Tired Tropes: It’s Only A Flesh Wound

You’ve seen versions of the scene a hundred times before. Our Hero is engaged in a gunfight with The Villain. The Villain takes a potshot at Our Hero. Our Hero staggers. When his sidekick catches up with Our Hero and asks after him, Our Hero declares, “It’s only a flesh wound”. In the next scene, Our Hero is patched up and good to go. If the creator even bothers with medical treatment.

In a creative work that treats deadly violence with deadly seriousness, the flesh wound trope is a cop-out. It is a cheap way to increase tension in the scene by showing that Our Hero isn’t invulnerable and that The Villain isn’t incapable, while simultaneously preventing Our Hero from receiving a wound that would prematurely retire him from the story altogether.

To be clear, I’m referring to instances where a character can shrug off an injury as though nothing happened to him, not instances in which a character insists he can keep fighting even though it’s clear he’s gravely wounded. The latter is drama, the former is cheap. Ten seconds on Google would rob anyone of any delusions that a ‘flesh wound’ isn’t serious.

When weapons are involved, there is no such thing as a ‘flesh wound’. It’s like being pregnant: you can’t shoot or stab someone a little bit, and you can’t pretend there won’t be long-term consequences. Once weapons come into play, there are just two questions: how much damage is caused immediately, and how much functionality you recover.

Functionally like this, with more bleeding and screaming.

The human body is amazingly resilient and incredibly fragile. It is resilient in that the major critical organs—the brain, the heart, the lungs—are protected by thick, hard bone, making it difficult to immediately kill someone, and most bodily functions are duplicated, allowing someone to survive the loss of a limb or eye or some other organ. It is fragile in that it is ludicrously easy to shatter bones, sever nerves and destroy muscle if you know what you’re doing—and there is no easy way to undo the damage.

Let’s take the classic example of the bullet to the arm. If the round strikes the forearm, it could break the radius and/or ulna, potentially disabling the arm. If the bullet hits the hand, it would produce an explosion of blood and pain, crippling the hand and potentially severing fingers. A round to the elbow or shoulder will destroy the joint and require reconstructive surgery. And a large enough round will blow off the limb altogether. Even with reconstructive surgery, there is no guarantee the limb will be saved, and there will usually be some degree of permanent loss of function.

Blunt weapons don’t offer much relief. They are technically less lethal in that the user can choose not to kill someone, but it doesn’t mean it won’t cripple the target either. Many stick striking techniques target the head and the joints. A club or cudgel, used properly, will cause fractures, concussions and traumatic brain injuries. A knockout blow to the head might still kill someone if it strikes with with enough force or if he lands on a hard surface.

image-16
The most effective targets are no-go zones for law enforcement…but not for bad guys.

Police officers are specifically trained to target muscle groups instead of bones with their batons—not because these are effective techniques, but to minimise harm to the suspect. This is also why police baton striking techniques create the appearance of police brutality: they are striking the least effective targets on the body, and a subject high on drugs or adrenaline may not feel the pain. When striking with a club, you get to choose between causing pain—not effective against an adrenalized target—or shattering bones—not conducive for allowing Our Hero to continue his adventures. The only time a blunt weapon would inflict the equivalent of ‘flesh wounds’ is by striking muscle, which is not usually in a bad guy’s repertoire.

What about edged weapons? A core concept of Filipino martial arts is defanging the snake, in which the practitioner disarms an aggressor by disabling a limb. When applied to knives, this means targeting the major muscle groups of the arms and legs, leading to an instant stop. Surely, then, this is a flesh wound?

No.

In Martial Blade Concepts, a key technique is the quadriceps cut. The practitioner moves to the target’s side, then stabs the quads and cuts out. There will be little blood and relatively minor nerve damage…and the target will no longer be able to stand unaided.

In Libre Knife Fighting, a tactic is to circle around a target’s weapon side to gain his back, plant the knife next to the spine and cut down. This would sever the major muscles in the back, including the latissimus dorsi. Little blood, minor damage…and the target will no longer be able to lift his arm.

Even if you can inflict an actual flesh wound on someone, if done properly that person will not be able to walk away from it—in some cases, literally. It will take long weeks to recover, if at all. Once weapons are thrown into the mix, the question is not how to ‘safely’ harm the target, but rather how much harm you are willing to do, starting with merely disabling a limb and climbing all the way to death.

And all this is assuming that the story takes place in a setting with modern medicine. In a historical setting or an austere environment with limited access to healthcare, a mere flesh wound would become infected, quickly becoming a horrific pus-filled wound leading to a terrible and painful death. Before the advent of penicillin, anesthesia or even germ theory, there were precious few methods of treating injuries that were not immediately fatal. There was no point trying to save an injured limb if it would inevitably become septic. The preferred method was to amputate the limb to prevent the spread of disease—and even then, prior to the development of sterile surgery people still caught diseases and died. In the American Civil War, one in four patients died from post-surgical illnesses. In such a setting, even if a character survives a non-fatal injury, he is in for a miserable time.

In a creative work where violence is played straight, it would not do for characters to walk off flesh wounds. It flies against the aesthetic of the work, revealing the scene for what it is: a cheap trick to artificially induce tension. And yet a character who routinely prevails in deadly encounters without a scratch appears invincible, inducing audience boredom.

The Art of Safely Injuring Our Hero

For better or for worse, an easy way to increase tension and retain audience interest is to prevent the perception of invulnerability. Our Hero must be seen taking a blow. But he must also survive his injuries without being too damaged to continue his career. There are four ways to do this.The first method is to take away the weapons. Without weapons, it will be more difficult for people to grievously harm each other. By focusing on body shots, slams, throws, chokes and the occasional head punch, both parties can whale on each other without necessarily causing permanent injuries. Fight-ending shots like throat strikes, eye rakes and joint breaks can be evaded, parried, blocked or countered, prolonging the scene while ratcheting the tension until the time is right to end the fight. Using clever fight choreography, a creator can disguise the fact that neither party is trying to kill or cripple the other while still increasing suspense.

Look past the wire fu and you’ll notice that they are not using or landing lethal or crippling techniques.

Chinese martial arts films love this trope. In the above clip from Ip Man 2, Ip Man fights three kung fu masters in succession. Here, Ip Man is fighting to prove his calibre as a teacher and earn the right to run a martial arts school in Hong Kong. Since this conflict is inherently a social one, the combatants will want to avoid lethal techniques, but this implicit rule does not shield Ip Man from failure. The audience may be assured that Ip Man will survive the fight (Ip Man is, after all, a historical character), but not necessarily that he will win, thereby maintaining suspense.

The second method is to use the setting to mitigate the damage. In a fantasy setting, you can have healers with the power to reattach severed limbs and cure terrible wounds. In a science fiction story, a crippled character may rely on prosthetics or cutting-edge medical regeneration technology. Such a setting gives you the best of both worlds: you can still play serious battle wounds straight, leading to loss of blood and limb function, but as soon as the character receives medical care he can be restored to full heath, allowing him to continue the adventure.

During Luke Skywalker’s duel with Darth Vader on Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader cuts off Luke’s hand. This demonstrates the disparity in skill between them and allows Darth Vader to reveal that he is Luke’s father. Luke later receives a prosthetic hand, allowing him to participate in Return of the Jedi. In this instant, the science fiction setting makes the prosthetic hand believable, maintaining suspension of disbelief while averting the flesh wound trope.

This would naturally be more difficult to do in a modern setting. Armour is the easiest way to do it, if you can justify its inclusion in the scene. Armour may stop bullets and shrapnel from penetrating flesh, but it would still feel like a hard punch and possibly leave deep bruises. To maintain drama in such a situation, focus on pain, shock, surprise and other psychological effects. In effect, the character knows he’s been hit, but since he took it on the armour, he can keep fighting—even if it hurts like the devil, forcing him to slow down. Wounds to unarmored limbs will still disable the limb, but by applying a tourniquet, the character will still survive – and now he must figure out how to survive despite the loss of a limb. Which is a rich vein to tap for more drama, if you know what you’re doing.

The third method is to play grievous wounds straight but allow a long time for rest and recovery. It’s no coincidence that heroes in realistic thriller series suffer their most debilitating injuries near the end of the story. From the writer’s perspective, since the hero won’t participate in any more combat later in the story, the hero need only survive the scene. By the time of the next story, the hero would have recovered fully—or at least, to the point where he can continue his adventures.In Barry Eisler’s Winner Take All, John Rain almost bleeds to death. By the time of the next book, Redemption Games, Rain has recovered and is ready for his next contract. By contrast, in Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, Jack Ryan suffers the classic shoulder wound in the beginning of the story. Ryan spends weeks in hospital, and weeks more in a cast. He also loses some permanent use of his arm. Despite that, by the time of the climax, Ryan is fit for action. This makes sense because Ryan is an analyst: as a desk jockey he doesn’t have to run around and chase bad guys, allowing other characters to participate in action scenes until it’s Ryan’s time to shine.

The last method is the riskiest: inflict the lowest amount of damage possible while justifying it in-universe. This requires extensive knowledge of tactics, techniques, technology and procedures. This method should only be relied on if you do possess such knowledge—or if you know someone who does.

In swordfighting, medium range is the range where both parties can reach each other with their weapons. This is the realm of the double kill. Blade styles that specialise in combat at this range demand mastery of timing, footwork and body mechanics. For instance, when facing a thrust, an exponent may sway back to evade the blade, then launch a riposte along the open line. Such a subtle movement minimises the distance and time the swordsman needs to deliver a counterattack, but it also demands perfection. When dodging an attack, Our Hero may slightly misjudge the distance and receive a shallow wound. Likewise, the villain may evade Our Hero’s slash and launch a sudden riposte; Our Hero shields with his secondary arm and tries to step off, but the offending blade still takes him in the arm. In both cases, Our Hero doesn’t receive a fight-ending injury, or even necessarily a serious one, but the narrowness of his escape emphasises just how close he is to dying and the seriousness of the situation. When played straight, these apparently-shallow wounds will begin to degrade his combat effectiveness, forcing him to take risks. For instance, a seemingly-superficial forehead cut may bleed into the eyes, creating an avenue for reversal and tension, while the arm wound might lead to loss of blood pressure and later consciousness.

With live weapons, a small error in timing and footwork will lead to injury. Notice how narrow the dodges are, and how slim the margin of error.

It is much harder to pull this off in gunfights. In Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, a villain shoots Bob Lee Swagger twice in the chest. Swagger survives and escapes. It is revealed that the villain missed Swagger’s heart and had loaded his weapon with hollow point bullets that had failed to expand. The latter is plausible because the story is set in the early 1990s, and hollow points were not a mature technology then. Even so, Swagger is still critically wounded. He struggles with his injuries and requires medical attention (and recovery) before he can continue his investigation. Without knowledge of firearms, ammunition and terminal ballistics, it is very hard to plausibly pull of flesh wounds from a firefight. The old standby, of course, is to have Our Hero grazed by bullets or be struck by fragments from bullets disintegrating against hard cover, but with such minor wounds Our Hero (and therefore the audience) may not even notice them until after the fight.

Flesh wounds are impossible wounds. In a work that plays violence straight, downplaying the effects of injuries contradicts the feel and tone of the work. Instead of going for transparent theatrics, see if you can use the setting to plausibly mitigate the effects of injuries, or play the violence straight and force Our Hero to roll with what he has left. By respecting the consequences of deadly violence, you can maintain dramatic tension while respecting reality and the audience.


Image credits:

Baton target: Original image by Monadnock, first retrieved here.

How to Bring Out Your Characters’ Personalities in Action Scenes

Everybody loves action scenes. The thrill of the fight, the kinetic spectacle and suspense combine to create a high emotional beat in the story. Action scenes are also a great way to show the reader what kind of person a character is. To elevate action scenes to the next level and integrate them into the story, every action scene should reflect the personalities and backgrounds of every character involved.

Heart, Mind and Soul

Violence is the crucible that brings out the best and worst of people. Different people will react differently to violence. A 6’12 bodybuilder with huge, bulging muscles may cut and run at the first sight of blood. A 5′ soft-spoken woman may transform into a furious wolverine when gangsters threaten her children.

Fighting is not simply about techniques, angles, positioning or other technical matters. Every conflict is a clash of wills between everyone involved. When choreographing an action scene, delve into how every party involved will react to violence. What are their attitudes towards violence? What are they comfortable with? What hang-ups do they have? What are their goals in that scene? How far are they willing to go to achieve them? Do they think they are engaged in social violence or asocial violence?

For more information, please see my earlier post on the subject of writing violence.

Once you have an idea of what your characters can and cannot do, and will and will not do, see how these mesh with your characters’ personalities.

In Ken Bruen’s novels, his antiheroes and villains readily turn to violence to settle their affairs. In the stories set in Ireland, the hurley stick is the weapon of choice. Armed with these sticks, characters routinely beat down other characters to send a message or to kill them.

Here we see the characters’ personas . Weapons are highly limited in Ireland, but the characters don’t want to fight fair. They turn to hurley sticks because they are legal (“We’re just off to play a game of hurley, Garda!”), and because they are so widely and cheaply available they can be disposed of after the job. The use of legal sporting goods as weapons, the disposal of evidence and the use of seemingly unfair advantages emphasise the dark and criminal nature of these characters. When the characters go to work with the hurleys, they viciously batter their targets to a pulp, either killing them or sending a message the targets will never forget. The brutality of such scenes reflects the darkness in the attackers’ hearts and lives — either they feel they have no recourse to softer and more legal means, or they simply enjoy the violence.

Contrast this with Team Rainbow from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (the novel). Rainbow is a secret multinational counterterrorist organisation staffed by NATO military and police personnel. They operate with the latest equipment and hone their skills to a razor’s edge. When they are called up, they meticulously plan every step of the operation and seize every tactical advantage they can get. Once they blow in the doors, violence is swift and precise. They are all trained to perform headshots, and they never miss.

When put together, this portrays Rainbow as an elite group of special operators. They are swift and efficient, protecting the weak from terrorists. They also harbour a professional contempt for their prey. After a terrorist executes a child, a sniper punishes him with a highly painful and assuredly fatal wound. However, their focus is on preserving life: if a situation can be resolved through negotiations or arrests, they will take that option. As they operate with the blessings of national governments, they can focus on getting the job done with the best gear. Between their gear and the actions, the reader can believe that they are truly the best of the best soldiers in the world.

Violence is an expression of a character’s will. Understand the will and manifest it in his actions.

Personality, Skills and Physique

Let’s say your characters have more than a modicum of experience or training in violence. Maybe they are hardened street fighters, or they have training in martial arts and other combat skills. They aren’t going to react to violence like civilians (or, frankly, many Hollywood actors and fiction characters in action scenes). To portray them accurately, you want to go a step further.

Different people will have different ways of fighting. Scott Bab, Founder of Libre Fighting, says it best:

A martial arts system is a tool box. A tool box that was hopefully assembled by a skilled craftsman. The instructor shows the student how each tool works, but it is up to the student to determine which tools they will put on their tool belt and carry around with them.
Although each has been trained in person, by my own hands, when I look at my own senior ranks, in my own class, each of them fights entirely differently.
One is lightning fast and crafty. He teases his opponents with opportunities then exploits the openings when they take the bait. He rarely engages directly, he plays games and manipulates his opponents.
Another is a bruiser. He is stocky and powerful, and overwhelms his opponents with the sheer intensity of his presence. He yells, stomps, and powers forward like a machine tearing through whatever is in his path.
Yet another plays chess. He knows every angle that can come his way and knows how to negate each one. He has a deep inherent understanding of the tactics and approach I teach and relies on his technical proficiency to overcome opponents.

A character’s martial expression is the sum of his personality, skills and physique. A trained and/or experienced fighter will find a set of techniques that meshes well with his body dynamics and his expected threat. He will pick a set of tactics that enable him to make full use of his favourite techniques, be it charging in, deception or counterattacking. These techniques and tactics together reflect the person’s character.

In my American Heirs series, Master Sergeant Christopher Miller is a soldier with a distinguished career in the Combat Studies Unit of the Cascadian Defense Force. He doesn’t have any formal training in martial arts, just generic military combatives and other specialised programs for Spec Ops types. His training emphasises fighting as a unit instead of working solo, seizing every advantage possible, and taking no chances. He would rather shoot a threat than touch him, but he won’t hesitate to go hands-on if he must.

This is portrayed in the combat scenes. If a subject tries to grapple with a Unit operator in close quarters battle, the operator will shove the subject aside into a corner, clearing the way for his buddies to continue the fight. After gunning down a threat, Miller and his fellow operators will fire insurance shots if they hadn’t landed a headshot. In the latest story, I, Eschaton, Miller employs stealth, speed and violence of action to overcome his tactical disadvantages. At the same time, he takes care to avoid hurting innocents and will not engage in gratuitous violence. Miller is a professional soldier par excellence: decisive, cunning and ruthless, but he will never harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it.

Contrast this with Luke Landon from my upcoming novel No Gods, Only Daimons. Landon is a black ops agent, and often has to improvise weapons in denied environments. His preferred weapon is a knife, and he is an expert in Filipino martial arts. While Landon is no slouch with a firearm, he is far more skilled with a blade. He is also a highly intelligent operator who regularly employs deception. Before opening combat, he employs deceptive speech and body language to get his enemy to drop his guard, then lunges in for a pre-emptive strike. When engaging threats, he uses feints and footwork to set up and exploit openings, crashing in for the kill. Where possible, he will make use of the environment, slamming targets into walls, objects or each other. Landon knows that he is not fighting bodies; he is fighting minds. He approaches combat like a high-speed chess game with the highest stakes, creating and exploiting advantages.

Everybody has preferences. Discover your character’s preferences and employ them in action scenes, distinguishing them from other characters and other stories.

The Cost of It

Violence is a two-way street. Violence professionals will stack the deck in their favour as far as they can, but the other guy always get a vote. Injuries and diseases and fatalities are the price of the profession. They stack up over time, changing how a person views the world. And even if a person walks away physically unscathed, his mind may not.

Combat is the most toxic environment known to man. A single exposure alters the brain forever. It shakes up the soul, alters brain chemistry, and leaves psychic scars — especially if combat were particularly intense, harrowing and emotional. After the action scene is over, show your reader how your characters cope with their experiences.

Take the case of Audie Murphy. Murphy is one of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War, winning every US military award for valour, including the Second World War. But his wartime experiences shook him deeply, leaving him afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. He became addicted to drugs, and suffered from insomnia and depression. Murphy is clearly brave, skilled combatant — but even he was not immune to the psychological ravages of war.

Looking at fiction, Barry Eisler’s John Rain is a hitman who kills without remorse…but his conscience droves him to make amends. In Redemption Games, his conscience causes him to botch a job, turning him into a target. At the end, his guilt drives him to atone for his deeds.

Here we see people dealing with the cost of violence in markedly different ways. Murphy was clearly shaken by the war, affecting his everyday life. In contrast, Rain experiences no psychological stress from the act of killing, but he is haunted by the knowledge of the long-term impact on the people affected by his kills. Rain isn’t a wreck, but his guilt informs his future actions and mindset.

The more intense an actions scene, the higher the price the character has to pay. This comes in the form of injuries, permanent loss of function, maladjustment to civilian life, psychological trauma, and more. How they cope with this trauma shows the reader the depths of their souls. Is a character prone to spiralling into self-destruction? Or will he rise above his new wounds and strive to overcome them? This drama creates greater depth in writing.

Putting Everything Together

Violence is a tool for people to impose their wills on others to achieve their goals. Every act of violence is an expression of the actor’s being. His physique tells you what he can and cannot do. His mindset and beliefs show what he will or will not do. His tactics show his preferences. The best action scenes combine these three elements, bringing out the actor’s character. And when the action is over, different people will find different ways to cope with what they have done.

To create top-notch action scenes, learn your characters inside and out, pit them against each other, and let them be themselves.


Further Reading:

This is just an overview. To create verisimilitude, you have to do your research. Study the techniques and mindsets of fighters and warriors and survivors, and embody them in your characters. Here are some books that point the way.

  • On Combat, Dave Grossman and Loren W. Christensen
  • On Killing, David Grossman
  • Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller
  • Warrior Mindset, Dr Michael Asken

The Boston Tea Party and the Washington Riots are Not the Same

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery attempted to draw moral equivalency between the Boston Tea Party and the Washington riots.

They are not the same. I can’t tell if it’s willful ignorance of history or deliberate distortion of the record, but when dealing with the far left, there is no difference.

By drawing comparisons to the Boston Tea Party, the Left is attempting to legitise wanton acts of destruction and rioting. They are attempting to create a narrative to justify future riots, the same kind of riots seen in Ferguson and Baltimore. But the Tea Party is not the same as a riot.

The Boston Tea Party


(W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party., The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789. Engraving. Plate opposite p. 58. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress)

The primary target of the Boston Tea Party was the East India Company, a government-granted monopoly that benefited directly from the Tea Act passed by King George.

When the Sons of Liberty boarded the Dartmouth, Eleanor and the Beaver they destroyed the tea — and only the tea. They did not sink the ships. They did not attack the crew. They did not lay waste to the port.

It was a deliberate, focused act of violence aimed at property, with a government-linked monopoly as the primary target and the government itself as the secondary target. It did not involve anyone who was not a beneficiary of the Tea Act. Even so, the Sons of Liberty — and everybody else, including their allies and sympathisers — recognised that the protest itself was illegal. The colonial government did not suppress the Tea Party because the colonial government supported the cause, not because the protest was legal.

The Boston Tea Party itself was the culmination of decades of colonial frustration with the British government. The colonials believed it was not fair for King George to levy taxes on the colonies without granting them representation in Parliament. They saw King George and Parliament as remote rulers far removed from the goings-on in their lands, utilising taxes and the Regulars to keep the colonials in check. Despite decades of arguments, London did not budge. Taxation without representation was the order of the day. When the Tea Act passed, it undercut the livelihoods of colonial tea merchants while propping up a government monopoly on the brink of collapse. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Black Blocs of Washington

Now contrast this with the riots in Washington, fronted by the infamous Black Bloc.

This is in no way comparable to the Tea Party. The Tea Party did not deliberately attack people. The Washington rioters attacked police officers, and smashed windows and torched cars belonging to private businesses and individuals unaffiliated with President Donald Trump or the Federal government.

Disrupt J20 was an excuse to indulge in random acts of gratuitous violence. The rioters didn’t target anyone or anything belonging to Trump or his administration. They simply attacked ordinary Americans who live in a city that overwhelmingly voted against Trump, a President who has not done significant anything yet.

Think about that: the progressives, anarchists, antifascists and other groups were attacking their own supporters, in a country that prides itself on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. Instead of peaceful protests and petitions in a nation known for responding to such methods, the rioters indulged in violence.

The Washington riots had far more to do with the Stamp Act riots than the Tea Party. And the Stamp Act rioters, it should be remembered, were so destructive that the Founding Fathers sought to distance themselves from them.

The Slippery Slope

To be fair, the Boston Tea Party and the Washington riots have one thing in common: they were both acts of political violence.

Political violence rots the body politic. It is an irrevocable step towards chaos and bloodshed. Mob violence signals to everyone that the political process has failed, and it is time to unleash the beasts within. History tells us that mob violence is the death of liberty, democracy and civilisation. From the fall of the Roman Republic to Byzantium during the Imperial Exile, the French Terror to the Cultural Revolution, mob violence is a symptom of coming chaos.

The Boston Tea Party irrevocably led to the American Revolutionary War. America looks fondly upon the Tea Party today because America won the war. Had the British won, the textbooks and the popular narratives would be far different indeed.

The Washington riots allow Progressives to tell themselves that mob violence is acceptable, and a preferred tactic in future controversies. But this is a delusion. The riots also tell the Hard Right what to expect when the Progressives come for them.

I have seen discussions of armaments and tactics among the militant right. They are ready and willing to inflict bloodshed on a scale beyond what the Left can dream of. The Left calls for gun control, safe spaces and feminism; the Right believes in gun ownership, training and preparation. The Progressives may bring boots and clubs and stones; the Hard Right will wield AR-15s and Molotov cocktails and IEDs.

If the culture war goes hot, who do you think will win?

How many guards does it take to restrain a threat?

That’s a rhetorical question. But it’s one that refuses to die, especially now that the family of Dinesh Raman Chinnaiah is intent on suing the government. In 2010, Dinesh, an inmate in Changi Prison, kicked a prison officer in the abdomen. This sparked a 30-minute confrontation that ended with Dinesh’s death. The government has offered compensation, but his family wants to sue the government instead. This is unsurprising, since the official autopsy report was never made public, and without seeing CCTV footage of the incident — if any exist to begin with — nobody knows what really happened.

This is a very sticky situation. To be certain, many of the questions surrounding his death could have been answered if videos were available, if a coroner officially investigated the death and made his findings public from the start, and if the government actually acts on its watchword of transparency instead of keeping official documents away from the public eye.

But one thing especially irks me: uninformed activists and bloggers harping on the fact that 8 to 10 officers (the numbers aren’t consistent) restrained Dinesh. It is as if the numbers alone suggests wrongdoing or police brutality. Indeed, there have been claims of brutality and excessive force — none of which, as far as I can see for now, has been backed by evidence.

These people ask, why do you need 8 to 10 men to restrain a prisoner?

Okay, what arbitrary number then?

Because that’s what this quibbling over numbers is. Arbitrary.

I’ve known actual prison guards and read of their tactics and mindsets. One of them, Rory Miller, has 17 years of experience and specialised in handling unruly prisoners and cell extractions. He was a member in his prison’s tactical unit, handling cases just like this one. Care to guess how many guards he would take to respond to an incident like this?

Everybody he could find.

When dealing with a threat, such as a violent inmate, the rule is: the greater the number of responders, the greater your options, and the higher the chances of everyone being safe. Including the suspect. I’m not talking about Dinesh’s case now, rather I’m talking about principles of force.

Can the authorities send in one guy? Sure. Miller used to be ‘that guy’. But Miller has decades of experience training in and using classical jujitsu. Not modern jujitsu; the kind samurai used to immobilise, cripple and kill on ancient battlefields. He has an innate understanding of human body mechanics very few people will ever achieve, if only because very few people even know where to get that kind of training from. Also, he went in solo…with the rest of the team just out of sight, ready to back him up if things went wrong. And the prisoners he went after? The majority of them were either just making noise or not immediately attacking Miller, giving him the tactical flexibility he needed to resolve the situation.

Can the average guard walk in and end a situation by himself? No. Simply because your average person, much less guard, does not have the decades of experience and specialised training Miller has. It is not necessarily a question of competency or training — it is a question of real-world experience, and that you cannot learn in a dojo or training room. How many guards in the prison, at the time incident, can claim to have Miller’s level of experience?

There is no substitute for experience. How do you train your brain to recognise when and how to step up to someone, slide the web of your thumb and forefinger into his philtrum, then slide up your hand and sweep out his leg to throw him to the ground? How to adapt your body mechanics, how far to close with him, how to move your limbs, how to move on slippery ground, how to move your other hand, how to defend yourself from a possible counterattack, how to move so you won’t expose yourself to a different threat, what to do if this move fails? And to do all this under adrenal stress, when tunnel vision is setting in, the hands are shaking — and the threat, too, is experiencing the same benefits and drawbacks of adrenaline, and is NOT constrained by safety requirements? All this can’t be learned in a textbook or in basic combatives class. This takes experience.

This is not to say the solo guard won’t prevail — it’s just that there’s a much, much higher chance of bruises, broken bones, blood infections, concussions and other injuries. On both sides. With one guy, you don’t have many options. If the first move doesn’t stop the threat right away, things might escalate, requiring ever-higher levels of force. The news said Dinesh started the incident by attacking a guard: if this were true, then a solo guard will be at an immediate disadvantage. With no backup around, and already taking blows from the get-go, he has to use a higher level of force to regain control of the situation. Or pay the price.

How about two people? Again, you still need skilled guards. It’s easy to slip past two ordinary humans if you know how to drop your weight. I’ve seen drills which require the participant to escape multiple attackers whaling on him simultaneously. The same considerations for a solo response apply, albeit to a lesser degree. If they cannot stop the threat right now, things will still get ugly.

If less-lethal tools are available and authorised, using them is highly recommended. Tasers and OC spray fall in between verbal orders and laying hands on a use of force continuum. Tools like that give the guards an edge — but they do not always replace the need to put hands on a suspect. Case in point, the guards did use OC on Dinesh. If OC dissuades a threat, great. But if it doesn’t, then the guards have to use bare hands to restrain the threat. And OC is an oil, making hands-on techniques even trickier than it already is. For one thing, your hands may slip. For another, OC may get into your eyes.

It’s time to rephrase the question a little. How many guards does it take to end the threat right now and ensure everyone’s safety as far as reasonably possible?

At least four. One for each limb. It’s a simple tactic. The guards surround the threat, secure each limb, then basically sit on the threat until he decides to give up. If you get a bunch of average guards — not tactical team quality, like Miller and his team, but regular guards — this tactic has a high chance of working well even under stress and when communications break down.

Restraining someone is tiring if he puts up a struggle. What most martial arts don’t tell people is that restraining someone, such as by using a wrist lock or a arm bar, does NOT automatically win a fight. In most classical battlefield martial arts, physical restraint moves set up a limb break. Or a crippling move. Or a kill shot. Those that don’t assume that you want to take the enemy alive and that you have both backup and a tool to secure him without needing your hands. And that you are willing to kill him if he doesn’t comply. Modern-day civilian self defence moves assume that you can call the police after you’ve secured the threat. If you ARE the police, you need different tactics. Like more manpower.

Physical restraint using bare hands, without wanting to escalate into more damaging attacks, is simply forcing a stalemate and hoping you can attrit the suspect’s stamina before you run out — or before he finds a way to escape. If a team has eight or more people, that means that if the first four guys get tired, they can swap out and keep up the pressure until the suspect gives up or runs out of energy. It also means they do NOT have to use a higher level of force.

Now going back to Dinesh: the whole incident assumes it’s just Dinesh and the guards. What happened to the other inmates? If the guards do NOT respond with a large force, if there are other inmates around, and the inmates see a fellow inmate attacking a lone guard, who is to say the inmates won’t seize the opportunity to gang up on the lone guard? Or challenge the guards in the future? Violence is not just between two parties — it is also a means of communication. If you are not killing someone, force is a means to coerce a subject into obeying your will — and to communicate a message to observers.

The problem is, a message or a tactic that is meant for a specific target can (and therefore, will) be misinterpreted by a third-party audience. This includes uninformed civilians with little to no knowledge of martial affairs and read about violence as it actually happens in the real world. From Zuccotti Park to George Zimmerman, I have seen so many people spout ‘police brutality’ and ‘excessive force’ without an inkling of what those words actually mean. Or what security forces need to accomplish the mission.

But that’s because we live in a safe world. One that has no need for average people to use violence regularly, where violence is an exception, not a rule. In such an environment, stylised or inaccurate portrayals of violence (think Hollywood) influences and informs how people feel about violence. None of which have anything to do with reality.

This is the real world. Not the Octagon, not the Olympics, not Hollywood. The suspect is coated in oil, the guards are not necessarily combat athletes and bad luck happens. It’s easy to imagine the suspect slipping free, the guards not being able to get a good grip, the guards being affected by the OC in the air, people crashing and slipping all around, the suspect gaining his second wind…there are so many variables the average civilian can’t even begin to conceive, that are learned only through blood and sweat.

The same reasoning applies to people who don’t believe that someone could put up a fight for 30 minutes, or that someone who weighed ‘only’ 51 kg is mostly harmless. Just pick up a cat and toss it at the nearest human. Weight isn’t as important as willingness to fight and power through pain and fatigue.

I’ve seen fights that’ve lasted for a long time. My sources have been in violent incidents which have lasted long, long minutes. For example, an aggressive emotionally disturbed person who wants to fight will fight until his body can no longer physically function. This is beyond the point of exhaustion, going on in spite of broken hands and limbs, being unable to register any kind of pain or fatigue whatsoever. Then there are other factors, like the ones I described above: slipping around with OC, suspect recovering, etc. It’s not likely, it doesn’t usually occur, but when — not IF — it occurs, a fight like that will become the longest thirty minutes of the first responder’s life.

(This is not to say the ’30 minute fight’ described in the beginning could have happened. From what I’m reading, the incident was over pretty quickly, and the 30 minutes could have included transit time back to Dinesh’s cell. But I digress. This is not about Dinesh; it is about fights that last for a while.)

For the ‘activists’ I’ve mentioned above, violence is no longer about tactics or effectiveness. It’s about how well a story fits and confirms preconceived notions of violence and state power. It’s about how violence makes them feel instead of what really happened. Hows and whys don’t matter, only personal opinions and which parts of a story fits personal prejudices. And taking potshots at The Establishment, regardless of justification.

This is not the activism and the reporting I set out to develop. There are questions of transparency and accountability here. But claiming excessive force and police brutality solely because of the number of responding guards is uninformed nonsense that serves no purpose. To reporters, bloggers and activists who want to talk about violence: first do your research and know what you’re talking about. There are better things to do than to quibble over numbers.