FRESNO, CA-One of the great things about war is that somewhere or other, almost every style of combat is still going strong. You just have to be willing to look for them.
Take medieval warfare. Don't settle for reading those dumb-ass fantasy novels, all you sword & sorcery suckers! You too can take part in sword fights to the death-and the great state of California will even throw in room and board for free! All you need to do is rob a liquor store. Next thing you know you're in Folsom or Chino, up to your jugular in Lord of the Rings, only without the elves and fancy talk. Plenty of orcs, though. And all the blades you could ask for.
All red-blooded males start out as knife freaks. And a lot of guys stay there, stuck in the Dark Ages of hardware. Even the people who have the chance to imagine really cool WMDs, like Sci-Fi movie writers, are stuck on edged weapons. Take Star Wars, where even though they've got the tech to blast whole planets, a couple of guys with swords settle the fate of the universe. They're "light swords," yeah, but except for the flourescent buzz they're just old-fashioned longswords. First time I saw Star Wars as a kid, I wondered, "Why don't they have extend-able light swords so you could zap somebody across the room?" Good question, but the answer's more complicated. It comes down to nostalgia: lots of people are sure it was more romantic to get your arm hacked off with a falchion than having your shinbone smashed with a musket ball.
Settling the fate of the universe with sword nostalgia
Most of this edged-weapon stuff is pure crap. Even before the invention of firearms, the Mongols, hands-down the best army ever, avoided close combat with swords in favor of what was basically artillery bombardment. They'd race toward a clunky armored enemy in waves, and while the enemy waited for impact, the first wave would fire a volley of arrows and veer off. Next wave, same thing, until the enemy line looked like a long, leaky porcupine. Only then would the Mongols bother with close combat, to mop up.
But the romance of the sword just won't go away for amateurs. What really drove that home for me was a couple years ago when I actually saw a bunch of hippies in what I swear to God was genuine homemade chainmail hauberks, whacking each other with big homemade broadswords under a freeway overpass. And they were serious. It didn't seem to hit them, the total stupidity of swordfighting under a giant freeway full of semis that could have driven right through a whole medieval army as easy as through a cloud of grasshoppers on a hot night in Kern County, knights crunching under those 18 wheels like canned watermelons.
Lord of the Bongs: A hippie knight, moments before being stabbed 86 times by MS-13
The only knife fans I have any respect for are the ones in prison, and that's for the simple reason that you can't usually get firearms in the Gray Bar Hotel. Not unless you're in Guatemala, anyway-there was a great story about a war between two maras (gangs) in Guatemalan prisons, where Mara Salvatrucha jumped Mara 18 with an arsenal that would've impressed Tony Montana, including automatic rifles and grenades. Prison dudes aren't Tolkien fans. They'd use nukes if they had them.
Up here in el Norte, where guards are harder to bribe (or at least more expensive), most of the fellas who find themselves getting free room and board from the state of California have to make do with medieval weapons.
I'd give a year's pay to watch an edged-weapon Super Bowl showdown between one of these medieval warfare groups and any prison gang. The only rule would be no firearms, so it would be the hippies' totally authentic 12th century swords and shields vs. whatever the boys from maximum security could whip up in auto shop. After all, what's a sword but a sharpened tire iron, before they even invented tires? Just to make it fair, you'd have to allow those feeble hippies something like a 10-1 numbers advantage. Naw, let's make it 20-1, because I just remembered that bunch I saw thumping each other under the overpass was coed...and once you told the carnals in the Mexican Mafia or Nuestra Familia that they were going up against a gang that had girls in it, and that they could keep the girls if they won.... Well, I just think a numerical advantage of 20-1 is the bare minimum if you wanted the fight to last long enough to be worth videotaping.