Published on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 by the Guardian/UK
Never Trust a Christian Cowboy
To rally support for war on Iraq, George Bush presents himself as both lone ranger and good samaritan
by Giles Fraser
"I've always acted alone. Americans admire that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone." So said Henry Kissinger. And he's right. The cowboy represents a popular point of reference in American culture and has been drawn upon by successive US politicians to justify both domestic and foreign policy.
Likewise, war itself is often viewed through the prism of the movie cowboy mythology. Vietnam was described by American troops as "Indian country". George Bush even initiated the war on terrorism by declaring he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive". Now the focus has turned to Iraq Bush has once again returned to a familiar script. Saddam is an "outlaw", says Bush; an "international outlaw", echoes Blair.
Here is the plot of an archetypal western movie: the hero comes to town, though the community does not fully accept him. Some evil threatens to overwhelm the town. Initially, the hero tries to avoid getting involved. However, after exercising much restraint and so as to protect the community, the hero is forced to square up to the villains. Gun in hand, and at considerable personal risk, the hero kills the villains and makes the town safe. The hero leaves town.
This is the paradigm against which war against Saddam is being considered. From Bush's perspective, the resistance of the international community to the war on Iraq is therefore to be expected - it's part of the script. So too, perhaps, is Bush's notorious inarticulacy. For the cowboy is essentially a man of action, not talk. "So self-contained is the later western hero that he seems to exist beyond the everyday commonplaces of talk and explanation, of persuasion, argument, indeed beyond conversation altogether," writes Princeton academic and western expert Lee Clark Mitchell.
The image of the lone gunfighter who is suspicious of fancy talk and who acts fearlessly to defeat the forces of evil is the defining mark of a certain sort of US national pride. Some have argued that this pattern exemplifies a sort of redeemer myth. The hero is savior to the town - thus the cowboy's violence is justified. For in the absence of the rule of law, or in a town where the sheriff is seen as weak (here we see the part assigned to the UN), the cowboy must carry the responsibility for defeating evil.
Bush seems to believe that this cowboy justification for war is also a Christian rationale for war. It isn't. For the cowboy film represents the development of a distinctive ethical stance that is defined in the strongest possible contrast to that of Christianity. "The meek ain't goin' to inherit nothin' west of Chicago," said Conn Vallian in The Quick and the Dead. In this cowboy film, Christianity is depicted as weak and ineffectual, something commonly practiced by women and wholly incapable of dealing with the challenges of the frontier. In High Noon Grace Kelly begs Gary Cooper not to take up his gun and face the Miller Gang, but he ignores her Quaker principles. In order to create a safer future for them both he must return to unfinished business and kill the enemy. For the cowboy any sort of Christian forgiveness is never an option. Redemption only comes through violence.
Simon Schama has argued that there is a suffocating "reverend togetherness" about the US reaction to 9/11 that blocks out the important but awkward questions. This is true, though it suppresses far more than the "secular debate about liberty". Theological debate is also stifled. Even in this context of apparent piety would it be possible to imagine a public discussion of how Jesus' instruction to love one's enemies might have political application? Of course not. What is suffocating is the religion of the flag - not the religion of the cross or the crescent. Ironically, it is precisely the desire to be ecumenical and sensitive to all faiths that makes religion easier to conscript as a support for war. For in abstracting out the particular message of each faith tradition in the name of a blanket religiousness, the resistance to war that is differently coded within each faith tradition is effectively neutralized. Once this has been established, religious language and imagery can be applied in support of all sorts of dubious moral purposes.
And that is exactly what is happening at the moment. It is simply that "reverend togetherness" and the language of "evil", like the invocation of the western movie script, is employed to solicit maximum justification for the cowboy's course of action.
However, there are other scripts to follow. Sam Peckinpah's 1969 groundbreaking The Wild Bunch provides an ominous reductio ad absurdum of the traditional western format. The heroes are thieves who get involved in the politics of another country simply for their own gain. The end is not safety but carnage. "Peckinpah's shrewdest insight lay in recognizing how essential to the western a form of moral self-deception has always been," writes Lee Clarke Mitchell. Cowboy ethics always leads to death.
Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002