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In Defense of the Cowboy By: Andrew Bernstein
Ayn Rand Institute | Thursday, February 27, 2003


Those who oppose war with Iraq—from foreign heads of state to homegrown antiwar protesters—employ a common expression of contempt for the American war effort. America, they sneer, is acting like a "cowboy."

A mock interview with Saddam Hussein conducted by a European intellectual is written to show, in one news report's summary, "what out-of-control cowboys the Americans are." A recent New York Times article explains that to some Europeans the "major problem is Bush the cowboy." U.S. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut agrees, stating that America must not "act like a unilateral cowboy."

These smears imply that the heyday of the cowboy in the Old West was a lawless period when trigger-happy gunmen shot it out with reckless abandon and brute force reigned.

But to most Americans, the cowboy is not a villain but a hero. What we honor about the cowboy of the Old West is his willingness to stand up to evil and to do it alone, if necessary. The cowboy is a symbol of the crucial virtues of courage and independence.

The original cowboys were hard-working ranchers and settlers who tamed a vast wilderness. In the process, they had to contend with violent outlaws as well as warlike Indian tribes. The honest men on the frontier did not wring their hands in fear, uncertainty and moral paralysis; they stood up to evil men and defeated them.

The Texas Rangers—a small band of lawmen who patrolled a vast frontier—best exemplified the cowboy code. Whether they fought American outlaws, Mexican bandits or marauding Comanches, they were generally outnumbered, sometimes by as much as fifty to one. It was said of them: "They were men who could not be stampeded." For example, when Ranger officer John B. Armstrong boarded a train in pursuit of the infamous murderer John Wesley Hardin, he was confronted by five desperadoes. Armstrong took them on single-handed, killing one and capturing Hardin. In describing their independence and courage, Ranger captain Bob Crowder said: "A Ranger is an officer who is able to handle any situation without definite instructions from his commanding officer or higher authority."

The real-life courage of such heroes has been properly memorialized and glorified in countless fictional works. The Lone Ranger television show, Jack Schaefer's classic novel, Shane, and dozens of John Wayne movies, among others, have captured the essence of the Western hero's character: his unshakeable moral confidence in the face of evil. It is this vision of the cowboy, not the European slander, that Americans find inspiring. That's why, when President Bush said of Osama bin Laden, "Wanted: Dead or Alive," most Americans cheered.

The only valid criticism of President Bush, in this context, is that he is not true enough to the heritage of the Lone Star State. When the Texas Rangers went after a bank robber or rustler, they didn't wait to ask the permission of his fellow gang members. Yet Bush is asking permission from a UN Security Council chaired by Syria, one of the world's most active sponsors of terrorism.

Today the terrorists responsible for blowing up our cities are far more evil than the bandits and gunmen faced by the heroes of the Old West. To defeat them, we will require all the more the cowboy's virtues of independence and moral courage.

Even as our European critics use the "cowboy" image as a symbol of reckless irresponsibility, they implicitly reveal the real virtues they are attacking. European leaders assail Americans because our "language is far too blunt" and because we see the struggle between Western Civilization and Islamic fanaticism in "black-and-white certainties." They whine about our "Texas attitude" and whimper that "an American president who makes up his mind and then will accept no argument" is a greater danger than murderous dictators. In short, they object to America's willingness to face the facts, to make moral judgments, to act independently, and to battle evil with unflinching courage.

These European critics are worse than the timid shopkeeper in an old Hollywood Western. They don't merely want to avoid confronting evil—they seek to prevent anyone else from recognizing evil and standing up to it.

Texas Ranger captain Bill McDonald reputedly stated: "No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that is in the right and keeps on a-comin'." If America fully embraces this cowboy wisdom and courage, then the Islamic terrorists and the regimes that support them had better run for cover. They stand no chance in the resulting showdown.


Andrew Bernstein, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif.


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