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Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day and Zanshin

War is sweet to those who have no experience of it, but the experienced man trembles exceedingly at heart on its approach.
- Pindar

Today is Memorial Day, the day set aside in the United States for remembering those military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Typically, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer, the first federal holiday of the year when it's nice enough outside to really enjoy the day off. This particular Memorial Day, though, the weather here in Milwaukee is much truer to the somber occasion than usual (which is why I'm here on my computer rather than, say, outside playing with my daughter).

This past Saturday, I dutifully sent my thanks to all the veterans on my Facebook "Friends" list. One of those thanked, an aikido instructor and former Army Ranger, was appreciative, but made sure to remind me that Memorial Day is for remembering the dead, not just for celebrating the living. My intentions had been good, but I had, as so many civilians do, skipped straight to the fun part of war and glossed over the rest.

Anyone who spends much time on the internet will see a lot of criticism pointed at Americans for being too enthusiastic and too idealistic about war. I'm not sure Americans have a monopoly on such things, but we're certainly guilty. No American my age has ever been pressed into military service or seen his country undertake a war that it had a realistic chance of losing: it's easier than ever for an American to watch a war with the carefree enthusiasm of a fan watching a sporting event.

Such detachment not only dishonors and trivializes the real sacrifices made by real people in war, but it also robs us of an opportunity to learn. Even if we are unlikely to be drawn into war ourselves, we have a great deal to learn from it, as individuals and as a nation. It behooves us, the sheltered civilians, to pay attention, so that we can choose and direct our leaders wisely.

As a martial artist, I like to think of this as a macrocosm of what we in budo call zanshin. In the dojo, even if our training is not an honest approximation of combat (and, frankly, most training isn't), it behooves us to keep in mind the violence from which our art was born. Maybe uke isn't really going to punch me in the face if I give him the opportunity to do so, but it still makes me a better martial artist to be aware of that opportunity and to avoid offering it. Maybe no one is waiting to attack me after I throw uke, but my technique and my stance will be better if I am ready as if someone were.

Zanshin is hard work. Maintaining awareness is not easy, in life at large or in the dojo. This is why we like our war without death and our training without the responsibility of risk management. But the benefits of living -- and of training -- the hard way are many.

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