The martial arts. Hmmm. This term for what we do has always puzzled me, because neither word describes what I do.
Martial means relating to war. Thus martial arts are war arts. But almost nothing that is practiced in any martial arts school today relates much to modern warfare. What with distance weapons the mainstay of modern warfare (some really long distance - think ICBM), interpersonal combat in war is fairly rare. Most of the enemy is killed or defeated these days by air strikes, artillery, or other long-distance weapons. Indeed, even the term close quarter battle or even interpersonal warfare these days refers to men firing at each other with rifles at urban or dwelling type distances. And while yes, I do know that many of our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq have had to fight - and kill - at belly-to-belly distances, with edged weapons and bare hands, these are pretty rare occasions in the big picture.
The simple fact is that hand-to-hand combat is a rarity in modern warfare. It is still taught - when it is taught at all - to soldiers mainly as a means of improving fighting spirit and morale. (Again yes, I know of the exceptions in the special operations communities, and again, these are exceptions to the general rule.) Ditto for the traditional martial arts weapons taught in a typical school: swords and sticks of various configurations. And has anyone seen a lance or a spear on a battlefield lately?
So whether you are practicing traditional martial arts or street-functional combatives, they are not really martial skills.
But is it art? Well, yes - it could be. Art is a term that has many meanings, but let's go with a pretty general one: art is something that reflects part of life back to us, with an instructive perspective. Note that art is not defined as something useful - indeed, some art scholars might argue that function and art are exclusive of each other. In any case, from a martial arts perspective, art is something that we do, in the words of Paul Vunak, "for self-perfection rather than self-protection." So if you are into the martial arts for discipline, an understanding of a culture or a tradition, to perfect your form, to reach some ideal or any other non-functional reason, you are practicing an art form. But if all you really care about is the self-protection part of the practice, you are developing a practical life skill, not practicing an art form.
Those of us in the latter category are thus involved in a practice that is neither martial nor art. To call it martial arts is to use a common term for something that it really does not describe. What I and those like me do has come to be called combatives recently, and as far as it goes, that's OK. It differentiates traditional martial arts from the street-realistic material that we concentrate on. But it, too, is a sort of vague and undefined term. Combat may be an accurate term for a street fight or the kind of fight that a police officer might get into in effecting an arrest, but it also conjures up the image of war, and to that extent it is misleading.
Where does all this leave us; what are we combatives practitioners to call what we do, if we want to be accurate?
How about plain old self-defense? That is, after all, what we generally want to accomplish with our skills.