Last week's post on Mishima and his sword-meditations reminded me of this question, which popped across my Twitter feed about a month ago.
There were plenty of answers offered, most of which dealt with things like speculative tech and world-building.
My own answer is a little more pragmatic: because real life can occasionally justify them. Combat isn't a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and "gun" doesn't automatically beat "knife" (or "sword," in this hypothetical case). In a deadly encounter, there are plenty of factors that can skew the odds in favor of the guy with the blade.
One is distance. Or rather, lack of distance.
Studies have shown that at ranges under 21 feet, unless a defender has his gun already in hand, it's incredibly unlikely he's getting a shot off at a committed, knife-wielding attacker. This basic principle is behind the "21 Foot Rule," which has played a major part in both Law Enforcement and Defensive Firearms training for decades. This short excerpt from the police training film, Surviving Edged Weapons, gives an excellent crash course and overview. I also recommend tracking down and watching the entire film. It's an hour and a half well-spent for students of the subject.
Just to underscore the point, long before I ever saw Surviving Edged Weapons, an old cop in my hometown told he'd rather face a gun than a knife at arm's length. His reasoning was that with the gun, all you had to do was control the direction of the muzzle. The gun, he said, is only dangerous from one angle. But the knife—especially one in the hands of a violently struggling suspect—can come at you from any angle. And it's deadly from all of them.
Bottom line, combat is a messy, chaotic affair. Even in the age of firearms, it can end up at the eye-gouging, hair-pulling, throat-ripping range. Once there, a blade can be a more ideal weapon than a gun.
Don't believe me? Just ask the US troops who were hacked down after emptying their revolvers into barong-armed Moros in the Philippines. Ask the 40 bandits who tried to fight the lone Gurkha on a train a few years back. Or ask the men who tried to shoot and kill Jim Bowie during the famous Sandbar Fight.
And sure, those incidents are rare* and extraordinary exceptions in a world where the gun usually dominates. But remember, we're talking about fiction, and justifications for bladed weapons in a Science Fictional setting.
Rare and extraordinary exceptions are what those kinds stories—what stories in general—are about.
Nobody remembers Shane because he was the most average gunfighter in the West. Nobody still reads Conan of Cimmeria because he made himself a Local Alderman by his own hand. And we certainly don't thrill to stories of John Carter of Mars more than one hundred years later because Burroughs made him the most adequate swordsman on two worlds.
We love them because they're the best of the best. The one in a million.
Sure, your fictional universe may have tech that makes a melee fight unlikely. But real-world tech doesn't work 100% of the time, and combat is always going to be a brutal and chaotic affair as long as humans are involved in it.
So go ahead and keep your swords and knives. I can promise you, the fighting men of the future certainly will.
* The Moro incidents actually weren't rare at all. Thanks to repeated battlefield reports of poor stopping power, the US stopped issuing the .38 Long Colt M1892 revolvers, and replaced them with a heavier .45. Once they did, incidents of the amok tribesmen reaching US lines with their fanatical charges began to drop off.
For about a year now, I've been studying Kali/Arnis, the Filipino art of stick and blade fighting. I had some brief exposure to it a bunch of years ago, thanks to my travels in the Marine Corps and some guest instructors in my hometown dojo, but this is the first time I've ever been able to really study the art in depth. It's been a wonderful experience, and I am more than grateful for my instructors and their dedication.
I've also been slowly rehabbing my injured knees, both of which were abused hard in the military. Success is coming by inches, but it's coming. Whereas nine months ago I couldn't even do one squat with no additional weight, through long hours of careful rehab, I've worked my way up to doing two sets of 20 squats with a light resistance band on the weight bar.
It's a slow improvement, but a dramatic one.
The bottom line is I'm at the age where I have to start taking my my own fitness a lot more seriously. I can't rely on youth and good genetics to keep me healthy anymore. That means working out much more regularly—and with much more careful focus—than I ever used to.
To that end, I recently read Sun and Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Something of an infamous figure, Mishima was a hard-right Japanese nationalist who orchestrated an unarmed takeover of a Japanese Self Defense Forces facility back in the 1970s. His stated goal was to inspire the soldiers to rise up and overthrow the Prime Minister, and install the Emperor as the new and rightful ruler of Japan. Failing in his ultimate goal, Mishima committed ritual Seppuku the old fashioned way, with a knife straight to the guts.
Sun and Steel is Mishima's meditation on weightlifting, martial arts, and physical culture. Fans of the book describe it as Mishima's odyssey in search of new and more extreme experiences. And while while the book is justifiably famous in certain weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for its inside look into an iron-willed mindset, it's Mishima's thoughts on the martial arts—the sword arts in particular—that have stayed with me.
Some of the book's most striking passages talk about seeking the deeper, truer reality beyond the flash of the fist, or beyond the the tip of the sword. But he's not just rehashing the idea of the Void or the Nothingness from Miyomoto Musashi.
Quoting Mishima: "There, above all, lay the essence of action and of power. That reality, in popular parlance, was referred to quite simply as the opponent."
The empty space beyond the sword isn't a Void. According to Mishima, it's alive, vital, and powerful.
I've been thinking an awful lot about that quote since I first read it. I've been pondering what Mishima really means here, and how it links to the rest of the book as a whole. And after a few hard sparring sessions—including one with training knives that left me sore for about four days—I think I've finally got it.
Human beings have deeply buried instincts, survivals of older memories from our ancestors. How do you know to be afraid of a bear or a lion the first time you ever seen one? How do you know what it's after—what it's even capable of—as it's stalking towards you? How do you know to fight of flee rather than offer it a hug?
Answer: you automatically know the big predator is going to eat you because in the distant past, big predators tried to eat your ancestors. Fear of them became an ingrained survival trait.
Taking the idea a step further:
Every single person alive today is only here because some ancestor of theirs won a fight over a watering hole or a piece of food. I don't care how peaceful you are personally. Someone in your family tree caved in the skull of another human being with a rock and took their stuff. Or ripped open their guts with a flint knife and squatted on their territory.
More likely, it was several someones.
Just like every human has a deeply-buried instinct telling him to fear a predator, every human has a deeply-buried instinct urging them to fight, conquer, and kill for survival.
Blade and stick arts—perhaps more than any other martial arts—drive us back into contact with that primal mindset. Practicing overhand blows to the head with a stick, or practicing straight thrusts to the stomach with a knife while your opponent tries his damndest to stop you... There's something about it that drops you into a mentality stretching back to the dawn of time.
That extreme reality beyond the tip of the sword, that level of vital experience Mishima kept chasing with his hours of dedicated practice? What he was chasing was a connection with the primal reality of our distant past.
What Mishima was looking for wasn't a new experience. He was looking for an old experience. One of the very oldest possible.
It's a shame he didn't find it until the very end.
Sun and Steel is published by Medina University Press. Copies are available from Rogue Scholar Books.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.