Reflecting on John Donohue’s Warrior Dreams

Donohue, John J. Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1994.

One would think that a scholarly/academic monograph on the martial arts would be somewhat of a labor to read let alone understand the points the author attempts to make. This is the exact opposite when reading John Donohue’s Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and American Imagination. Donohue views the martial arts from an anthropological perspective, seeing how the arts are a way and method of self-discovery and how this individualistic practice fits into both the American imagination and myth. Though taking up a scholarly lens, Donohue provides his views and arguments in a clear, almost conversational manner, free of any major academic jargon that would otherwise possibly confuse or hinder the reader’s understanding.

Donohue sets up his argument by first explaining specific aspects of the American myths of individualism, pointing to the story tropes of a frontiersman, cowboy, and police officer as people who live on the edges of society, where their actions alone (either in their martial abilities of fighting or using a “tool,” or overall vigilantism) are for the betterment of society as a whole. This narrative trope repeats itself in American action and martial arts films, reinforcing the individual, in any combat scenario, can overcome anything, despite Donohue explaining in brief the success of standard military warfare is propagated on the proficiency and efficiency of the group, squad, or regiment of soldiers involved. However, since the American public has become enamored with the highly skilled individual taking on endless enemies, like Rambo or Commando, many turned to their local martial arts schools to play out this fantasy.

Once there, the enthusiasts are stunned to find that studying martial arts are the exact opposite to what they seek. Instead of training to be the best of the best, a majority of martial arts training is based on repetitious exercises that surprisingly do not directly coincide with fighting, rather as a way to find a part of an individual’s personal identity. To this extent, Donohue explains that once joining a martial arts school, one partakes in ritualistic elements (bowing and verbal salutations, changing into the uniform, hierarchy based on rank, etc.), shedding some of the individualism that American culture holds so dear to create a community/group identity that, at times, directly reflects the identity of the individual practitioner. Couple this with the philosophies of the arts (Donohue uses karate-do and other Japanese martial arts as part of his case study), the physical studies of the martial arts can lead one to enlightenment – which Donohue describes as a heightened sense consciousness or awareness – or a sense of purpose, creating order in one’s chaotic life.

In the end, Donohue ends his study with the fact that many other practitioners take up martial arts not because of the silver screen portrayal of the American warrior myth, but because of the health benefits or the social affiliation that comes with community activities. Yet, these factors are not the main reasons for the martial arts staying in American culture since the end of the Second World War, as Donohue spent his entire study explaining. It is from America’s emphasis on individualism, how one person can overcome obstacles and challenges all on their own while simultaneously bettering their community by expelling that which harms said community. However, remove the smoke and mirrors associated with the entertainment aspect of the martial arts and, as Donohue points out, the martial arts help to ground practitioners in the “old ways” as society and the world quickly moves toward a “new way.”

To see what John Donohue is currently working on, check out his author site here.

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