In the great Western movie, “Unforgiven,” William Munny, a reformed alcoholic and retired gunfighter grieving the loss of his loving wife, sets out (for a reward needed to start a new life with his children) to avenge the mutilation of prostitutes by corrupt Sheriff “Little Bill” Dagget.
Along the way, Munny’s sidekick - Ned Logan - is captured and tortured by Little Bill to give up Munny, but Ned won’t and dies from the torture. Munny goes after Dagget with vengeance and kills him brutally after a dark bar room gunfight. Munny then goes back to his mundane life and disappears into obscurity. This exchange precedes the gunfight:
Little Bill Dagget: You’d be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.
Will Munny: That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.
The movie confrontation is somewhat reflective of our life and death struggle with radical Islamic terrorists, especially for the realization that we may have to surrender to our dark side to rid ourselves of them and their obsession for killing us - this because of our absolute refusal to live in fear of them. It is a risk we will not live with.
We have done it before, and in other epic struggles: Is it much different than what we thought we had to do in the war against Japan, when we locked up thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans for the duration? Or when President Harry Truman made the decision to use nuclear bombs on Japan, knowing imperial fanaticism could cost a million American casualties in the invasion of Japan, as every Japanese soldier would fight us to the death?
The firebombing of Dresden and six other German cities (and more than 60 Japanese cities) killed far more innocent civilians - including women and children - than the nuclear attacks, and have been described variously over the years as “war crimes” and “acts of revenge.” Yet we did them with impunity toward the end of World War II, as if to squeeze the life out of a demonic enemy who otherwise refused to die.
Listen to the tales of combat veterans - from all wars - and they will tell you that at a certain stage, usually after the gratuitous death of a buddy by some irrational or cowardly act of the enemy, they thereafter go about their business of killing with a detached ferocity. Look at the famous World War II painting of a combat Marine by Tom Lea, often called the “2,000-yard stare”: It’s the face of a battle-weary, but modern day Samurai who has become immune from the horrors of war.
Is this kind of detachment limited to foreign wars or wars against us by foreign cultures that have attacked us gratuitously? Not by any means: “War is hell” is an expression that comes from a domestic apocalypse - the Civil War, a war that killed and wounded more of our soldiers than we have lost in any other war - 23,000 in one day alone at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862. Lest we forget, estimates are that as many as 700,000 American soldiers died in the Civil War from all causes.
William Tecumseh Sherman, the “war is hell” author, is probably better understood on this point in his letter to the mayor and city council of Atlanta, who had begged him not to burn the city because, among other reasons, there were lots of pregnant women and old people in the city. Sherman’s reply includes the following language:
“[T]he South began the war by seizing forts, arsenals, mints, custom-houses, etc., etc., long before Mr. Lincoln was installed, and before the South had one jot or title of provocation. I myself have seen in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, hundreds and thousands of women and children fleeing from your armies and desperadoes, hungry and with bleeding feet. In Memphis, Vicksburg, and Mississippi, we fed thousands and thousands of the families of rebel soldiers left on our hands, and whom we could not see starve. Now that war comes to you, you feel very different. You deprecate its horrors, but did not feel them when you sent car-loads of soldiers and ammunition, and moulded shells and shot, to carry war into Kentucky and Tennessee, to desolate the homes of hundreds and thousands of good people who only asked to live in peace at their old homes, and under the government of their inheritance. But these comparisons are idle. I want peace, and believe it can only be reached through Union and war, and I will ever conduct war with a view to perfect an early success.”
Sherman was right, of course - war is hell, and for those who start them against us - probably the most benevolent country and people the world has ever known, a country and people who delivered both Europe and Asia from unspeakable evil, we can bring down hell itself on them.
However, we have a very long fuse, sometimes so long as to cause our enemies to forget there will be a reckoning if they persist, and that the reckoning will be unlike any they have imagined or written about in their books of history or religion. And yes, that it may - in a single vicious blow, lay them finally to waste, old people, men, women and children alike.
We have done it before and are quite capable of doing it again, Democrats, Republicans, liberals and conservatives among us all alike.
So, and to our terrorist enemies: If you attack and kill us - especially with persistence and pursuant to some fanatical political creed or rite of ancient retribution - we will eventually retaliate against you on a scale you can’t imagine. It will happen. We seek to live in peace and freedom - we came here for it and still come here for it - but don’t let that fool you.
Daniel Gallington writes on national security.