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Be a Straight Shooter When One's Needed

Sometimes, principles call for a 'High Noon.'

December 06, 2002|James R. Holmes

U.S. popularity around the world has suffered in the last two years because of our policies, according to a study released this week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Though that's not good news, we should remember that our friends across the Atlantic have long castigated rightward-tilting American presidents for pursuing "cowboy diplomacy." This put-down doesn't seem to bother everyday Americans much. Nor should it: It's a backhanded compliment.

After all, who was the Hollywood cowboy but the individual who -- preferably in concert with a posse, but standing alone if need be -- vanquished the bad guys and imposed the rule of law where anarchy had reigned?

There's no shame in being lumped with John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Indeed, Cooper's "High Noon" is probably the most eloquent statement of the virtues that endeared Hollywood's version of the cowboy to Americans. If there's a western that can serve as a parable for world affairs, "High Noon" is it.

The film starts out auspiciously enough. Cooper's character, Marshal Will Kane, turns in his badge after marrying Amy, a Quaker. They plan to leave Hadleyville to open a store.

But they get word that the brutish Frank Miller, whom Will had sent up the river, has been pardoned and is returning on the noon train in search of vengeance. His cronies are already in town carousing. And Kane's replacement as marshal isn't due until the following day -- leaving the town defenseless.

Over the objections of his pacifist wife, Kane insists on staying to face Miller. The movie recounts his fruitless effort to assemble a posse able to outgun Miller and his sidekicks.

What do Kane's travails tell us about the cowboy ideal? First, "peace," if defined simply as the absence of violence, can't be the paramount goal of society. Knuckling under to the Frank Millers of the world may constitute a kind of peace, but not one that's worth having.

This isn't just some simplistic Hollywood view of the world. Its pedigree goes back at least to St. Augustine, who observed that "even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace which suits them better." The bad guys are delighted with nonviolence when it means they can run amok.

Given their history, Europeans ought to understand that. Napoleon and Hitler wanted a peaceful status quo. All their enemies had to do to achieve peace was to submit to tyranny.

Amy tacitly concedes the bankruptcy of this brand of pacifism during the gunfight, when, forced to decide between nonviolence and her husband's life, she shoots one of Miller's henchmen.

Second, although finding allies is desirable, don't bet on outside help during a confrontation with thugs. Some people will put their own interests above the greater good, as Kane finds when he bursts into an assembly to beseech his fellow citizens to join the posse. Other than a modest gesture of support from one woman, he comes up empty.

The cowardly townspeople concoct a variety of excuses not to put themselves in harm's way. One individual claims the unpleasantness stems entirely from a personal grudge between Kane and Miller. Another asserts that ordinary citizens have no direct responsibility for public safety; that's what they pay taxes for. Still another argues that appeasing Miller is their best option. Kane stands -- and prevails -- alone.

Any of this sound familiar? These are the kinds of arguments used to discourage the use of American power in the world. The showdown with Iraq is only the latest controversy to earn the moniker of cowboy diplomacy. But the Europeans should think twice before using the western as a metaphor for world politics; they might not like the role they're cast in.

In any event, we shouldn't take these transatlantic catcalls too seriously. The hard work for the American people is to ensure that their nation is living up to its principles. For a fictional character, Will Kane isn't half bad at representing those principles.

*

James R. Holmes, a former professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, is a fellow in international security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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