cannot understand the important functions that violence (and the preparations for such) play in the life of the state. By extension, we will no longer be able to grasp the complete range of functions that martial arts organizations provide, and why they are often promoted by states even though only a small minority of individuals will ever participate in them.
Only by acknowledging the fundamental reality of violence can it brough out of “the realm of exclusion,” where its occurrence is such a severe breach of social norms that literally any response is warranted to deal with it. This is a well-documented issue that political scientists writing in the “democratic peace” literature have observed. On some level liberal states are less likely to engage in conflict, both domestically and internationally, precisely because they have strong norms against the use of violence. But as a result, when someone does violate those norms, whether it is a domestic group or an adversarial foreign power, these same “peaceful” states have a tendency to lash out with inappropriate levels of ferocity precisely because any resort to arms automatically puts the perpetrator outside of the realm of “normal politics.” This lack of “proportionality” in response to a violent act makes subsequent negotiations more difficult and the ensuing loss of life is often much greater.
Only if violence is acknowledged as a part of our social world, a natural response to conflicting interest generated by scarcity and insecurity, can we effectively regulate it, accurately judge when it is starting to spin of of control, and respond in ways that are both effective and proportionate. This brings us back that I used to open this review. In a world where the threat of all sorts of violence is about to become much more visceral, society may very well benefit from confronting small doses of its reality in the training hall and in televised sporting events.
I don’t suppose it takes a genius to see how something like MMA or Krav Maga might act as some sort of social pressure “escape valve.” But the critical aspect of such valves is that after they have been used they can be shut off. Different societies will have different interests and thus might want to cultivate different attitudes towards violence in their citizens. Using Molle’s reasoning there are very good reasons why the levels of hazing that would be tolerated in Krav Maga school in New York and a Wing Chun Tong a few blocks away would likely be very different. Alternatively, there are good reasons why the attitudes towards violence that are promoted high school Kendo clubs across Japan today show little resemblance to their forebearers of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet no state can tolerate the performance of uncontrolled violence. Thus the truly critical psychological skill that all martial artists must learn is how one turns off the valve.
According to Molle, martial arts can act as a type of “social vaccine” against extremism precisely because they have exposed individuals to small, controlled, doses of violence. This sort of shared experience and identity is a prerequisite for understanding when things are in danger of spinning out of control and the importance of responding in a proportionate and appropriate way. Only by openly acknowledging that there is a dark side to some martial arts training are we able to understand how it functions to regulate and suppress unchecked violence.
Molle’s text makes for easy reading as he combines striking, sometimes counterfactual arguments, with clear and jargon free writing. While his work is theoretically informed it remains accessible to students at the undergraduate level. Focusing on core theoretical debates around issues like nationalism, it is certain to find a place on many reading lists, not only in martial arts studies classes, but also political science, history and even religious studies. Sadly, at over $100 for the hardcover I doubt that many instructor will be assigning the whole book this year. But a few judiciously selected chapters on electronic reserve might work just as well. Hopefully a cheaper paperback will be out soon.
Readers will be debating some of Molle’s more striking conclusions for a while, yet this book has clearly succeeded in the primary aim of announcing the relevance of martial arts studies to political science and the importance of that discipline for understanding the evolution of martial arts in an era when long held assumptions about politics have been turned on their head. By taking several steps back and looking at our most basic assumptions about how communities form, or why martial arts groups are typically of such interest to the state, Molle presents us with a framework that can easily be applied to any number of times and places.