Monday, March 15, 2010 3/15/10 - the gunfighter

In today's excerpt - while most demobilized soldiers return to ordinary lives, a
disproportionate number have always turned upon return to a life of crime. Examples
abound - from the returning veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam
War who filled the ranks of motorcycle and street gangs, to the veterans of the
Mexican American War who became the outlaws in the early West. There is no better
example, however, that the veterans of the American Civil War whose numbers filled
the ranks of the James and Quantrill gangs and became prominent among the cowboys
and gunfighters in the most storied days of the American West. Their close familiarity
with death gave them advantage against all that they encountered. This was made
worse by the bitterness between North and South that remained etched in their minds:
"Among the gunfighters [of the American West] death was never far away; many of
them had lived with death as a companion and were conditioned to it.
Those who had fought in the Civil War were especially haunted by the specter of
imminent death. For most men the ending of hostilities had meant that they could
stop killing and return to normal lives. But veterans of frontier conflicts, spies,
sharpshooters, and guerrillas were conditioned to view killing as a means to an
end. The unwary sentry whose throat had been cut, the unarmed men shot down for
the information they could reveal, meant little to such men. Self-reliant and independent
men who had learned to abide with death found the restrictions of civilized society
intolerable. The idea of a life without danger in a world where they were not masters
of their own destiny appalled them. To them there was only one alternative - an
occupation suited to their particular talents. A Kansas newspaper editor [in 1867]
noted the effect that the Civil War had had on the men who later became scouts and
guides for the United States Army against the Indians:
" 'What a pity that young men so brave and daring should lack the discretion to
sheath their daggers forever when the war terminated! But such is the demoralizing
effect of war upon those who engage in it and certainly upon all who love the vocation.
We learn from a gentleman who has frequently met these wild and reckless young men,
that they live in a constant state of excitement, one continual round of gambling
drinking and swearing, interspersed at brief intervals with pistol practice upon
each other.
" 'At a word any of the gang draws his pistol and blazes away as freely as if all
mankind were Arkansas Rebels, and had a bounty offered for their scalpes [sic].
How long these Athletes will be able to stand such a mode of life; eating, drinking,
sleeping (if they can be said to sleep) and playing cards with their pistols at
half cock, remains to be seen. For ourself, we are willing to risk them in an Indian
campaign for which their cruelty and utter recklessness of life particularly fit
"Pointed but undiscerning comments of this nature reveal a lack of understanding
of the feelings, reactions, and motives of the men who got into gunfights. A man
who could draw his gun and shoot another man without hesitation had a cold-blooded
attitude toward life that most people were spared. The man-killers of the West thus
had an advantage over men basically reluctant to kill. When his life was threatened,
the gunfighter could and would shoot to kill. Although he might appear calm and
cool-headed under fire, his inner feelings were probably in turmoil. This man, facing
death and
wrestling with thoughts and emotions, was a far cry from the gunfighter of fiction.
For him each fight, which could easily be his last, was a fight for life - his own."
Joseph G. Rosa, The Gunfighter, University of Oklahoma Press, Copyright 1969 by
the University of Oklahoma Press, pp. 117-118.


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