‘Locked & Loaded’ Trump’s 1960s Cowboyism re: N. Korea & Venezuela

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

If you were away from news on Friday, you might like to know that in addition to hot wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen (and maybe Somalia and Libya), the Trump administration talks as though it is on the brink of opening new fronts in Venezuela and North Korea (is this what Anthony Scaramucci meant by front-stabbing?)

I wish I could reassure you that Trump is all talk and there isn’t any likelihood of his bluster actually leading to real-world action. But he is the president and things can spin out of control unexpectedly because of some hothead’s speech. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s bombast in spring of 1967 probably helped (along with Moshe Dayan’s itchy trigger finger) provoke the Six-Day War. Egypt was bogged down in Yemen and did not have the capacity actually to take on Israel at that point, besides which the Soviet Union, Egypt’s then Sugar Daddy, had sternly forbidden it. But Abdel Nasser’s rhetoric, helped along by Dayan’s opportunism, spun out into a brief, epochal war that destabilized the Middle East right to today. It was the defeat of secular Arab nationalism by Israel in 1967 that began the stampede to Muslim fundamentalism as an alternative.

Donald Trump never served in the military and it is not clear he has ever fired a gun.

His garish posturing about US weapons being “locked and loaded” with regard to North Korea and his repeated threats of hot war against Pyongyang if baby Dictator Kim Jong-un doesn’t stop trash talking the US just makes him and the country a cartoonish caricature.

Like W. before him, he is just mouthing things he saw in old John Wayne movies. In fact, the phrase “locked and loaded,” a favorite in 1950s Hollywood, refers to the Garand M1 rifle, which had a bolt that had to be pulled back and locked before the clip was inserted, then it would automatically spring forward after being loaded.

The Garand was used by US troops in WW II and the Korean War (ironically enough) but began being superseded in the mid-1960s and is no longer in use.

Let me just repeat that. There is no weapon in the US arsenal today that is locked before being loaded. The phrase is an anachronism, like Trump himself, with his 1960s Rat Pack self-image (for which he is too fat and too inarticulate).

Tom Engelhardt was among the first cultural critics to point to the importance of childhood 1950s games and fantasies like cowboys and Indians for America’s real world warmongering. Of course the great WW II movies of the post-war era were part of that imaginary.

I don’t know if younger readers even know who John Wayne was. He was a B movie actor with limited range who hated the left with a passion, who often pretended to be a cowboy.

In like 1866-1886 cattle used to be herded by “cowboy” ranch hands from Santa Fe over the open range up Kansas on the hoof for shipment to the slaughterhouses of Chicago, before the railways were extended and the cowboy way of life collapsed. It was just a 20 year period, and entailed a fair amount of lawlessness and unpleasantness, but it seems to have permanently afflicted our country, as a sort of polio of the mind, with morally crippled metaphors of unbound masculinity and seething menace.

The real cowboy era isn’t as important for today’s political purple prose as the Hollywood cowboy of the 1930s through the 1960s. It was like a seed bed for right wing politics. Ronald Reagan played in “Death Valley Days” (I remember watching him in it). Clint Eastwood piled up bodies in spaghetti Westerns long before he fell to addressing empty chairs on a political stage. George W. Bush announced his intention to disregard the Constitution and the rule of law when he said that alleged al-Qaeda members were “Wanted Dead or Alive” — a reference to the bills posted for bounty hunters in the Old West, which surely were unconstitutional if phrased that way since they amounted to a Bill of Attainder. A fugitive could be killed by law enforcement in self defense, but you can’t just shoot down someone because they are on a wanted list.

But let’s face it, this cowboy rhetoric is intended to cut through constitutional issues and deliberative government the way a hot knife cuts through whipped cream.

America needs a new self-image, and probably more to the point, a new conception of masculinity, that doesn’t involve whipping poor beasts and driving them haggard over a thousand miles while casually engaging in drunken gun play and injuring the rights of settled homesteaders and Native Americans. And as for the Korean War, the US public has never come to terms with the atrocities our side perpetrated during it, or the scale of the loss of life. This amnesia is why Americans cannot imagine what North Korea has against us.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Donald Trump Surprises By ‘Not Ruling Out’ Military Option In Venezuela | The Last Word | MSNBC

23 Responses

  1. I don’t know what films the US entertainment industry is showing on TV these days, but over here in the UK one can view a John Wayne film on most days of the week on TV. He is very well known and most young people can tell you who he is yet they couldn’t give you the name of say, the Australian prime minister. Obviously, Trump’s “lock and load” comment was a metaphor to indicate that the USA is ready to attack at a moments’ notice should North Korea make any preemptive moves to attack US interests. I don’t think the problem is Trump so much as the war machine industry. With the prospect of the war dollars from Syria now drying up and not much war expenditure going on elsewhere, Trump may well be goaded by the war lobby to actually attack North Korea on some pretext or other. Only people who are supremely delusional could think that the West’s war enterprises have even the slightest connotations with any humanitarian purpose, because its always about war dollars.

  2. There is a confrontational element in the American character and Trump possesses it in abundance. The analogy with John Wayne etc. is valid and interesting, but I am not sure it derives from an excess of masculinity, despite Wayne’s propensity to put his ladies across his knee and whack them with whatever comes closest to hand. I believe the roots may lie in the Puritan division between good and evil where extenuating circumstances didn’t exist. Those black and white movies were rooted in that distinction. My grandmother would wake up in the old Regal cinema and ask me (aged 8) if the character on screen was a good one or a bad one and I could always tell. It would rarely be possible to answer such a question today but a residual response of the quick draw persists, and shootings are occurring all over the US with what I have seen described as metronomic regularity. Is it altogether surprising Trump carries that characteristic with him to the Oval Office? There is no humanities input in Trump’s make up, he doesn’t think so he acts on instinctive emotional responses unmodified by reason, and Kim Jong-un is a bad, bad guy.

  3. Oh dear. No, the trails for cattle being driven to Abilene, the railroad head, and later Dodge city, never started in Santa Fe. The drives were from Texas. The few cattle in Northern New Mexico stayed there to feed the growing population.

    I lived in nearby Los Alamos in the 1950s and the previous paragraph is mostly from my high school state history class.

  4. Glenn Greenwald, who most of you know from his work with the Snowden files and his current role as a journalist at The Intercept, published a book in 2008 “Great American Hypocrites: Toppling The Myths of Republican Politics.”

    The most important factor, by far, is that the Republican Party employs the same set of personality smears and mythical, psychological, and cultural images to win elections.

    I learned from the first chapter what a fraud John Wane was. Avoided the draft in WW II, spending the war making movies and for the rest of his life cheering on wars as a patriotic tough guy, and much more. All the while castigating those against wars as cowards and subversives.

    I had hopes with the election of Obama in 2008 that the country would return to something like the New Deal, but in hindsight, the grip of money in the form of neo liberal economics and wars had shaped our culture so that we now face who we are as Trump enacts our culture.

    Glancing at the book is like looking back from the ruins of the Roman empire to when there was serious discussion of our principles and the hope that we would come to our senses.

  5. This is a very important and timely post in view of the current dangerous and absurd situation that we are facing. Your last paragraph sums up what many of us who have been brought up to admire America as a bastion of democracy, freedom of expression, openness and the rule of law, have been feeling for a long time. The cowboy mentality has done a great deal of harm to America and to her image in the world. There has always been much more to the United States than the cowboy mentality, but the words and deeds of US leaders, their violent foreign policy, their unilateral wars, and their disregard for the rights and interests of other nations, especially since the end of the Cold War, have strengthened that stereotype in the minds of many people in the global community. Because of these perceptions, most people in the world, especially in the Middle East, have a negative view of America and her foreign policy. The violent and unthinking statements of President Trump have further compounded that image in the minds of the people.

    I believe that in view of her overwhelming military and economic power, her energy and dynamism, the United States can either destroy the world or lead humanity towards a new future before she inevitably loses her preeminent position in the world. What America needs is to return to the aspirations enshrined in her Constitution and the Bill of Rights and to decisively confront the military-industrial complex and all those who benefit from it at the expense of the vast majority of Americans. In view of the interconnectedness of the contemporary world, this time the United States should include the whole of humanity and not only her citizens in those aspirations.

  6. Where does this end? We don’t know. While initially alarming and still potentially catastrophic, I am guessing that his tirades against North Korea were brought about by a narcissistic rage at the health care debacle and his failure to be able to control the GOP led congress by fiat. Still worse, it is also likely brought about by the tightening vice of the Mueller investigation – surprise raids on Manafort’s house can’t be good for Trump, who is now frustrated and flailing.

    His rhetoric, as even the likes of Gordon Humphrey noted this week, is manifest evidence of his mental instability and unfitness for office. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post columnist, has been outstanding at documenting the Madness of King Don, and grounds for his removal. In a sense, we no longer need Mueller: anyone who speaks so cavalierly about “fire and fury” and puts at risks millions of lives in Asia and the US west coast puts us out of the range of the sociopathic and into the realm of the psychopathic frankly.

    But hey, since most US cities, esp. the west coast, are deep blue, I doubt the GOP would much care about getting a leg up on elections by seeing their destruction – I wish this were a sick joke, but in the world where Higgins, Gorka, and Bannon are in power, I am afraid not. What do they care if blue America looses its edge, even through nuclear annihilation? After all, more than half their party would be fine with cancelling the 2020 elections because of a false narrative over voter fraud and they are looking to reduce the voting rolls by any means at their disposal.

    And if you think this exaggeration or conspiracy then you have not been keeping tabs on alt-right media or read the Higgins memo, in which the rhetoric hoping for civil war is lightly bandied about, or in which the left (“cultural Marxists” – whatever that means, Muslims, the academy, the legal community, etc.) is demonized as an existential threat to the US.

    We are caught in a spider’s web woven by the false but fatal visions of ignoramuses whose fever dreams are the 21st century version of John’s ravings on Patmos when he wrote The Revelation.

    • If you think Trump wouldn’t mind seeing the West Coast nuked, imagine how he feels about sacrificing South Korea, a country that has “taken our jobs”, that has the audacity to be more technologically advanced than the USA in ways that actually benefit its citizens, who showed their true patriotism by recently running a President out of office for the crimes of a single crony as opposed to Trump’s dozens.

      I’m very afraid for the South Korean people right now.

  7. Wayne had his moments as an actor. The Ringo Kid had no small influence on future anti-hero characters. True Grit and The Shootist are examples of an actor who’s played a type of character so long that you can no longer tell where the reality ends, which is sort of a goal for actors. Unfortunately, that’s a terrible goal for citizens and chief executives.

    And we’re not the only country permanently hijacked by a romantic era of violence. If you watch Japanese TV, what’s striking is that everything set before the modern era seems to occur during the Sengoku Jidai, the final squareoff between Japan’s feudal lords all during the 16th century, or (if it’s a tv show about more orderly people) the early Tokugawa dictatorship that followed. Think about all the centuries of Japanese culture before that. People seem to prefer the absolute chaos of the last, biggest feudal wars, and the absolute order of the subsequent dictatorship, as the simplistic foundation for stories of violence and honor.

    Remember that many Western stories that AREN’T about young gunfighters, but instead are about the triumph of the settlers and the sad obsolescence of those gunmen seem to take place after 1886, from The Rifleman (a retired gunman with a son) to The Wild Bunch (1916, and like many such later stories set in Mexico where the West stayed wild a little longer). You could say that they are the equivalent to the Japanese dramas set under the Tokugawas when modern bureaucratic civilization became possible, a sort of propaganda of vindication or a lament for the violent freedom that was lost.

  8. Juan,
    I understand where you went with this article and find it thoughtful. However, Your comment on Korean war atrocities caught me as not being correct. I have heard of few instances of troops committing atrocities in Korea; particularly when compared with what went on in Viet Nam. I agree that the Korean war was a mess from the beginning but that was do almost entirely to the leadership of Douglas MacArthur. The book “The Coldest Winter” by David Halberstam details the the true “atrocities” perpetrated by the US leadership. Unfortunately we now have similar leadership in the White House.

    • The Vietnam war was the first television war, where you could watch the execution of a suspected VC in your own living room. The Korean war did not have that level of scrutiny but incidents such as No Gun Ri indicate that claimed atrocities by US troops are not just North Korean propaganda.

    • We destroyed the country.

      “How many Americans, for example, are aware of the fact that U.S. planes dropped on the Korean peninsula more bombs — 635,000 tons — and napalm — 32,557 tons — than during the entire Pacific campaign against the Japanese during World War II?

      How many Americans know that “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population”?

      Twenty. Percent. For a point of comparison, the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. According to LeMay, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

      Every. Town. More than 3 million civilians are believed to have been killed in the fighting, the vast majority of them in the north”

      Article from The Intercept May 2017 with the title

      Why Do North Koreans Hate Us? One Reason — They Remember the Korean War.

      link to theintercept.com

  9. Right on with this essay. The last paragraph should be required reading for those of us concerned about the present and future of this great(?) nation.

  10. When I was in Army basic training in 1971, the drill sergeants explicitly told us NOT to act like John Wayne when we got to Vietnam. While not a John Wayne fan, I never saw him portray a current or past Confederate officer in his westerns. I remember him always in blue (eg., The Horse Soldiers (1959).

    • Hello Gerald – I teach a course at our local college on the influence of ancient Classical culture on modern cinema. I teach one western because it is so heavily influenced by Homer’s Iliad – a John Ford film with John Wayne as the lead called The Seachers. In it he plays a former Confederate Soldier and a white racist who wants to kill native Americans in revenge for abducting his niece and murdering several family members (but, surprise surprise, his niece has “gone native”). So yes, in at least one movie John Wayne was on the side of the Confederates.

    • You are correct – Wayne wouldn’t take roles that attacked the legitimacy of the existing government. He played (in what some consider his greatest performance) an ex-Confederate Texan in Red River, but that’s as close to the Confederacy as he got. Conversely, he refused the role Gary Cooper immortalized in High Noon – a movie seen as an attack on McCarthyism, which Wayne supported. But his specific justification was that Cooper threw away his badge to deal with the bullies when the community he was supposed to represent refused to support him.

      Now Michael Herr, whose writings about Vietnam were so influential that he worked on the scripts of both Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, does discuss in his book Dispatches how young GI’s were “making their own war movies in their heads”, charging the enemy trying to replicate the actions they saw in Sands of Iwo Jima.

    • Btw – in that film qua ex-Confederate soldier he boasts that he had refused to and scoffed at surrender to the north. Plus ca change and all that!

  11. His “personal Vietnam” battling STD’s on the club circuit must have truly been a living hell, making my experience in the Tet Offensive look like a playground spat. I utterly detest these sabre rattling phonies with a briefcase full of deferments and fake disabilities. Go to hell, trump.

  12. The USA “rugged individual” myth is alive and well and has polluted a great deal of the USA society from war to healthcare to education to just about everything.

    Even though the people that were actually successful in the USA for the last 200+ years did so in GROUPS, the myth still persists.

    Just beneath most of the disagreements in the USA are the very selfish “rugged individual,” “I got mine, screw you” myths. We still believe that an individual can accomplish anything and if some one needs help, then they are weak or immoral or have character flaws.

    In reality, the fir trappers relied on native Americans to a large extent and were not the lone explorers the myths perpetuate. The ones that tried the “lone explorer” idea were the ones that quickly ended up dead. The same goes for the homestead farmers that settled in the Midwest. They needed their neighbors and that little town 5 miles away to survive.

    Basically humans have survived for 50000 years because of community, NOT “rugged individuals.”

    As Juan noted, we need to discard the myths and deal with our extremely complex world in a community way because “might makes right” has proven to be a disaster for thousands of years.

    BTW – why are most towns in the east and Midwest about 10 miles apart. See here:

    link to youtube.com

  13. I’m only writing about weapons trivia: I served in the Army during Late Vietnam (1969-1972). We trained on M14 rifles and, later, the M16’s used in Vietnam. It may have been an anachronism, but the term “locked and loaded” was widely used to indicate that a weapon was ready to fire. Our president is a fool and a knave, but, so far as I know, this particular slang is not in error.

    Thanks so much for the great newsletter!

  14. I grew up watching cowboy shows back in the ’50s. It wasn’t until later that I learned just how fictional they actually were.

    There were no gunfights such as those depicted in the High Noon-type stories. The guns were far too inaccurate, heavy, expensive and smoky to be much use past one shot, which would invariably miss its target, if it didn’t misfire altogether. Cowboys didn’t wear holsters. (Wild Bill Hickok. famed “gunfighter,” made his first bones with a rifle when he and some confederates murdered a landlord. (He parlayed this into a tale of ferocious bravery, when in fact he and some confederates ambushed the landlord and his crew.)

    In one memorable account, two men opened fire on each other in a tavern. The smoke was so impenetrable that, despite eleven shots being fired, only two hit their target. One of the combatants was a skilled marksman. He was the one who lost.

    But these shows cemented the myth that the West was won at the point of a gun, that “real” men didn’t take no guff, and they always walked around armed. Now, similar lies are told about the American Revolution and the use of arms in those days.

    Between that kind of propaganda, and Antonin Scalia, we didn’t have a chance.

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