A Few Good Men Try the Marine Martial Arts, and Take on Two Gurus

[Published October 9, 2000, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL]

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — Artillery fire booms from a nearby range. But in a dusty field, a dozen Marines sit motionless, eyes closed, breathing rhythmically.

Breathe. Boom. Breathe. Boom. Breathe. Boom.

After 15 minutes, the men spring to their feet. Asked what they’re doing, Lance Cpl. Alex Pena barks out: “It’s a concentration, breathing exercise, sir. … We were meditating.”

Meditating Marines are part of a new, made-for-the-Corps martial-art program starting this month on four bases that will eventually be mandatory for all Marines. The Corps is famous for its blood-and-guts training. The new Marine Corps martial art, however, is focused as much on the soul as it is on soldiering.

To earn black belts, Marines must master eye gouges and shoulder throws while also exploring their personal connection to Apache, Zulu and Spartan warriors. Sitting in a drab base classroom on government-issue folding chairs, 20 young men shut their eyes as an officer urges them to visualize themselves as Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae: shields locked, spears ready, vainly trying to hold back thousands of assaulting Persians.

These are odd times for the military and particularly for the Marines, who have always considered themselves the ultimate warriors. It’s hard to maintain that spirit when they’re far more likely to draw peacekeeping duty than to relive the battle of Iwo Jima.

Worried that the Corps could lose its edge, the Marines’ commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, decided to create a new martial art to give his Marines a sense of “inner peace” even as they get in touch with their inner warrior.

Every martial art needs a sensei. To build the new program, Gen. Jones called on two such teachers. Richard Heckler, a 56-year-old psychologist, author and fifth-degree aikido black-belt runs his own dojo — or martial-art studio — for enlightenment seekers in Marin County, Calif. The general also grabbed Lt. Col. George Bristol, 42, a Marine infantry officer with a black belt in judo and a nose that has been broken so many times that it’s way out of kilter.

For five summer weeks this year, 170 Marines gathered at Camp Pendleton to test the two programs. Dr. Heckler’s group learned basic martial-art moves while striving also for inner peace through the mastery of a dozen “warrior values,” including accountability, integrity and courage. Col. Bristol taught his Marines to fight with fists, bayonets and knives while he schooled the troops in their connection to ancient warrior cultures.
On a cool morning in September, Dr. Heckler’s “ninja platoon,” as it is known here, goes for a morning run. But it isn’t the usual running-in-formation the Marines are famous for. Each man advances at his own pace, checking his pulse regularly to ensure it’s an aerobically optimal 140 to 160 beats a minute.

When they finish, the ninjas sit together in a dusty field to do their breathing exercises and read a short paper on accountability prepared by Dr. Heckler. “When I am accountable, I see myself as the fundamental creative force in my life and am unwilling to delegate that role,” the paper declares.

Cpl. Patrick Bishop, from Alder Point, Calif., with a blond crew-cut and a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, strides to the front to share his own struggle with accountability. “I used to say that person p—– me off,” he says. “Now I realize I was just letting them p— me off. I wasn’t being accountable for my emotions.” Later in the day, a smaller group of ninjas will gather to talk about what it means to be a warrior. They quickly decide it’s someone who fights for what is morally right. One member suggests that Mother Theresa was a “warrior for God.” The group nods sagely in agreement.

Between bouts of self-exploration, the young Marines, most of them between the ages of 18 and 23, pair up for “energy drills,” each draping his arms around his opponent’s shoulders, rocking back and forth trying to knock him off balance. “Basically, what we’re doing here is exploring each other’s energy,” Cpl. Bishop explains, pausing to spit.

The ninjas are all converts to the Heckler way. “I learned more about myself in five weeks than I did in 24 years,” says Cpl. Bishop. Sgt. William Hussey, an intelligence specialist from Panama City, Fla., nods. “That’s so true,” he says.

At the other end of Camp Pendleton, Col. Bristol’s group goes through drills that have often left the men bruised and bloodied. These guys don’t have a nickname, but their customized T-shirts read “One Mind Any Weapon.” They spend dozens of hours mastering bayonet techniques and pounding each other with boxing gloves. For their spiritual development, they listen to lectures about Zulu warriors who toughened their spirit walking barefoot through fields of thorns and about the Spartans’ defeat at Thermopylae. Col. Bristol is such a buff that he went to Greece three years ago to commune with their spirit. “I would have thrived as a Spartan,” he declares.

The goal of the Bristol program, he says, is to give the Marines a sense of the fear — and pain — of combat, so they can surmount it. Fear was certainly rampant throughout training. Several of the men recall how the colonel closed in on them with a bayonet, stopping just short of their jugular veins. “I could kill you with a single thrust,” he grunted, with the blade hovering. When Marines complained about another exercise — they got pepper spray in the eyes — he exploded. “Do you think the Spartans would be whining?” he demanded.

Gen. Jones says that the new program, starting with about 15,000 men this month, will combine the best of the Heckler and Bristol programs. He hopes that the training will be especially useful on peacekeeping missions, where Marines may have to disarm angry civilians with less than lethal force. “In today’s world, it is the organized and disciplined mind that will survive,” he says.

The new martial art will also become part of the Marines’ recruiting pitch. One poster, unveiled last week, plays on the program’s Eastern roots: “Marine Martial Art: You’ll Bow to No One.” A second pitch is an even more succinct challenge to the next generation of warriors. Showing a Marine wearing camouflage and a black belt, it reads, “This Belt Isn’t Standard Issue.”