Minnesota Humanities Center

Bruce Lee and the Rules of Engagement

Posted July 23, 2019

For several years at Macalester College I’ve been teaching a course about Bruce Lee, the iconic martial artist/movie star from the 1970s. The course explores themes of racism, masculinity, and violence. As a lifelong martial arts practitioner myself, I admire Bruce Lee’s skill, perseverance, and insight. In order to prevent anyone from concluding that I also admire or condone violence, I open the syllabus with a unit on post-traumatic stress disorder among combat Veterans. “I want to make sure you hear me say ‘killing is wrong,’“ I tell them. Then we read a 2016 article by C.J. Chivers in the New York Times magazine about Sam Siatta, a U.S. Marine who distinguished himself in Afghanistan as a brazen sharpshooter, then came home with deep psychological wounds from all his killings. If a trained fighter returns so traumatized by war, what spin does that put on our idolization of Bruce Lee?

In the midst of our spring 2019 Bruce Lee study, a student publicly self-disclosed his current enlistment with the U.S. Marines, explaining that he joined in order to honor the sacrifices of his immigrant parents. I wondered how this student would connect to his classmates or to me, given that very few Macalester students have military affiliations. Most of our students are “traditional” (between 17-22 years old). To my knowledge there are no services or programs on our campus for students with current or past military histories. Macalester is known for its social justice-orientation, which tends to translate as vaguely “anti-war” without much of a vocabulary for exploring Veterans’ lives except as abstract intellectual foreign policy issues. Once in a while, I spot a student or two walking across campus in uniform—big black boots and head-to-toe camouflage, or crisp whites—but that is an unusual occurrence. I worried that this Marine might feel isolated or misunderstood by others, or that he might emotionally check out if I were to come across as too much of a “peacenik.”

Instead, it seems he enjoyed talking with his classmates, and they with him. Small group discussions went smoothly, with a lot of friendly and apparently meaningful interaction among all the students. I take no credit for any of this. Macalester students might come across as naively idealistic or rigid to some, but they can also be incredibly compassionate, thoughtful, and open-minded. I am glad they were so open and curious this time around.

Perhaps in some amorphous and indirect way, the students also reaped the benefits of my participation in the three salons organized by [MHC program officer] Blake Rondeau during the previous summer. Designed for Twin Cities-based educators, the salons focused on “war, remembrance, memorials, monuments, as well as past and present social issues facing their Veteran and non-Veteran students.” I brought to the salons my anti-war orientation but relatively little awareness of the complex and difficult issues that today’s Veterans face. That gap in understanding was all the more embarrassing to me since my wife is a former U.S. Army captain. By the end of the salons, I had a much more concrete sense of the specific impacts of rank, gender, combat history, and mentoring for Veterans while they are on campus.

In the second half of the semester, my U.S. Marine outlined the topic for his Bruce Lee research paper. On screen, Bruce Lee frequently demonstrates his philosophy of “fighting without fighting” by cleverly outwitting opponents to avoid a violent encounter. Alternatively, the cinema star manifests regret and remorse over having to kill an opponent. Where in the midst of war, this student wondered, can we find similar examples of self-restraint and control, or of a “non-fighting” approach? At first, he considered the example of U.S. soldiers taking off their sunglasses, letting their faces and eyes be seen by potential enemies in the Middle East, as a form of de-escalating violence. I pushed for a more substantial comparison, together with a clear acknowledgement of the massive, weaponized presence of the U.S. military. I also pointed to Chinese General Sun Tzu’s admonitions against killing in the classic text “Art of War” and to the Watson Institute at Brown University’s research website on the Costs of War.

The student responded to my comments with sensitivity and detail, no doubt the result of his actual experience in the Marines. He drew on Bruce Lee’s movies and philosophy, Sun Tzu’s text, scholarly research on military trauma, and statistics detailing the enormous human and financial costs of war across the globe. His paper explored the implications of the U.S. military’s Rules of Engagement (ROE), on one hand a manual for self-defense and on the other, for restraint. He even dared to ask 1) whether it is possible to control war, and 2) whether war is necessary, especially given the brutal and lasting toll on all beings. These were tough questions I never would have expected a Marine to ask–at least until I participated in those three salons in the summer of 2018.  

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Karin Aguilar-San Juan Headshot
By: Karin Aguilar-San Juan

Karin Aguilar-San Juan is co-editor with Frank Joyce of “The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Antiwar Movement” (Just World Books). She is Professor and Chair of American Studies at Macalester College. In October 2018, she together with Anh-Thu Pham received a Veteran’s Voices grant to hold a series of reflective community dialogues with Minnesotan refugees, Veterans, and antiwar activists about the Vietnam War.