Last weekend, an Australian man with no inner monologue approached me and a couple members of my HEMA club with the following statement: “You know, martial arts are useless in the age of the gun!” Which, even without the accent, would have been a weird thing to say and a weird way to say it. My instructor gave him a thumbs up in acknowledgement and we got back to what we were doing.
But, like all personal attacks I receive about things I like, it got me thinking and self analyzing. Even though I fully acknowledge that swordfighting is a fringe, archaic hobby without a ton of real-world applications, I’m only human — and humans are naturally defensive. So, I got to thinking up a rhetorical rebuttal to this man, who walks around parks and talks at people:
Kind of glib, but like I said, we were in the middle of something when he interrupted. But this also raises what I think is an important point about HEMA, or any hobby or activity that isn’t strictly speaking practical. Of course we know that guns > swords. But you can’t live your life only doing what’s practical or necessary. I mean, look at people who have a shitload of guns. Is that practical? No. Chances are that if you have a gun for self-defense, you’ll never use it for that purpose. Really, carrying any kind of weapon in modern day America is impractical, so learning how to shoot is probably less practical than learning how to punch somebody with your car keys.
Still, his statement had me asking myself: why do I think HEMA is important? Do I think it’s important? After all, just because you like something does not mean you think it’s worthwhile. Plenty of us spend our time doing things we consider a complete waste: Netflix binges, commenting on YouTube videos, buying your dog a birthday card, etc.
The sword is obviously no longer an important part of our day to day lives. But it also features heavily in our contemporary culture and, for that reason, I think it still has importance.
Though the sword stopped being widely used in a military context by the early/mid-20th century (they were still used in WWII, but were in the process of being outclassed by ballistic sidearms), they are still very much alive in contemporary media. From Game of Thrones to Vikings to Kill Bill, the sword remains an appealing symbol in historical, fantastical and even modern contexts. Although the sword is effectively obsolete (I mean, they still work, but people aren’t wearing them), modern culture still places some kind of value on them. No tour of a wildly successful rap artist’s home is complete without checking out his katana collection. Today, we even put the sword on a pedestal, deifying it beyond its historical proportions. It was not the best weapon of its time, simply a fashionable and convenient sidearm. It was more akin to the pistol than the rifle. But the mythology of the sword — particularly eastern swords — has raised it to a level beyond practical application. If we have decided that the sword is still a lofty symbol in our modern culture, to the point where it features in contemporary military recruitment advertisements, then it’s important enough to learn about, if only to make the pop culture representations better.
TL;DR: Did you think some of the fighting scenes in Game of Thrones season five were kind of shitty? Then you should at least support the concept of people studying this stuff. it might make shows better.
Also, this happened last year in India, so you never know:
(Errant final point: Sometimes you don’t have a gun with you. For many of us, that’s literally all of the time. This is when martial arts might come in handy.)