Saturday, February 23, 2013

Never, never, never, never

Although the Gray Lady may disagree, my problem with the anonymous nature of so much internet commentary is not that it encourages hateful, cowardly statements, but rather that there is just no pride of authorship. Take this recent anonymous accusation posted as a comment to this very blog: “Pathetic. Your savior preached love and nonviolence. You want to be able to kill people with guns so you twist his words.”* The syntax is such a jumble that I cannot tell if I am being charged with wanting to employ firearms to kill others, or of wanting to kill those bearing firearms. Either way, the anonymous interlocutor gave me to understand that he considers the Suburban Sheepdog a bloodthirsty fellow, eager to do violence.

Well, no  . . . and yes.

We've explored before the idea that when the time for violence comes, one key is to act violently enough, fast enough. No half measures, no delay. But Robert’s (even more fundamental) Rule is simplicity itself: Keep fighting.

In October of 1941 Great Britain was on its heels – an improvement only when considered in light of the fact that ten months before it had been on its back. Having endured the great air battle of the prior year, invasion of the island finally seemed less likely – or, at least, less imminent – than it had. But by any measure, the war was going poorly and expanding broadly. The Third Reich was sufficiently comfortable astride its European occupation to turn toward Russia. The African war belonged to Rommel. The Mediterranean was a German millpond. America was disinclined to participate beyond the provision of materiel.

Defeat seemed less inevitable, but victory was hard to imagine. Instead, there was every reason to believe that widening and worsening war would be the way of things for the foreseeable future. The young men to whom Winston Churchill delivered the Harrow School commencement address that autumn could expect nothing more promising than soon to find a place in war that was killing their fathers and brothers with the efficiency of a well-run abattoir. Churchill gave a speech that rang with notes not of optimism, but rather with grim satisfaction that despite the efforts of a vicious and determined enemy, Britain still stood. He credited that survival not to courage – which it has to be said had abounded – but to determination. In the best words ever spoken at a commencement address, he exhorted the Harrow boys to embrace that determination:

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.**

What Churchill knew, what schoolboys couldn't be expected to understand, is that Britain hadn't defeated Germany – nor would it, nor could it until America entered the war. What Britain had done was endure. It had simply continued to exist. 

When those of us who hold our liberty dear tell the ugly truth about the purpose of the Second Amendment, that it exists as a hedge against tyranny, as insurance against a day we pray not to see, those inclined to comfort in their servility will make the argument that no mere citizen can realistically hope to prevail, should a government turn its full might on its people. Whenever I hear this argument – and I hear it a lot these days – I wonder at how those who make it can so facilely ignore our own history. It is a history that began with a Colonial rabble that did not, could not, hope to defeat King George militarily, but that could and did keep fighting, even so. Our forbears didn't defeat their oppressors, they simply continued to exist until the cost and trouble and pain of beating them became too great for the oppressor to bear. Just so, time and again throughout history, have lesser forces prevailed against more mighty ones – in Indo-China, for just one, painful example.

It isn't only history these willing slaves ignore; it’s also the nightly news. The men and women and children of the Free Syrian Army cannot hope militarily to defeat Bashar al-Assad, his Iranian patrons and his Hezbollah henchmen. But with their trebuchets and catapults and Mad Max creations, they continue to exist, even as Assad kills them in their tens of thousands. They keep fighting. And so long as they do, the days will keep coming, time will keep piling up and bearing its inexorable weight down upon their would-be masters.

Sometimes the task is to keep fighting, to keep on existing, for years on end.  Few remember that the American Revolutionary War lasted eight-and-half years -- 3060 days from Lexington to the Treaty of Paris. Sometimes the task is to keep fighting, to continue to exist, for just a few seconds more, until your rapist or robber is killed or concedes. But year to year, moment to moment, the strategy is the same: Keep fighting.

As a man of partly Irish descent, my feelings about Winston Churchill are more than mixed. But what was admirable in him was greatly admirable and not least of all this: You can hear in his speech to the Harrow boys that, while he would certainly have wished that war had passed his nation by, he is not sorry to be among those alive when it did come. In fact, he closes the speech in gratitude to God that when the fight came, he was on hand to fight it. So no, a good sheepdog isn't bloodthirsty, and it's little use to the flock if it is. But neither will it turn its face, or trouble to spit out the blood when there’s a wolf to defeat.

*The comment utterly missed the central purpose of the post, which was to have an opportunity to make a vague historical allusion while sharing that lovely, classic image of Betty Grable’s adorable bottom and naughty smile.

** In a quote with a less certain provenance than the Harrow speech, Churchill expressed the same sentiment in a simpler, more canine fashion: The nose of the bulldog has been slanted backwards, Churchill said, so that he can breathe without letting go.

Monday, February 18, 2013


As the rising sun pierced the billowing gun smoke that April morning, I suspect the British regulars were thinking something along the lines of “Well, that’s for them.” The truth is that the “Shot Heard Round the World” echoed over an inauspicious field abandoned by a beaten militia in full flight. The only would-be rebels who remained on the Green did so because they were dead or dying. So British Colonel Francis Smith might well have thought that, with one lot of traitors shown conclusively who was master, well begun was half done and the day portended well for King George III. It must have been with more than a little confidence that Smith turned his troops down the road toward Concord, where Tories and spies had reported the nascent rebellion had a large cache of weapons.

But neither Smith nor his executive officer, Major John Pitcairn – much less King George – had heard American Captain John Parker addressing his militiamen just before dawn. The rebels had waited through the night to see if the British foray into the countryside was just another reconnoiter in force, or something more sinister. Paul Revere and his fellow riders assured them the regulars were on their way intent on disarming the budding rebellion.  As the British entered the green, the militiamen assembled from Buckman Tavern and elsewhere to face them. Parker reminded them that while their foremost purpose was to merely demonstrate their resolve, more than that might well be demanded of them. 

“Stand your ground and do not fire unless fired upon,” Parker ordered. “But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”*

Faced off across a space no larger than a football field, Parker and Pitcairn each commanded their respective forces not to fire. Pitcairn had every reason to expect to be obeyed; British regulars did as they were ordered and Pitcairn’s force of elite light infantry were some of the best troops of the best professional army in the world. Parker, commanding farmers, merchants – and a slave named Prince Estabrook – likewise expected to be obeyed, if for no other reason than because his men had families close at hand, some watching from just off the field.  Greek governmental theories, philosophical abstractions and offenses such as the Intolerable Acts may have driven rabble-rousers like Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty. But for the militiamen on Lexington Green, their homes and farms and livelihoods were all too tangible realities, all too close at hand.

So no one was meant to fire a shot, but as it as has time and again throughout the years, the shot nevertheless was fired** and then everyone on the field let loose. It was over in minutes and the outcome, with many rebels killed or wounded, and only one of his own men hurt, couldn't have surprised Pitcairn, who couldn't have had much doubt about how the rest of the day would go.

But it was only dawn. And he hadn't heard Parker.

Pitcairn couldn't have understood at that moment that he hadn't just been a part of a police action or some noisy civil disturbance. Because he hadn't heard Parker, because he didn't know who these Patriots really were, Pitcairn didn't know then that he’d really been a participant in the first skirmish of a remorseless war. But he was soon to learn.

By the end of that very day, after the desperate running fight down the Battle Road, as the blood ran from the North Bridge to stain the Concord River, Pitcairn could not help but to have had a better understanding of what war with real Americans would mean: All told the rebels had lost 88 men killed and wounded. The butcher’s bill for the most feared and powerful military force in the world was nearly twice that, at 147. By the very next morning – without the aid of Facebook or a single cell phone –  15,000 men of what would eventually become a victorious Continental Army were outside of Boston.  

Governor Cuomo can be forgiven, I suppose, if he’s sitting cozy in Albany thinking “Well, that’s for them.” So might his servile New YorkLegislature. Likewise statist assemblymen in Colorado or Missouri or Connecticut. Just so, the President himself. No surprise if, looking back at the last six weeks or so – especially if they look through the lens of corporate national media only too happy to serve their agenda – they think they've won the day over their upstart inferiors.

But it’s only dawn. And they've set off down the Battle Road.

* Indeed, many of the militiamen may not have heard Parker, either. Her suffered from tuberculosis and had trouble mustering enough breath barely to speak.

**Theories vary wildly about who fired first. The best evidence, I think, suggests that it was one of the spectators, townsmen arrayed around the green, but not under Parker’s command.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rules of Engagement

Col. John Dean “Jeff” Cooper was a genius. Even if you are a shooter, if you’re not the sort of shooter who dedicates himself to shooting as a martial art, you may never have heard of Col. Cooper. That’s a shame, and you ought to do something about that. But greater by far than the offense of a shooting neophyte who hasn't heard of Cooper, is the sin of the lifetime shootist or gunfighter who thinks Cooper’s genius was confined to shooting alone.

Lots of people have made a difference in how we shoot today, and, more importantly, on how we employ firearms as weapons. Jordan, Applegate, Fairbairn, Weaver and many others played their parts, Cooper’s Modern Technique owes something to all of them. But the aspect of Cooper’s genius that is often missed – that a lawyer especially appreciates – was his ability to distill the English language to concentrations of highest potency. With the possible exception of those twice delivered downhill by Moses, you would be hard pressed to find any set of laws, drafted by any legislature in the whole history of lawmaking, that accomplishes its goal as completely, in as few words, and with less susceptibility to misapplication or mischief than Cooper’s Four Rules:

1. All guns are always loaded.
2. Never let the muzzle cover anything which you are not willing to destroy.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
4. Always be sure of your target.

There it is, in 37 words, the perfect gun safety system. Barring spontaneous combustion, you cannot inadvertently hurt yourself, or anyone else, with your firearm unless you violate more than one of these rules at the same time. If you have foolishly put your finger on the trigger without a target in sight – and even if you pull that trigger – if you haven’t also simultaneously violated Rule 2, the only consequence will be embarrassment. If, in violation Rule 1, you have treated the weapon as empty when in fact it is loaded, unless you violate both Rules 2 and 3, no harm will ensue.

Through the years, quibblers have quibbled about the Four Rules* and come-lately gun gurus often try to make a name by “improving” them. But the genius of the Four Rules, as anyone who has ever tried to draft a law or craft a contract can tell you, is their extreme economy and their seamless interconnection.

These rules work everywhere and always. Employ these rules and no one and nothing you don’t mean to shoot will get shot. They are equally as effective at the county shooting range with your 10-year-old when he first learns to shoot a pistol** as they are when you’re stacked up with rest of your team of Tier One bad asses, ready to kick in some HVT’s door. Which is not the same thing as saying that every rule has equal application in every situation. For example, lawmen routinely draw down on suspects, allowing their muzzles to cover people they aren't at least immediately willing to destroy.*** But at such moments, even as they knowingly violate Rule 2, they had best be scrupulous in their fidelity to Rule 3.

The consequences of violating the Four Rules can be extreme. And while it’s bad enough when the one who violates the Rule suffers the consequence, I’d suggest that it is the violation of Rule 4 that has the greatest potential for tragedy. That “home invader” hammering at your door at 3 a.m. just might be a drunken cousin looking for place to sleep. You may have every reason to kill that bad guy. But being “sure of your target” means knowing in that instant and yet to a certainty where each and every bullet is going to come to rest – a fact that exists within the dynamic framework of your ability to hit the target, the ballistic realities of your target and the round you’re firing, what’s next to and behind the target, and what might pass between you and the target in the time it takes you to break the shot.

We have seen more or less wholesale violation of Rule 4 in the past few days by lawmen on the west coast. Although, admittedly, it will be a long time before all the facts are known, it seems likely they  let an understandable but unaccustomed atmosphere of fear degrade their adherence to the rule. This kind of result is not unheard of, even without the looming threat of a manifesto spewing cop killer on the loose. The police are merely men (and women, of course) and men are massively fallible creatures. But that truth will prove little comfort to the cops who took those shots and now may face career discipline, civil liability, vilification and dark nights of the soul. Less comfort, still, to the wounded and the families of the dead.

No one can doubt my allegiance to, admiration of and love for the beleaguered, endangered cop on the beat, individually and as a species. But the lesson is there for the taking this week and heaven help us – especially those of us who vindicate our responsibility for self protection by exercising our right to go armed – if we do not stop to learn it afresh.

* Rule 1 comes under fire from time to time, since it appears to be a fiction. Not every gun really is always loaded, the cavil goes. But the sense of Cooper’s rule is evident to anyone who has ever been handed an unloaded firearm by a friend, or removed one from its case, only to find out that it wasn't. Treating empty firearms like loaded ones cannot get you hurt; the same cannot be said for the inverse.

**  . . . after, of course, learning, memorizing and understanding the Four Rules.

*** This is bad practice for the non-lawman armed citizen. Your weapon ought not depart the holster unless you plan imminently to shoot someone. But that’s another post.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spoiler alert*

I enjoy “Downton Abbey.” But if you enjoy "Downton Abbey," I'll bet we don't enjoy it for the same reasons. You probably like watching lushly-produced tales of manners, romance, ambition, sex and revenge played out among a wealthy, titled family and its cadre of servants. On the other hand, I, unlike most of the program's anglophilic devotees, really get a kick out of seeing Englishmen in prison.

Because make no mistake, “Downton Abbey” is a prison drama, and equally so for all the characters as for the hapless valet now languishing in an actual prison, after being framed for his wife’s well-deserved demise. [You see. . .  If the second Mrs. Bates (sainted housemaid Anna) can prove that the first and late Mrs. Bates (spiteful and vindictive Vera) baked the arsenic-laden pie that killed her only after her husband (noble and selfless valet John Bates) left London to rush home to Downton Abbey in time to dress Lord Grantham for dinner, then Mr. Bates may someday see the outside of His Majesty’s prison, where he is now condemned to languish.]**

But while Bates may rest in hope of release, none of the other residents of Downton Abbey are likely ever to escape. Their fetters were forged in centuries-old class and social conventions that are supposed tell each of them precisely who they are and predict everything that may ever happen to them. The War to End All Wars barely put a chink in their chains; it will take a global depression and another world war even to deepen the scratch.

This sounds horrible to those raised to believe that “anyone can grow up to be president.” But upstairs and downstairs, from the big house to the village shops, Downton’s denizens operate in (mostly contented) subservience to this stratified and stultifying order. If it is a prison, it is a comforting one that is most ardently defended by those who have inhabited it the longest. We regularly see the imperious Dowager Countess and implacable Carson the Butler affirm their allegiance to this world, by exchanging a furtive glance, a restrained nod or a discreetly rolled eye from their distant perches atop its respective poles.

And well they might. For theirs is a world that doles out swift punishment to anyone who presumes to challenge its orthodoxy. When randy housemaid Ethel dares to lay with even randier aristocratic Major Bryant, she winds up with a nameless son she cannot keep and nearly fatal employment in the oldest service profession of all. Sloe-eyed debutante Sybil is all hoyden, defiantly taking work as a nurse and marrying the chauffeur – the Irish, Catholic, vaguely Republican chauffeur  no less. But soon enough she meets her death, when her father’s hidebound confidence in class over competence puts her in the hands of an inept society doctor who misses a diagnosis so obvious it had PBS viewers screaming “pre-eclampsia!” at the telly ten minutes into the episode.

For all the secure predictability this demimonde is supposed to provide, we watch as a host of thoroughly entertaining, utterly avoidable woes befall Downton's inhabitants, while none of them ever seems to see disaster looming. Instead, thanks to their faith in their precisely ordered world, they are blind to and surprised by the mayhem we all can see lurking around each architecturally important corner. For while the Crawleys and their servants know Burke’s Peerage front to back, their education in Robert’s Rules is sadly deficient. Otherwise, they’d have known that you must never let who you are blind you to where you stand, nor let where you stand blind you to what's coming your way.

Not for nothing is this blog entitled "Suburban Sheepdog." It may not be a quaint Yorkshire village, but I live in a prototypically “nice neighborhood.” I’ll bet you do, too. For the most part I work, recreate, shop, pray and even travel through a world that appears quite as safe and certain as an English country estate. The overwhelming likelihood is that violent trouble will never come my way.*** So why do I burden myself with a firearm and other assorted kit? Why do I take time to train and practice? Why do I care about esoterica like mindset?

Because there are no spoiler alerts in real life. Because there is nowhere I can go on the Web to read that “in tonight’s episode, Suburban Sheepdog faces an armed assault.” Because unlike those inhabiting Downton – be they entitled or indentured – I know there is no position of privilege that can protect me,  no social construct that will keep my family safe. That task falls to me, each day, come what may. And I had better be ready, because not only are there no spoiler alerts, there is no rewind.

*Seriously. Spoiler alert. If you are not up to date on “Downton Abbey” and you care, read no further.

** I swear I’m not making this up.

*** Let's ignore, just for now, that it already has on a few occasions. I really don't want facts getting the way of the point I'm making.