Department of (Self)-Defense: Military Training and the Martial Arts

Sara Fogan March 21, 2011

Department of (Self)-Defense: Military Training and the Martial Arts

Colonel John Alexander, Ret., United States Army

A military branch commissions an expert to create a high-tech weapon that uses an electronic pulse to wipe out the enemy’s computer chips and thus reduce the amount of deadly force needed—and blood shed—during combat. In addition, he’s asked to develop nanotechnology (tiny computers that can be injected into the body) and ultrasensitive lie-detection devices. Because he’s also a longtime military officer, his credentials open doors for him to investigate paranormal phenomena: fire walking, spoon bending, the death touch and using ki to influence physiological functions.

It’s easy to imagine that all this is fodder for an episode of The X-Files, but it’s very real. Welcome to the amazing world of Dr. John Alexander, cousin of Black Belt Hall of Fame member Gary Alexander. A black belt in his own right, the Nevada-based retired U.S. Army colonel is perhaps better-known for his commentary on modern warfare than his martial arts expertise, for in addition to being a technical consultant for the military, he has shared his vast knowledge with authors Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy. Yet John Alexander’s link to the fighting arts stretches back nearly half a century.

Black Belt: Were you exposed to the martial arts before you joined the Army in 1956?
John Alexander: I grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. It’s a very small town, and I don’t think we had even heard of karate. It had not permeated American culture at that time. The Special Forces had just come into existence, and I had read about them. The recruiter said it would be good to jump out of airplanes first, so I joined the 101st Airborne Division. It was between wars, so getting promoted to sergeant was extremely difficult. One of the ways to move up was to go to Ranger school. When I returned to the 101st Airborne, I was under 21, but they needed instructors at jump school, so I was sent down to try out. I was selected as one of the black-hat guys.

While I was there at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the ground-training unit had a non-commissioned officer named Sgt. Maj. Henry Slomanski— or “Hammering Hank,” as he was affectionately known. He was one of the early forces in karate in the United States. He was about 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He had spent a fair amount of time in Japan and acquired a chitoryu karate black belt. He rose up the chain and became a very good fighter. His biggest feat was defeating 119 Japanese karate experts in consecutive full-contact, no-pads matches over two days. Because of his size, he had a reach and could kick farther and use his weight in ways the Japanese couldn’t counter. He was later appointed as the commissioner for the Western hemisphere.

Black Belt: What exactly did he teach you?
John Alexander: Sgt. Maj. Henry Slomanski started a karate club and was teaching there. In the Rangers, we had American hand-to-hand combat, which was a derivative of jujutsu and American judo. His program also had a fair amount of traditional martial arts techniques. In addition to punches and very exacting kata, he also spent a lot of time learning about physiology and understanding how the body works and where to hit it to get a certain effect on joints and nerves. It was deep, far beyond “How hard can I hit the bag?”

Black Belt: Did you learn any other martial arts techniques during your military career?
John Alexander: Yes. The martial arts were part of all the military organizations I was with. For example, I was with Special Forces units for 10 years, and for my first tour in Asia, we teamed up with the Thai Special Forces. What they brought that was different from what we’d seen was Thai kickboxing. They used their feet differently from the way we did: They’d get in close and hold us and use their knees in ways that were not in traditional American fighting. I was there from 1966 to 1967, so there was plenty of time to train with them.

After a tour in Vietnam as a Special Forces A-Team commander, the Army gave me a year off to complete my bachelor’s degree [in Omaha], so I looked for some kind of martial arts training there. That’s where I first ran into taekwondo. In 1972 I was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. I was an infantry company commander. The executive officer there, Rich Haake, was Hawaiian. His father was a police captain on Maui. There was a large group of ethnic Samoans living in Hawaii who were really big, and the Hawaiian police were looking for ways to physically control them without having to shoot. Aikido became their method of choice, and through Rich Haake, I became acquainted with the soft arts.

Black Belt: What impressed you about aikido?
John Alexander: I liked the philosophy. As you know, there are no offensive moves. Everything is defensive; everything is reactive. I trained for about four years because it was one of the few occasions I was stationed in one place for a long time.

Black Belt: Is that when you became interested in ki?
John Alexander: Yes. An aikido grandmaster named Koichi Tohei came to Honolulu to do a big demonstration, and Rich Haake and I went down to watch. We saw Koichi Tohei do things that were nothing short of miraculous. His system uses ki, or internal energy. I watched him throw people and “hit” them with no physical contact.

I was also introduced to an old Japanese gentleman, another aikido master, who made a slight flick of his wrist and hit me near the collarbone. I hit the ground—and it was not because of the physical force. There was clearly energy attached to this martial art technique, but it was different from a physical blow. It was like being hit by a lightning bolt. Some might argue that he hit a nerve or something, but I don’t think that was the case. It was based on the projection of ki. The theory being used was that ki was infinite and could be projected by trained individuals. They also had fundamental heat-generation exercises.

In another demonstration, Koichi Tohei moved his hands up and down my body, aligning the energy in me. Then he had three big people sit on my chest. I was totally conscious. I was not stiff, yet I was rigid enough where a good 600 pounds was set on my midriff, unsupported, without collapsing. And there were no marks afterward. The theory is that the ki can move through the body just like water moves through a fire hose, giving it strength.

Black Belt: In 1980 you were assigned to the Pentagon. Were you able to apply your martial arts training to the work you did there?
John Alexander: While I was in Washington, Jack Houck, an aerospace engineer, developed a system in which he could teach people to bend metal using mental techniques. He did not come to the Pentagon per se to teach. Rather, we learned the skills in the evening and later transferred them to our jobs. I think there are some similarities to ki because one of the issues when you bend metal is, Where does the energy come from? We ended up teaching this to people in very high levels of the government —dozens of people over time. Just to be clear, this is something that only works sometimes—as opposed to, if I punch you, I know you’re going to be hurt physically.

We saw some very unusual things. One time during an advanced course I was teaching, an individual was holding two forks and one of them bent 90 degrees. Then, with everybody watching, it went back up and then went about halfway down again. There was absolutely no physical force. The guy said, “I wish that hadn’t happened,” and put them down. To this day, I still have the forks. I think there are correlations between what we saw and the martial arts projection of ki, so I endeavored to look at that from a scientific perspective.

Black Belt: You also trained with kun tao expert pert Guy Savelli. What did he teach you?
John Alexander: Among other things, we learned how to break boards with a single finger. I’d done a lot of board breaking, so I knew how to smash. But this was a quick snap with the back of the finger; we actually were projecting our ki to break a board. So, again, there were interrelationships between martial arts training and what we were seeing in other areas.

One of the other things he demonstrated was called mind-stops. He would start by facing his partner, and without that person perceiving it, all of a sudden he’d be behind him. The person was not even aware that there had been this shift.

Black Belt: What other phenomena did you witness while you worked at the Pentagon?
John Alexander: Years ago, a number of Japanese scientists came to study ki masters in a way that wasn’t subjective with respect to what the operator thought was happening. The test had one master on the fourth floor in one corner of a large building. Another one was located on the first floor at the opposite end of the building and was being monitored for galvanic skin response and EEGs.

There were TV cameras at a central location watching them both so we could time-correlate what happened. They saw repeatedly where the master would send ki energy from one corner of the building. Exactly when he did it, we saw physiological changes in the individual at the other end of the building, even though there were no visual cues and they couldn’t hear each other.

The masters would say they could perceive it, but that’s subjective. When you see the needles hop, however, you have definite physiological correlations between the generation of energy in one part and the reception of that energy by a person separated by some distance totally devoid
of physical cues.

I also saw some pretty strong evidence for dim mak. Savelli applied the death touch to a goat, which the Special Forces had hobbled in front of TV cameras. Hours later, the goat suddenly dropped dead. What was most amazing was, when they did the necropsy, there was a wound inside that looked like it had come from a bullet, yet there were no entry or exit wounds. But we saw a clear path going through the rib area near the heart that looked as if some kind of projectile had penetrated it.

Black Belt: Were those skills ever taught to our soldiers for use on the battlefield?
John Alexander: A lot of this stuff was done in the early to mid-1980s, when the military was very open-minded and very large. They had larger budgets, and we could explore things that could never have been done in the ’90s. It was never incorporated as part of training per se. It’s unfortunate, but it’s like all large organizations: They drift toward the lowest common denominator, where a lot of people wouldn’t believe it.

We had an isolated group—some senior officers who were very supportive and allowed us to do that. But we found that as we started teaching people, it was like any skill: First you have the master, and he’s very good. The next guy is almost as good and so on. As the skills dissipate, efficiency dissipates. However, there are some in special operations who do this sort of training, but to get really good, you have to go beyond the basic courses.

Black Belt: You have also studied other paranormal normal phenomena, such as UFOs and telepathy. How did that come about?
John Alexander: Phenomenology has been an interest of mine since I was a kid. In December 1980 an article I wrote addressed the use of remote viewing and psychokinesis for military purposes. It appeared in Military Review and was called “The New Mental Battlefield.” It barely made a blip. Jack Anderson, the news columnist, wrote an article called “The Voodoo Warriors of the Pentagon,” which developed a certain amount of notoriety in the area.

There is an area of consciousness where there are very definite correlations. I went back and watched what the Soviets had been doing in both open-source and classified literature. They were taking this really seriously, and their approach was much more coherent and serious than the American approach. In 1981 I gave a briefing about the use of psi phenomena to the under-secretary of defense. That was at about 12:30 in the afternoon. I went back to my office, and at 4:20 I got a call that said, “Tomorrow morning you don’t work at the Inspector General’s office anymore.” Then Lt. Gen. Max Thurman stuck me in phenomenology research. I could do just about anything I wanted to, quite frankly. I had a two-star boss, Maj. Gen. Bert Stubblebine, who was very open-minded, and he said: “Go do it. Just tell me what you’re going to do and don’t get us in trouble.”

Black Belt: You wrote your doctoral thesis on thanatology and near-death experiences. That and your military training and phenomenology work would seem to make you an ideal candidate to develop non-lethal weapons for modern warfare.
John Alexander: What I discuss in my military writing is that people say war is about killing. But Carl Von Clausewitz, the premier of military philosophers, once said, “War is about the imposition of will, and it’s getting an adversary to do what you want him to.” This ties into the martial arts. You use only the force necessary to accomplish the mission.

Military policy says you never use non-lethal weapons without the lethal capability to back it up. I think the martial arts play a similar role. You want to use graduated force. In many cases, it may be something as simple as, if you appear that you know how to defend yourself, the mugger might go away. I’m not against using force; I just think you ought to look at the long-term consequences of using it.

There are many situations in which using it may be in your short term interest but not your long-term interest. We ended up killing between 7,000 and 10,000 people in Somalia, and the mission there was to save people. We had missions change, and the weapons systems that were available were woefully inadequate. Some of that’s changed significantly, and this whole notion of bringing about non-lethal weapons has come into it. We now have a formal unit to develop such weapons.

Black Belt: In your new book, Winning the War: Advanced Weapons, Strategies and Concepts for the Post-9/11 World, you explain what steps we need to take to win the war on terrorism.
John Alexander: I suggest that we’ve entered World War X. I call it “X” because I don’t know how to count the various sequences that have occurred, but clearly there have been a number of major confrontations in the world. But I think historians looking back from the 22nd century will say this war began on 9-11-2001. It didn’t, but World War II didn’t begin on December 7, 1941 either. But it’s a defining moment.

The book describes developments in non-lethal weapons and hyper-lethal weapons, how they would be employed and the kinds of conflicts we’ll see in the future. And it does end on an up beat as to what steps we can take to do this without self destructing.

Black Belt: Do you think the martial arts will have a place in the future you describe?
John Alexander: Absolutely. No matter what you do, the fundamental discipline of the individual is important. We keep hearing, “We’re going to have all these neat technologies, and we’re going to have wars with robots.” Ultimately, it comes down to the individual. You’re never going to not have soldiers. The soldier embodies the notion of the warrior monk or the martial artist. Therefore, whether or not people become warriors themselves, the martial arts community will certainly be part of the breeding ground that provides a cadre who then become the warriors and protect our national interests.

Black Belt: Will hand-to-hand combat skills remain an important component of military training even with the advent of non-lethal and hyper-lethal weaponry?
John Alexander: Very much. Even if you have a rifle and you can shoot a long way, going out and killing somebody is not a natural act. You have to train people to do that. If you accept that you’re going to have to use force under some circumstances —and it’s the right thing to do sometimes—you should provide a mental toughness that allows people to function. In the long run, the discipline that comes with the martial arts will save lives.

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