Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Cowboy Way

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
- Albert Einstein

About a year ago our electricity went out for a few hours, giving us the opportunity to visit outside with our neighbor Ellen, and subsequently with our cross street neighbor Shelley Wise. We found out from Shelley that the source of the power outage was a transformer at the sub-station close to the university recreation center where here husband, Mike, works. Shelley said Mike had seen it happen and called her proudly proclaiming that when the transformer blew it was a real thing of beauty. The real big news we got, though, was the news that Ellen, who has been such a wonderful neighbor, is moving to a senior friendly apartment complex being built a bit north of us on 15th Street. Keeping up with the house had just become too much for her, so she’d decided to cash in her chips and move on to more amenable quarters.

One of the nice things about a good neighbor is that there is no need of a fence between us. There are none of those incessant quarrels about where my neighbor’s property line ends and mine begins. There are no mine fields between us, protecting the sanctity of our little plot of ground. It’s quite idyllic, really, which makes me sometimes ask why, as did Robert Frost, fences are needed at all. Wouldn’t the world be a beautiful place if we didn’t spend our time worrying about whether or not my neighbor’s apple trees are eating the cones under my pine?

The morning after Ellen announced her move I took a long walk. It felt wonderful to be out in the cool of the day. The heat wave had broken for the time being and being outside was quite pleasant. I meandered from my place through downtown, past the Friends church on Sixth Avenue, occasionally walking a block or two down side streets to add a little mileage. At each detour I would hear the barking of dogs as I passed by their houses. There was a sheltie on the south side of Union Street, a Boston terrier on Exchange, a chocolate labrador on Cottonwood, and a toy poodle on Sylvan. Their barks, whether high pitched soprano like the poodle’s, or deep bass like the lab’s, all voiced the same sentiment. “Do you see this fence, buster?” “Do you know what it’s here for?” “This is my yard, not yours and I’m not going to let you play in it.”

As much as I’d like to live in an idyllic world, I think the barking dogs have something on Robert Frost and me. Fences and property lines are there for a reason and it’s a good idea to respect them.

I’m a great fan of western movies, with Shane being my all time favorite. I watch it once a year, much to my wife Nancy’s dismay. I even dust it out on special occasions. I’ve played it for Corina, a young exchange student from Moldova who lived with us for a year and for Binna, the South Korean exchange student who just got back home from her one year visit to the Flint Hills. They seemed to like it too. It’s all about simplicity, about right and wrong, in what seems to be a complex world. Film historians and critics (a double oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) call it a cold-war parable revealing the way America viewed itself in the post-World War II period. We had defeated Tojo and Hitler. America’s natural sentiment saw the great victories as a time to turn the swords into plowshares. But was it? Unfortunately, the victory over tyranny was short lived. New enemies were on the horizon. The iron curtain was beginning to descend between international neighbors, one casting a greedy eye beyond the invisible wall he was erecting; calculating ways to take what belonged to his neighbor, and the other casting a wary eye to the east. We had come out of the war as a great world power and were on the horns of a great moral dilemma. Great oceans separated us from the tyranny that threatened to engulf Asia and Europe, like fences often separate us from our neighbors. Why couldn’t we put the guns away? After all, we were safe. What moral obligation did we have to the rest of the world? Hadn’t we sacrificed enough? As much as we wanted to, though, we came to realize that we couldn’t disarm because there was no one else who had the power to stand against freedom’s enemies. The burden was ours to bear.

Shane is the story of a gunfighter who would love to put his gun away and settle down. He wants what we all want – peace, security, a home. He comes across the Starrett family, homesteaders who just want to work the land they’ve invested their money, sweat, and tears in. He puts his gun away and goes to work for them. The good life is within reach. But, the Starretts and the other homesteaders in the valley can’t lay hold to the peace and security they so desire, because the Ryker boys are terrorizing them, trying to force them off the land. The homesteaders are no match for the ranchers’ guns. What good are plows and rusty shotguns against the weapons arrayed against them? In the end the great battle between good and evil comes, when Shane realizes that he’s the only one who is able to face down Jack Wilson, the gunfighter the Rykers have hired to do their bidding. Shane wins the gunfight, the bad guys are dispatched to hell, and Shane leaves the valley, knowing that he’ll never be able to break the mold he’s been existentially cast in. He is what he is and little can change that. There will always be some homesteader somewhere who needs his gun. As Shane rides off, young Joey Starrett begs him to come back home and settle down. His young voice can be heard echoing through the Wyoming valley – “Shane, come back. Pa’s got work for you to do… ShaneSHANE……Come back!” Shane never looks back. He just keeps riding away from the things he would really love to do. He has a burden to bear.

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification, but being a child of the forties and fifties, I see our modern world in much the same light that Shane did his. It would be wonderful if we could all just settle down and work our land in peace. It would be wonderful if the walls and fences could all come down and the same harmony that Nancy and I enjoyed with our neighbor Ellen would prevail for all mankind. The dream of a day when the swords will be beaten into plowshares is as real for me as it is for any peacemaker. But, like Shane, I can see that it’s “not just yet.” If we don’t confront the evil afoot in the world, who will? Who has the power to confront it? Who is even willing? The United Nations? The European Union? The people of Rwanda or Darfur? The starving in North Korea? Those being brutalized in Iraq and Afghanistan by thugs and terrorists? Where does our moral obligation end? At the water’s edge? Why do we have to carry so much of the burden?

I’ve had some tell me that I cast things in shades that are too black and too white. Perhaps, but I really don’t believe the international stage is nearly as grey as they would lead me to believe. There is a right and wrong in our world. There are good and bad guys, there are homesteaders like Joe Starrett, ranchers like the Ryker boys, Jack Wilsons, and Shanes.

My answer to the moral question of our time is not as complex or nuanced as the solutions offered by America’s critics. It’s the cowboy way. It’s simple, with few if any nuances. It’s not an easy answer, but it is straight-forward. We are what we are in the world. If we don’t stand up to the Jack Wilsons of the world, who will? The burden is still ours to bear.

1 comment:

Jim Baxter said...

Any way we slice it, we are called to bear the responsibility that is ours; who else? Who else is called to teach, exemplify, and fight today for the definitives in human nature into an unknown future?

The Author has initiated our system and our insight and abilities to produce success, if we accept His conditional requirements.

Forgive the following repetitive annual statement, but it contains many similar elements that were present in the forties, fifties, and beyond. Are we still teachable?

+ + + + + + + + +

Every September, I recall that is more than half a century (62 years) since I landed at Nagasaki with the 2nd Marine Division in the original occupation of Japan following World War II. This time every year, I have watched and listened to the light-hearted "peaceniks" and their light-headed symbolism-without-substance of ringing bells, flying pigeons, floating candles, and sonorous chanting and I recall again that "Peace is not a cause - it is an effect."

In July, 1945, my fellow 8th RCT Marines [I was a BARman] and I returned to Saipan following the successful conclusion of the Battle of Okinawa. We were issued new equipment and replacements joined each outfit in preparation for our coming amphibious assault on the home islands of Japan.

B-29 bombing had leveled the major cities of Japan, including Kobe, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Yokosuka, and Tokyo.

We were informed we would land three Marine divisions and six Army divisions, perhaps abreast, with large reserves following us in. It was estimated that it would cost half a million casualties to subdue the Japanese homeland.

In August, the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima but the Japanese government refused to surrender. Three days later a second A-bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. The Imperial Japanese government finally surrendered.

Following the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese admiral said, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant..." Indeed, they had. Not surprisingly, the atomic bomb was produced by a free people functioning in a free environment. Not surprisingly because the creative process is a natural human choice-making process and inventiveness occurs most readily where choice-making opportunities abound. America!
Tamper with a giant, indeed! Tyrants, beware: Free men are nature's pit bulls of Liberty! The Japanese learned the hard way what tyrants of any generation should know: Never start a war with a free people - you never know what they may invent!

As a newly assigned member of a U.S. Marine intelligence section, I had a unique opportunity to visit many major cities of Japan, including Tokyo and Hiroshima, within weeks of their destruction. For a full year I observed the beaches, weapons, and troops we would have assaulted had the A-bombs not been dropped. Yes, it would have been very destructive for all, but especially for the people of Japan.

When we landed in Japan, for what came to be the finest and most humane occupation of a defeated enemy in recorded history, it was with great appreciation, thanksgiving, and praise for the atomic bomb team, including the aircrew of the Enola Gay. A half million American homes had been spared the Gold Star flag, including, I'm sure, my own.

Whenever I hear the apologists expressing guilt and shame for A-bombing and ending the war Japan had started (they ignore the cause-effect relation between Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki), I have noted that neither the effete critics nor the puff-adder politicians are among us in the assault landing-craft or the stinking rice paddies of their suggested alternative, "conventional" warfare. Stammering reluctance is obvious and continuous, but they do love to pontificate about the Rights that others, and the Bomb, have bought and preserved for them.
The vanities of ignorance and camouflaged cowardice abound as license for the assertion of virtuous "rights" purchased by the blood of others - those others who have borne the burden and physical expense of Rights whining apologists so casually and self-righteously claim.

At best, these fakers manifest a profound and cryptic ignorance of causal relations, myopic perception, and dull I.Q. At worst, there is a word and description in The Constitution defining those who love the enemy more than they love their own countrymen and their own posterity. Every Yankee Doodle Dandy knows what that word is.

In 1945, America was the only nation in the world with the Bomb and it behaved responsibly and respectfully. It remained so until two among us betrayed it to the Kremlin. Still, this American weapon system has been the prime deterrent to earth's latest model world- tyranny: Seventy years of Soviet collectivist definition, coercion, and domination of individual human beings.

The message is this: Trust Freedom. Remember, tyrants never learn. The restriction of Freedom is the limitation of human choice, and choice is the fulcrum-point of the creative process in human affairs. As earth's choicemaker, it is our human identity on nature's beautiful blue planet and the natural premise of man's free institutions, environments, and respectful relations with one another. Made in the image of our Creator, free men choose, create, and progress - or die.

Free men should not fear or envy the oppressor nor choose any of his ways. Recall with a confident Job and a victorious David, "Know ye not that you are in league with the stones of the field?"

Semper Fidelis
Jim Baxter
WW II and Korean War
Job 5:23 Proverbs 3:31
ISamuel 17:40

vincit veritas