A new installment from Mike Vanderboegh, author of Absolved, Ourselves Alone, Fear, and Awkward:
by Mike Vanderboegh
13 February 2008
“An army . . . ought to be able to shoot ‘possible’ before it lets the band play too loud.”
“Tyree, tell me about Spanish Man’s Grave.” Sergeant Tyree spat left and looked squint-eyed under his hat brim at Ross Pennell. “Can’t rightly tell much, sir. Never been there. Only hearsay. He drawed a picture of it once — Captain MacAfee. Spanish soldiers ridin’ an’ marchin’ up from Santa Fe coupla centuries ago, all shinin’ in armor and golden helmets, with plumes and yellow silken flags. Musta been purty.” Tyree shook his head. “But it didn’t work out. The Apaches caught the whole kit and kaboodle of ‘em in the tablelands and killed every mother’s son. Got ‘em like at the bottom of the well, they say. Ever since then it’s been Apache holy ground. It did something to their bad god for all time. Only their good god lives in the Grave. Once the Apaches get in to Spanish Man’s, they’re safe home. Big and powerful medicine that protects them.”
“Anybody from Fort Starke ever been there?” “No white man was ever there, is what I think. A lot of ‘em will lie they was, but I think only them dead caballeros know where it is, and they ain’t a one of ‘em ever talked since the massacre.” “Tyree,” Pennell said, I wonder what those Spaniards did wrong?”
“I ain’t a man to blame dead men,” Tyree said, “but the captain used to say an army ought to have a lotta brains before it shows a lotta flags. He used to say it ought to be able to shoot ‘possible’ before it lets the band play too loud. And he used to say that only a well-trained veteran looks right in a bright uniform, and that dirty uniform shirts make the best empires. But maybe we’ll find out what the Spaniards did wrong, Mr. Pennell. I’ve knowed we was goin’ to the Grave fer four days.” . . . — “Spanish Man’s Grave” by James Warner Bellah in Reveille, Curtis Publishing, 1947.
I’ve been a fan of James Warner Bellah’s writing since childhood, long before I even knew his name. Born in Delaware in 1899, Bellah went to Canada before the U.S. entered World War I, joining the Royal Flying Corps and serving as a pilot in the 117th Squadron. After the Great War ended, he began writing, publishing his first novel in 1923. In the 1930s he worked as journalist for the New York Post. A student of history, he joined the United States Army before Pearl Harbor and served as an infantry officer in Southeast Asia. After the war he resumed his writing career and struck gold with a series of stories first published in the Saturday Evening Post, about the U.S. Cavalry during the Indian wars. John Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande (all starring John Wayne), were Bellah screenplays, based on his short stories, “Massacre,” “Mission Without a Name,” and “The Big Hunt.” Bellah went on to write the screenplays for other movies, including Sergeant Rutledge and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He died in 1976.
“Wherever ten or twenty of them in dirty shirt blue were gathered together — that became the United States.” –James Warner Bellah, from his screen adaptation of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was always my favorite. Wayne’s portrayal of tough, competent, sentimental Captain Nathan Brittles (“Never apologize, Mr. Cohill. It’s a sign of weakness”), a character based upon the real U.S. cavalry officer Frederick W. Benteen, was a classic. I first saw it as kid on late night TV and was enthralled. I suppose that’s why back in the late 80s I wrote a manuscript biography of Benteen’s civil war career (sadly unpublished). The concept of the man who does his duty, no matter the cost, speaks of eternal truths.
But even if Nathan Brittles is my favorite Bellah character, “Spanish Man’s Grave” is my favorite Bellah story. Young Lieutenant Ross Pennell, worn-out Captain MacAfee, hard-bitten Sergeant Tyree, a corporal and seven men, are on patrol when they spot smoke in the distance — a burning homestead. MacAfee halts his mount.
“Mr. Pennell,” he spoke haltingly, “this . . .is as far as I go,” and he sat there with his eyes closed, like marbles in his skull. Marbles covered with chicken skin. A worn-out man, old before his time, drained dry by the Colors, sitting his mount a thousand miles down the wastelands, staring at distant smoke with his eyes closed.
“Drained dry by the Colors.” MacAfee is dying. His left arm and leg have gone dead and now he is blind. Pennell moves to help him from his saddle, but MacAfee speaks:
“Mr. Pennell, there are only three things to remember out here. Always make them think you are in force, or will be soon. Always frighten them until they stop thinking and take refuge in Medicine. Then turn it against them, spoil its power and break it, so they can’t trust anything. And always treat your luck with respect, so that it will never turn against you. This time I was going to take the patrol down and try to find Spanish Man’s Grave. I wanted to show dirty uniform shirt blue down there and spoil that Medicine for them. The Apaches have been living too long on that old massacre story — believing too much in their immunity. Flout it in their faces, show them that the gods hate them, too, and you’ve gone a long way toward making them behave. I want you to take the patrol down.”
Then, before Pennell can help the Captain from his horse, MacAfee dies as he lived, “straight-shouldered in the saddle.”
The patrol buries the Captain and rides on to the smoke, finding the broken bodies of a tortured homesteader and his gang-raped wife. Their daughter is missing, abducted by the Apaches. The determined but inexperienced Pennell tells Tyree they are pushing on to Spanish Man’s Grave. The way is hard, the odds long, the men fearful and, toward the end, rebellious. Pennell has had them do things they don’t understand, like making enough squad fires at night for two companies of cavalry rather than a small one for their short squad. (Von Steuben was the first, but not the last, to comment that American soldiers always have to be told the “why” of things before risking their lives.) Finally Pennell explains himself:
“We’re going to the Grave because the Apaches are going. They’re going because they’re running to Medicine, for protection — to get away from two companies. Drive ‘em to Medicine, turn it on ‘em, show ‘em its no good either! That’s the second thing you always do.” . . . “Those dead Spaniards,” Pennell said, “came through the easiest route. The fact that they were all killed means they must have laid themselves open to tactical murder. They’ve done it all through their history; that’s why they’ve got no history left, only a record.”
The story is chock full of the hard lessons of war that soldiers must learn before they can win. Yet the narrative lets you know in ways spoken and hinted that here, in these pitifully few men, products of their tough training and bitter experience, is the “army that can shoot ‘possible.’” They do not need a band. Using clues from the dead Captain and Tyree’s recollections of the Spaniard’s last stand, Pennell and Tyree get to the highest ground and spot, as Pennell deduced they would, the entrance to the Apache lair. Pennell then takes his men into the middle of Spanish Man’s Grave in the dark of night, startling the war party at their fires:
Pennell called to the little Graeme girl again to lie flat and wait, and again the patrol fired, and again, until there was no more sound of thrashing agony, no more panther rush to get away, no more Apaches to teach the niceties to.
The girl is rescued and the Apaches are routed by a dead Captain’s plan and a young Lieutenant’s initiative. Bellah ends with this sentence: “And the way of their hard living was suddenly more worth while in that moment than all the emeralds of Hind and all the gold of Cathay.” Hokey? Maybe. Just like the singing of the Star Spangled Banner that puts a catch in your throat.
“They had trained intensively”
As time went by we built the mythology of the Minute Men even further. We depicted them as a small but courageous band of farmers who responded to a spontaneous call to arms, an untrained and poorly armed rabble. The truth, of course, was very different. There were actually 14,000 colonials under arms in the militia and Minute Man regiments. They were alerted by organized alarm riders via a system that dated back to the 17th century wars. They had trained intensively for a year and were armed with the same type weapons as the British. Lexington was an important battle in the history of the United States, not only because it was the opening moment of the war that created our country but also because it provides us a microcosm of the drift to war — with all the tensions, the misinterpretations, the fears and the posturings, the courageous and the foolish acts that augur the clash of arms. The distortion of this historical event has kept us from some vital insights concerning the way that wars begin. . .” — General John R. Galvin, The Minute Men, The First Fight: Myths and Realities of the American Revolution, Pergamon/Brassey, 1989, pp. VIII & IX
In Spanish Man’s Grave, the cavalry employ the same principles of war against raiders that the colonial militias, the trained bands and the “snow shoe men” who preceded the Minutemen of the 1770s did against the Indian tribes of the East. These campaigns, and those of the French and Indian War, honed a system of militia training and organization that paid off on 19 April 1775. General Galvin’s book is required reading for every student of the armed citizenry, for it demonstrates that the Minutemen’s success at Concord and the savaging of the British column all the way back to Boston was neither accidental nor spontaneous.
For those of us today who believe that going down to the range four or five times a year is enough to demonstrate the proficiency necessary to provide as credible a deterrent to tyranny as the Minutemen, a quick skimming of Galvin’s work ought to disabuse them of that silly notion. As I have written in many places before, merely having the means to resist tyranny is no evidence that you can do so successfully. You must have the will and the ability to do so.
You must, like Bellah’s Captain MacAfee says, be able to fire a “possible” at distance. You must also know how to conduct yourself when firing at an enemy. And you must know how to get to the place where you can fire. And how to move forward, or backward, after doing so. The constitutional militias of the 90s worked on such competencies and were laughed at by “respectable” shooters. Yet, as I have written before (See “Resistance is Futile”: Waco Rules vs. Romanian Rules), the 90s militias were enough to back down the Clintonistas from any more Wacos.
For all the silliness and stupidity that characterized the “militia generals” who capered and postured like clowns for the mainstream media back then, there were many other folks who quietly understood the lessons of the armed citizenry of our history. Shunning attention, they did the one thing that made them a countervailing force to predatory unconstitutional government — they trained. And trained and trained. They trained until the lessons were a habit. And some of them are still training today.
“Habit is a mighty ally”
“Tonight was a lark. It was practice. Prepare your mind to endure its like again and again, until it is nothing to you, until you can laugh in Polnikes’ face and return his insults with a carefree heart. Remember that boys of Lakedaemon have endured these harrowings for hundreds of years. We spend tears now that we may conserve blood later. Polynikes was not seeking to harm you tonight. He was trying to teach that discipline of mind which will block out fear when the trumpets sound and the battle pipers mark the beat. Remember what I told you about the house with many rooms. There are rooms we must not enter. Anger. Fear. Any passion which leads the mind toward that ‘possession’ which undoes men in war. Habit will be your champion. When you train the mind to think one way and one way only, when you refuse to allow it to think in another, that will produce great strength in battle. . . Habit is a mighty ally, my young friend. The habit of fear and anger, or the habit of self-composure and courage.” (Dienekes) rapped the boy warmly on the shoulder; they both stood. “Go now. Get some sleep. I promise you, before you see battle again, we’ll arm you with all the handiest habits.” — Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield.
Competition pistol shooters know about muscle memory. Muscle memory is a physical training but also a mental one. As seasoned handgun shooter Tom Gresham observed:
“Nearly all top pistol shooters dry fire—that is, they ‘shoot’ without ammunition. It can be done at home, after checking to make sure the gun is not loaded. Recoil obscures problems of technique, not to mention flinching. The goal of dry firing is to keep the sights on the target after the hammer falls. Repetition grooves muscle memory and enhances your ability to concentrate, enabling you to pull the trigger without disturbing the sight alignment.”
Likewise, says Edwin Hall,
“When you have a chance to just sit back with no immediate worldly attention needed, you can train for shooting by imagining you are shooting. A boring meeting where you might be called upon for input is probably not a good place, but a snack break or lunch time might be. If you have this type of relaxed time, put it to use. Start by thinking about being at the range. Mentally rehearse all the steps taken to perform a perfect shot, all the way through checking it and finding it to be that perfect shot. Never even joke that it might have been less than perfect. All mental practice should be done visualizing perfect results. Perform these exercises whenever time permits. Be sincere. Don’t just try; do!” (Source: ibid.)
What is true for handgunning is true for all other things in life. There is a muscle memory to maintaining liberty. There are both mental and physical habits produced by long training that make you a free man or woman and us, all of us, a free people. The Roman Vegetius said, “Let him who desires peace prepare for war.” George Washington put a finer point on it: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
“He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.” — Psalm 18:34
This is what the Founders intended by the 2nd Amendment: to put the elements of defensive war in the hands of the people. But they also expected us to be “well-regulated”, that is to be competent with those weapons, to be trained in their use. They didn’t put that responsibility on the federal government. They put it on us, the people. Now, it is true enough that most people today don’t accept that responsibility any more. Many would even take it away from those who do. These sad facts do not absolve us from the responsibility of maintaining our freedom habits and our liberty muscle memory.
“Habit is a mighty ally.” Indeed. And tyrants, like street thugs, pass by the man who looks ready to take them on and pick on the unready, the weak and the obvious victim. “They had trained intensively for a year,” Galvin says of the Minutemen. How much have you trained lately in the arts of a free citizen?
As Robert Heinlein warned, “You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.” And he also cautioned, “Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors… and miss.“
So, work on your freedom muscle memory. Renew the old mental and physical habits of liberty that you have let fall into disuse.
And stay away from the white lightning, for in this troubled time fast approaching you can’t afford to miss that “possible.”
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