Martin van Creveld looks at Hand-to-hand combat from classical Athens to modern Israel

Summary: Martin van Creveld looks at the history of the martial arts in the west, from their origin to the use of Krav Maga by the Israel Defense Forces. He discusses their value and limitations. It’s a surprise to those of us whose knowledge of these things comes from Hollywood.

Krav Maga


Hand-to-Hand Combat:
A Short History

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 16 April 2014

Posted with his generous permission

Not long ago, I was approached by an Austrian-German-Dutch producer who wanted me to participate in a TV program he was preparing about Krav Maga (Hebrew: “touch combat”) as practiced in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Doing a Google search I was surprised at the number of references to it, not only in Hebrew but in various other languages as well. It turned out that Israeli instructors in the field are active in many countries and that their services are in demand. Given the obvious public interest in the subject, I thought a short survey of its role in the history of war in general, and in the Israeli military in particular, would not be out of place here.

The ancient history of “touch”

The term “touch,” or hand-to-hand, or close, combat is misleading. In reality it comprises two very different things. One is combat without weapons, as in various kinds of martial arts; the other, combat conducted at such close quarters as to enable the combatants to look into the whites of each other’s eyes, as the saying goes. To avoid confusion the two must be kept separate.

Martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years. They may, indeed, go back all the way to our ape-like ancestors. Ancient Egyptian soldiers engaged in regular wrestling matches which were sometimes attended by the Pharaoh in person. The window from which Ramses III (ca. 1187-56 B.C.) watched the bouts still exists. In the Iliad, boxing is mentioned. The champion, a certain Epheios, was the same man who later built the Trojan horse. During classical and Hellenistic times martial arts, including wrestling, boxing and pankration, a form that allowed the use of both arms and legs, formed an important part of sport. At Olympia, the site of the famous games, the statue of Agon, contest or struggle, stood right next to that of Ares, the god of war.

Martial art training took place in the palaestra, or gym. Opinion on its relevance to, and usefulness for, war was divided. The great comic poet Aristophanes claimed it was the secret behind the victory of his Athenian compatriots over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. One second-century A.D Greek author, Lucian, devoted an entire treatise to the subject, concluding that martial arts training helped citizens defend their cities and maintain their independence.

Many others, both writers and commanders, disagreed. They believed that war required not all kinds of leaps, kicks and holds but the ability to face steel and bloody slaughter. The Romans tended to look down on it. The orator, statesman and soldier Marcus Tullius Cicero even named it as one of the causes of Greek “degeneracy.” Echoes of this debate can still be heard today as many armies make their troops engage in wrestling and boxing matches or else play rough team games such as American football.

The modern era

Unarmed combat is close by definition. So is combat with edged weapons such as swords, spears, battle axes, and halberds. In general, technological progress has caused fighting to take place at greater and greater ranges. Never more so than after the introduction of firearms around 1500. To that extent, both unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting became more and more of an anachronism — as may also be seen from the declining percentage of bayonet wounds. During World War I the latter only accounted for less than 1% of all casualties. However, unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting did retain some role in trench fighting (World War I), commando operations, etc.

In Israel before it gained its independence in 1948 “face-to-face” combat, as it was called, was taught in the various paramilitary organizations such as FOSH and PALMACH. One reason for this was the need to compensate for the lack of weapons; another, the fact that such arts could be practiced in the open under the guise of “sport” without interference from the British Mandatory authorities. Later this tradition was carried over into the IDF. However, since unarmed combat was seen mainly as a substitute for the real thing its status was low. As late as 1973 Egyptian intelligence, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli soldier, concluded that he was intelligent and resourceful, but afraid of hand-to-hand combat. To this day many soldiers are afraid to train in the field; leading to a strong, some would say too strong, emphasis on safety measures.

Both in Israel and elsewhere, what changed the equation was the rise to prominence, after 1990 or so, of various forms of anti-terrorism, counterinsurgency, etc. Two factors were involved. First, operations of this kind differ from conventional ones in that they are often conducted at extremely close range. Soldiers on- and off duty must know how to defend themselves against attempts to kidnap them or snatch away their weapons; conversely, you cannot kill a terrorist with the aid of a cannon at 15 kilometers distance. Second, many operations have to be conducted amidst the population, with the result that avoiding civilian casualties becomes supremely important. As with the police, often it is a question of using minimum, not maximum, force; of disarming and capturing the opponent, not killing him.

In the IDF today, “touch combat” instructors are selected from those who join the service with some experience in the field and given the appropriate training. It is taught at three levels. First, there is the low-level training received by most soldiers (including female soldiers, to help them resist sexual assault either by their own comrades or by others). Second comes the training given to all combat troops. Third is that given to special units involved in commando and anti-terrorist activities. Competitions, both individual and collective, are held {first in 2013}. There are also exchange visits with experts from foreign armies. Many former IDF instructors have set up their own schools both in Israel and abroad.


As the demand for Israeli instructors shows, “touch combat” as taught in the IDF is held in high regard in many countries around the world. However, three reservations are in place. First, it is not clear whether such a thing as a unique Israeli style of “touch combat” really exists. Since it is said to mix many different styles, from jiu-jitsu to kickboxing, one would be surprised to learn that it does. Second, even within the IDF, there seems to be no single style all instructors use. To the contrary: as training is becoming increasingly outsourced, each instructor, now operating as a civilian, tends to develop his own style. One which, he claims, is superior to all the rest.

Last not least, in a world dominated by technology the possibilities of “touch combat,” or whatever it is called, remain limited. For some it is a sport. For others, especially police officers and anti-terrorist commandos, it is an essential part of their skills. However, it is neither war nor a substitute for it.


The 2014 IDF Krav Maga competition

About the Author

Martin van Creveld

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war: Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present.

Some of his books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, and (my favorite) The Culture of War.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?.

He’s written one of the most influential books of our generation about war, his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century.

For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

For More Information

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Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.
The Changing Face of War
Available at Amazon.

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