Marines' martial arts training aims to make the tough tougher

By Stuart Taylor

January 4, 2002

QUANTICO, Va.--Capt. Louis E. Isabelle is in the ring, pounding furiously at Staff Sgt. Clive D. Mitchell. Fending off most of the blows with his heavy gloves, the sergeant gives as good as he gets. A few feet away, about 10 other members of Isabelle's "team" shout out repetitions as they struggle through a succession of drills designed to be not merely strenuous, but impossible: more 50-pound-weight curls, more "Korean jumping jacks," more "Australian push-ups," more contortions of other varieties than even an iron man could do in the time allotted. Buckets of sweat pour down heavily muscled arms and chests. The roar is deafening.

Boxing gloves and padded headgear are not the weapons that any Marine would choose for jobs such as hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or executing amphibious landings on hostile shores. But in the fog of war, close-in combat is always a possibility, notes Lt. Col. George H. Bristol, "starting with assault-rifle fire at maybe 10 yards and moving in to where you're fighting with the weapon, being up in an enemy's face and having to either smash him or take him to the ground to finish him off."

Martial arts techniques of the nonlethal variety can also be invaluable in peacekeeping duty, disarming agitated civilians, dispersing angry mobs, transporting prisoners, or handing out food rations to crowds of starving people.

And for all the high-tech weaponry in today's arsenals, the grueling physical regimen and fighting techniques taught at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Training Program, which is based at Quantico, are playing an increasingly important role in training Marines at all levels, maintaining their warrior spirit, and giving them confidence that they will be ready when called upon to fight.

"A Marine Corps of well-trained tan belts," says Bristol, the director of the program, "will kick the shit out of anybody else in the world, sir!"

The tan belt is the first of 10 rungs on the new Marine Corps martial arts training ladder. For the first time, all 172,000 active-duty Marines, from the commandant on down to the newest recruit, must earn tan belts--and by no later than 2003. And all are encouraged to progress to higher belt levels throughout their careers.

The tan-belt course includes 27.5 hours of instruction in 49 killing techniques to be used on enemies who are too close to stop with bullets or grenades. Among them are bayonet thrusts, knife slashes, "vertical stomps," choke holds (and how to break them), leg-sweep throws, eye gouges, and more.

Close-in combat has been part of Marine Corps basic training for as long as anyone can remember. But until recently, "it has always remained just out of the mainstream; practiced with zeal in entry-level training and by a few stalwarts but ignored by the Corps as a whole," Bristol wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette.

"If you spend all day on a computer typing," says Master Gunnery Sgt. Cardo Urso, Bristol's chief instructor, "that warrior ethos goes away, and pretty soon you're just a diary clerk or a supply guy."

Gen. James L. Jones has pushed to change that since he became commandant of the Marine Corps in July 1999, and to meld the best of many martial arts techniques with rigorous conditioning, mental discipline, and character-building.

As a company commander in Vietnam, Jones was impressed that the South Korean marines serving there had black belts in tae kwon do. To give the U.S. Marines a similar edge, the commandant assigned the 44-year-old Bristol--who has black belts in judo, jujitsu, and karate and a nose misshapen by 35 years of practicing hand-to-hand combat--to develop an intensive new martial arts training program for all Marines.

Launched in October 2000, the program includes the basic tan-belt course and follow-on training in more-sophisticated skills-such as karate-style chops to vulnerable parts of the neck, blocking knife attacks, executing a "face rip," and attacking pressure points on the neck, arms, and legs-and related reading assignments for Marines who want to progress through the tan, gray, green, and brown belts, to the six levels of the black belt.

Still more important than these specific combat skills and drills, Bristol and Urso stress, are the program's lessons in teamwork, tactical judgment, mental discipline, and character.

Teamwork is built into every aspect of a grueling two-hour medley of conditioning drills--such as the "centipede," in which two teams of four helmeted Marines apiece lie on their bellies, with each man or woman's feet over the shoulders of the next in line; each group then pushes up to arm's length and races on its collective hands for about 50 yards.

"You're almost there, man, you're almost there, keep going," yell the instructors. When the first four cross the finish line, they jump up, run back to the other four, pick them up fireman-carry style, and lug them the rest of the way. Then it's on, without a break, to the next drill, and the next, and the next.

The boxing session between Capt. Isabelle and Sgt. Mitchell is also part of a team enterprise. For the moment, Mitchell is acting as the instructor, and Isabelle is allied against him with the 10 or so Marines doing the impossible drills outside the boxing ring. Whenever Mitchell gets a chance to look over and inspect the progress of Isabelle's teammates, he calls out penalties, which mean they must do still more repetitions. Isabelle's job is to throw a barrage of punches so relentless that it forces Mitchell's gaze away from his fellow trainees. Their job is to get through their repetitions as quickly as possible so that Isabelle can get out of the ring.

Learning how to run such a "combat cohesion" exercise is one aspect of an elite, seven-week instructor-training course here at Quantico. Urso and his 11 men--some of the fiercest hand-to-hand warriors in the Marine Corps--give advanced training to green- and brown-belt experts (including Isabelle and Mitchell) from Marine bases and ships around the world.

These trainees were already experienced martial arts instructors before they arrived at Quantico, and those who pass this course will earn black belts and thus qualify to train other instructors when they return to their bases and ships. But first they must undergo a daily regimen that combines martial arts instruction, running, and reading with "body-hardening" drills and other exercises.

These include kicking and being kicked--hard (albeit through pads); being thrown judo-style over another trainee's shoulder onto the ground, 10 times in a row; "Chinese push-ups," with the body formed into an inverted "V"; a 50-yard race on hands and feet, dragging a companion on his back while he hangs on to your waist; a 500-yard swim in full uniform, including heavy combat boots, capped by fighting in shallow water at the end; and much more.

"If this kind of close-in fighting is going to occur, it's going to occur when you're tired," explains Bristol. "So what we'll do normally is high repetitions of a technique where they get very tired, or rough-terrain movement--up and down hills--or running our obstacle course, and then fight at the end of that, so that the student is fairly exhausted before he throws the first bayonet thrust or the first punch."

But the idea is not to break people or tear them down. "Our focus is to get everybody through, not to make them say, 'I quit,' " says Staff Sgt. Ricardo Mendoza, one of Urso's instructor trainers. "The point is to challenge them to their limits-and get them to surpass their previously known limits."

The urge to say, "I quit" must be considerable during a drill called "bull in the ring." Today's variant has a passing resemblance to college wrestling, only with eye gouges, face rips, and other unsporting techniques.

The unlucky "bull" has to grapple with seven other Marines in rapid succession, for several minutes each, starting each time from a seated, back-to-back position. By the time the bull faces the third opponent, exhaustion has set in--with four more fresh adversaries to go. The others cheer the bull on before and after they take him on.

"You've got a whole lot of heart, staff sergeant," one calls out. There is also some coaching: "You've got to get underneath that jaw or you're not getting any pressure on the carotid."

Occasionally an instructor will toss a "weapon of opportunity" within reach--a (plastic) knife, say, or a rock--to give whichever grappler can grab it first a chance to finish his adversary quickly.

Back in the boxing-exercise room, Urso is talking about tactics. "This room is designed for them to fail," he says, "but they can pass it if they work as a team [and] find a way to get around that instructor."

The only way most of the trainees can get through their assigned drills is to sneak little breaks while the instructor is busy fending off punches and to call out more repetitions than they are actually doing. That's not cheating. It's tactics. It's doing just as much corner-cutting as necessary to get an impossible job done. And that, says Urso, "is what we want them doing on the battlefield. We also want them doing it in life."

Urso and his instructors offer trainees a combat analogy: When you are closing on the enemy, you will have to make tactical decisions. Do you move in as fast as possible, or pace yourself to save energy for fighting? Urso brings another analogy into play when teaching Marines how to choke off an enemy's carotid artery: "Let's talk about other chokes. What about the chokes that we do every day with our lance corporals who have new ideas, who want to try something, and me as a leader I start choking that lance corporal off, and I don't let him breathe? If you choke off those lines of communication, pretty soon you're going to have unconsciousness, and eventually it will lead to death."

Such homespun lessons might not be everybody's stairway to wisdom. But the 43-year-old Urso--a stocky, mustachioed bundle of energy with a shaved head, black belts in judo and karate, a penchant for spontaneous sparring with his men, and knuckles callused into mini-weapons by 30 years of boxing, wrestling, tae kwon do, sombo, jujitsu, kobudo, and other forms of fighting--radiates an infectious enthusiasm.

"I know that martial arts training fundamentally changes young men and women for the better," he asserts. "I've seen that for 30 years.... We want ethical warriors. The way a Marine should feel is, when you walk into a room, everybody in the room should feel safer because you're there. [And] when we turn him or her back to society after, say, four years, society's getting a better citizen."

Maybe it has something to do with channeling into cooperative endeavors the primal, atavistic aggression that is hardwired into the human species by eons of struggling for survival. Whatever the reason, the instructors and trainees here exude an esprit de corps that would be impossible to fake, and hard to find among their contemporaries on university campuses.

Tempers do flare now and then. During one drill, a charging trainee slams his blunt, simulated bayonet much too hard into his instructor's chest pad. "If you can't control your weapon as a brown-belt instructor, something's wrong--you understand?" barks the instructor. "Yes, sir," comes the reply. But Urso adds, sotto voce, "We're neurologically wired to close in. We like them to do that."

The day before, 2nd Lt. Anuradha K. Bhagwati seemed to suspect the tall, powerfully built Marine with whom she was grappling of slacking off a bit: "Come on, sir, fight!" she demanded. "I'm fighting!" he replied.

Bhagwati, whose day job is commanding a radio platoon in Okinawa, is the only woman--and not a very big one--in this group of instructor trainees. Many of the others sport the gigantic biceps (often splashed with tattoos) that come from pumping lots of iron. How can she hold her own against these hulks?

"I generally get thrown back further," Bhagwati allows, "but every person, no matter their body size, can make a technique work." And so she does.

Commandant Jones initially considered focusing martial arts instruction on tae kwon do or aikido. But he and Bristol ultimately decided to emphasize techniques more likely to be useful in actual close-in combat by helmeted Marines armed with M-16s, bayonets, and knives, and carrying heavy packs and flak jackets. It would make little sense for a Marine thus encumbered to try a tae kwon do kick to the head of a helmeted enemy.

The Marine Corps brand of martial arts that Bristol and his staff have developed has "aspects of many different martial arts-punches, kicks, throwing techniques from judo, some of the joint manipulations from jujitsu and various weapons arts," he says. But it's not the sort of thing you would see in a Bruce Lee film.

"Military combative training is always done with a battlefield end-state in mind," says Bristol. "It's always weapons-based. No military society has ever won a battle punching and kicking.... Our program begins with rifle firing, and it's not as if we're going to throw down our rifles and say, 'Put up your dukes.' What these skills do is give you incredible confidence, not only in yourself but in your fellow Marines."

In today's world, Urso stresses, such confidence often means using as little force as possible. "The easy thing," he says, "is a well-defined enemy on the battlefield, because there's no doubt what you're supposed to do. The harder thing is in these areas like Afghanistan, where two weeks ago this village was Taliban, and now they're gone, and that's where it's more difficult for a 17- or an 18-year-old [Marine], maybe the first time he's ever away from home, who's now in harm's way, who doesn't know if these people are friend or foe."

Suppose, he says, that "you've got a 14-year-old suspected terrorist and you've got him flex-cuffed on the ground and all of a sudden the 80-year-old grandmother comes out and she doesn't want you to take him away. The right response is not a three-round burst in her chest. It's to control her in a humane way.... If they're trained well, they don't go off the handle as quick, and they use less force."

The required reading to attain various belt levels includes books and articles about the feats of past Marine heroes, history's great warrior cultures--the Spartans, the Apaches, and the Zulus--and comparing the story of Achilles in the Trojan War with the experience of American fighting men in Vietnam. The seven-week instructor-training course that ended in early December included a final written test of about 100 questions. And while their students were getting ready for that, Urso and six of his men were taking college courses at night in anatomy, physiology, and sports medicine, the better to prevent and mitigate injuries.

Before arriving at Quantico, this reporter had requested a chance to get a taste of martial arts training by participating in some of it--a request that Urso graciously humored by inviting me to put on the gloves in the boxing-training room, which was formerly called the "room of pain."

He stood patiently, occasionally firing off a gentle pop to my chest, while I flailed away at him with all my strength. In amazingly short order, all my strength was gone, my arms drooped like noodles at my sides, and my throat felt like I'd been a week in the desert without a drink. They changed the room's name, but they kept the pain. Master Gunnery Sgt. Cardo Urso looked fresh as a daisy.


By Stuart Taylor

January 4, 2002

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