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Principles of the USN SEALS

Amongst the number of various special forces of the world’s militaries, we are all familiar with the US special forces group, the SEALS. The SEALS, along with many of the free world’s special forces, are groups that we need and to whom we all owe a lot.

There’s a Tibetan story I’d like to re-tell here.

There were some sheep in a flock in the hills. Amongst them was also an old goat. The sheep herd, as all sheep herds are in Tibet, was guarded by some large, scary Tibetan mastiffs. These dogs are gorgeous. They’re like little lions! One day, after a quiet period when there hadn’t been any wolf attacks for some time, the older sheep were chatting, as sheep do, about all sorts of irrelevant notions. They latched onto the idea that the guard dogs were smelly, snarly, scary and – redundant!

The old goat, used to tuning out the foolish banter of the sheep as he contemplated more serious issues, overhearing the conversation, butted in by warning the sheep that if they were to continue to be safe they ought to have the guard dogs around. Surely they weren’t considering fighting the wolves themselves? He was bleated down by the sheep who assured him that the world had changed. Settlements had been creeping up the hills, civilization was spreading and the violent wolves and their ways were not only a thing of the past but surely something that no modern sheep need concern themselves over. Anyway, surely the wolves would see reason and be persuaded by the sheep not to attack them but to attack some wildlife instead? The sheep decided to mount a deputation to the village head that they no longer needed the dogs and that they ought to be taken away. Surely this would benefit the young lambs as they wouldn’t be exposed to the roughness and violence of the dogs? So, folly prevailed.

The village head withdrew the dogs into the village and the sheep continued grazing on the hills, unmolested, through the next year. The sheep congratulated themselves on ridding their sheep society of those, the dogs, who espoused violence. However, two years later, disaster struck. A pack of wolves, incited by their fanatical leader who taught the wolf cubs that all sheep should be eaten, attacked the herd.

The sheep elders tried to hold a dialogue with the wolves to persuade them to move on and find some wildlife to eat. However, the wolves, laughing, ripped them to pieces, ate them and attacked the herd! The old goat bravely fought with several wolves but was, tragically, slain. Dying, he told the sheep that peace comes at a price and that price is the cost of protectors. As the wolves withdrew, to regroup and attack the next night, and the next, and the next, relentlessly, the sheep bleated: “Where are the dogs? Where are the dogs? We need the dogs to kill the wolves!” You surely get my point. Those who think that to have peace we only need to bleat peace and love, to develop “international relations” or engage in “diplomacy”, I laugh. We need the dogs. To have peace we must kill the wolves! For goodness to prevail, evil must be destroyed!

OK, back to the SEALS. The special forces have been portrayed in various movies and TV shows. The SEALS, in the last decade or so especially, seem to have become popular with American crime show producers with every second muscular – and some not so muscular – actor being revealed as a former SEAL. It used to be “Marine”.

Some martial arts instructors like to bask in the reflected glory of special forces. This is taken to ridiculous extremes by those who, although civilians, dress daily in military camouflage clothing. Going shopping to the mall? Wear camouflage trousers! Never mind that what they wear is a commercial knock off of the real thing that those in the know can chuckle at. Never mind that the guy wearing them is a skinny clown who wouldn’t last a twenty kilometre march with a full pack! Wouldn’t last one kilometre! The gear they wear they bought at a disposal store or on the internet, having never actually been enlisted members of the armed forces!


In the US it seems if an instructor runs a seminar an any special forces guys apply then he’s an “instructor to the SEALS”. If they run an recreational activity for the USN they become an “instructor to the 7th Fleet” or something! One can only shake one’s head! I am constantly bemused by some American martial arts instructors in this regard. Maybe it’s just that they publicise themselves so much. Maybe it’s that there are simply more wanna-be types there? Some who have “big names” - because they’ve promoted themselves in US martial arts magazines – but who, in reality, when you see them, are not really especially skilled fighters!

Steven Segal movies have boosted the popular appeal of a martial arts instructor claiming to have been in some special forces group. Segal, who seems to have been a reasonable scrapper in his youth seems to have been over-identified with his characters who are SEALS or “ex SEALS”. The next step down is the instructor who may actually have served in the military. But certainly not in the special forces - and not on active service. Then, at the bottom of the heap, there’s the clown. It’s a sorry state of affairs!

Anyway, I say all this to make the point that this article is not trying to represent us as in any way associated with the SEALS – or any other special forces group – but to pay homage to their principles. I knew a guy once – he was a real SEAL. How do I know? Does being killed fighting for freedom in Fallujah count? Yes, I damn well think so!

Anyway, the SEALS have six principles we could benefit from thinking about. These are six principles for success: simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed and purpose.

Simplicity, as opposed to minimalisation, is a core principle of Wing Chun. If self defence training and application is simple then it is more likely to be effective under the pressures of real world combat.

Security reflects our principle of self protection/safety. We have to ensure our bodily integrity and protect ourselves from disabling injury if we are to defend ourselves appropriately and in a sustained fashion.

Repetition can be interpreted to both training and application in combat. We obviously need to repeat techniques in practice. Generally speaking, we also need to strike repetitively in attack. Sure, if we have high skill and are confident, then we can strike just the once, decisively, to end the confrontation. Mostly, in keeping with the kuen kuit to strike three times, we utilise repetitive striking. This is not falling into the uniformed view of chain punching as the be-all and end-all of all self defence, however. My views on the unskilled “hit and hope” and over-using chain punching are well known.

Surprise is said to be the heart of gung fu. So, it isn’t a shock to hear that this principle can be applied to our art in application. We move to surprise our attacker by thwarting his attack and responding with our lightning hands so he literally doesn’t know what hit him. Surprise is applied in our approach to real world defence. We don’t talk in a threatening fashion. We don’t assume any esoteric stances or “gung fu” hand positions. We don’t puff ourselves up or assume macho facial expressions or poses. We simply explode from a normal, every day, even a submissive, position. Surprise!

Speed is, as I’m always stressing, is essential. Our art wasn’t originally called “Lightning Hands” for nothing! We use not only our structural advantages but also our relaxed power. How ridiculous it’d be to suggest that if you accidentally put your fingers on a hot surface that you’d then think about it, tense up - then pull away! This analogy refers to us having to be relaxed in the application of our art. You don’t think about pulling your fingers off a hot surface. You don’t tense up and slow the process down. You react! You just do it without thought! Fast!

Purpose is the final SEAL principle. Obviously we train with a purpose. To borrow from another military group – the USMC – we train to be all we can be. We have to focus our mind, focus our efforts, focus our training time and overall time. We simply have to be fully aware of our purpose in a cascade of goals from our dream goal down to our daily and hourly plan. Whilst Socrates said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, so, too, the unplanned life is not worth living. Sure, our plans may not come to pass as we planned. Sometimes we’ll need to re-plan. But, the vital thing is to have a purpose and to pursue it relentlessly.

So, there we have it. Applying the SEAL principles to our Wing Chun, to our lives, is only going to yield a better result than not doing so.

By PH3 JOHN SULLIVAN, USN (DoDMedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons