Think Strategically

By Guru Nyk Cowham | November 10, 2017

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,

tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

— Sun Tzu, Ancient Chinese military strategist

Perception is strong and sight weak.

In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close

and to take a distanced view of close things.

— Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese swordsman

To truly understand a particular system of martial arts it is necessary to first appreciate the strategy underlying the choice of tactics & techniques that are typically employed within that style. I use that word, “style” with a certain degree of trepidation, and so it cannot go without comment. It has become popular in martial arts circles today to assert that the concept of a “style” is an unecessary limitation that occludes a basic reality that there is but one true way of human combat–following from a line of thought started by Bruce Lee–sometimes referred to as “the human style” of fighting. It is often noted that when stylists from various martial arts engage in full-contact sparring there is a tendency to default to some variant of kickboxing; at least if they fight with a stand-up fighting strategy for the two-person duel assumed by most combat sports.

The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China

This prejudice against the idea of a martial art style seems to only be applied to traditional Eastern martial arts. The idea of a style in the British/American combat sport of boxing, for example, is non-controversial. There are four main styles of boxing that are commonly identified by aficionados of the sport: the out-fighter (boxer), the in-fighter (swarmer), the slugger (brawler) and the boxer-puncher. Added to these dominant styles are several sub-styles of fighting within the modern sport, such as the peek-a-boo style developed by Cus D’Amato and perfected by Mike Tyson.

When we speak of styles in the combative arts, we are identifying the preferred strategies of different fighters and trainers. The problem is that Bruce Lee and his later acolytes and admirers seem to have confused the concept of style, as a preferred fighting strategy, with certain stylized movements that appear to be more ritual dance than functional combat.

Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah is a style of combat, not for sport, but rather for skirmish warfare as well as personal protection against violent assault by one or more armed criminals. This is not to say that one-on-one combative contests were ever foreign to Serah gurus in the past. Pendekar Victor De Thouars competed in Muay Thai, Judo and Fencing in his younger years, and his teacher, Pak Tisari Marjuki, developed his own art of Pencak Silat Soempat specifically to gain advantage in a brutal form of full-contact stick fighting that was popular at faires in East Java at the time. However, Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah is far from being a sport.

The founder of our art, Ileyah Habun Hasin, nicknamed Pak Serah, was small in stature and severely disabled, with his left arm shortened to half size, and his right leg also severely shortened. This meant that he was born without any natural advantages of strength, mobility, reach, height, weight, etc. Although he was intimately familiar with Pencak Silat Cimande, Cikalong and Shabandar, he was born far behind the starting line where the other pesilat were starting from. Pak Serah was forced to play catch-up. Due to his disabilities he could not rely on any kind of natural superiority or advantage, and so instead he studied the human anatomy and physiology of weakness so that he could exploit those weaknesses to level the playing field. When you are outnumbered by every measure your only chance of prevailing is to adopt a superior strategy. Pak Serah was a Leonidas at Thermopylae: 300 vs 150,000. Unlike Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans, Pak Serah prevailed and passed down both his art and his strategy.

One of the most striking features of Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah is the strong emphasis on the tactics of total elimination. There are two types of war according to military strategy: wars of attrition, and wars of annihilation that seek the decisive battle (Jomini vs von Clausewitz). A war of attrition is a relatively prolonged conflict where the enemy is progressively weakened into submission, whereas a war of annihilation may be swift and conclusive, relying on bold decisive offensives to rapidly crush the enemy into submission: think of the American military doctrine of “shock and awe”, or the German “blitzkrieg”. When it comes to personal protection against violent criminal assault there is no time for a war of attrition, particularly against a stronger force. Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah acknowledges that reality by defaulting to a decisive battle of annihilation: thus tactics of total elimination tend to predominate. Given the founder’s handicaps there was simply no possibility of winning a battle of attrition.

There is much that could be said about the grand strategy of Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah, but that lies outside the scope of the current discussion. What should be noted is that every tactical decision in Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah accords with the underlying strategy of the art and the unique physicality of the founder. For example: our art is a one-range system that seeks an extreme close-range, called in Bahasa Indonesia the “dempet” range; dempet means, “to stick” or “to attach”. It is our strategy that dictates our preferred range of operation.

Much of the terminology of Pukulan Pencak Silat Serah relates to battle and war: “perang”. The Serah persilat treats any criminally-minded projection of physical force offered towards them as a declaration of war to be met accordingly. It is truly a martial art. No movement is purely stylistic or mere ritual, but everything is turned towards battle, for the effective and efficient preservation of life and limb.

Here in Asia business and commerce is understood to be akin to a military campaign. Corporate executives routinely consult the “Seven Military Classics of Ancient China”, seeking competitive market advantage as well as practical wisdom for everyday life. A practical study of martial arts along with theoretical studies (belajar) of history, especially military history and strategy is an effective way of improving your life and circumstances. As Sun Tzu observed in the quote at the head of this article, “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. Life is a battle, and if it isn’t, then it is a surrender: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” (Alan Furst, “Night Soldiers”).