Moral Injury and Moral Superiority

I’m a fan of old radio shows, and a temporary job I’ve had recently has given me the opportunity to listen to a number of them.

There’s a lot to be learned, I think, about our culture and our ideals from mass media, especially in an era as homogenous as the 1950s. This episode of the Gunsmoke radio show from 1956, “Bloody Hands,” (the television version is here, though let’s be honest, radio is better) says some important things about the nature of social order and the men — because it was men back then — who keep that order.

It is an ordinary day in Dodge City, Kansas. U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon rides into town on a buckboard, his gun in the back of a sullen man driving. Dillon has been after a gang of five thieves, robbers, and murderers, and he ambushed them somewhere outside of town, killing four of them in the process. “It was like butchering hogs,” the sullen man says as Chester locks him in jail.

All the time, the sullen man — Brand, I think — is complaining and criticizing Matt Dillon. “Do you like killing? Because you certainly are good at it!” Brand is relentless, and he makes Dillon angry. It’s not lost on the audience that this a killer talking.

But the criticism clearly hits and hurts Dillion. He has a nightmare in which we hear him say, as he sleeps, “Please, no, don’t make me kill again.” Chester has to wake him up, and groggily, Dillion resolves to quit. He writes out a telegram of resignation, and has Chester go to the train depot and send it to the War Department. Dillon then goes to breakfast.

Matt Dillon stops wearing a gun. He stops wearing his badge. When this scene takes place, we learn that several of Brand’s fellow outlaws are in town wrecking havoc while Dillon, and his “friend” (and Long Branch co-owner) Kitty Russell are sitting underneath the shade of a tree, fishing. Chester Proudfoot, Dillion’s rather hapless assistant, comes riding up.

Chester: Mr. Dillon, Joe Stanger’s in town.

Matt: Oh? Well, that doesn’t matter to me, Chester.

Chester: But you don’t understand.

Matt: I don’t understand what?

Chester: What I’ve come to tell you. Stanger’s at The Long Branch, and a while ago he had word with one of the girls there and she slapped him and he, he pulled out his gun, and he, he killed her.

Matt: He what?

Kitty: Who was the girl, Chester?

Chester: Kate Hawkins.

Kitty: Oh no…

Chester: That’s who it was, Miss Kitty. And the bartender tried to stop him and Stanger shot him too and I hear he’s gonna die. I grabbed a horse off the hitch rail and come right to tell you. You’ve gotta stop him, Mr. Dillon.

Matt: Look, Chester, I’m not the marshal here anymore. I quit, remember?

Chester: You mean you’re going to let Joe Stanger walk around Dodge and shoot everybody that gets in his way? Including women?

Matt: I’m through killing. I told you that.

Chester: Well, who’s gonna stop him, then? You’re the only man around here that will go up agin’ him and you know it.

Matt: That may be true, but I’m still not going to do it.

Chester: Wait, Mr. Dillon, wait, wait a minute. I been thinking a lot about all this lately and there’s something you’ve been overlooking.

Matt: Oh?

Chester: Men like Stanger and Brand, they gotta be stopped. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t. I just ain’t good enough. Most men ain’t. But you are. It’s kinda too bad for you that you are, but that’s the way it is, Mr. Dillon, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Not now. It’s too late. It’s way too late.

[With that, Dillon sighs. We hear the clink of spurs and the grinding of boots in the dirt.]

Matt: Hand me your gun, Chester.

It’s this very last speech that interests me.

Matt Dillon is a “good man.” He’s more than competent gunman, fast on the draw, faster than nearly everyone he comes up against (there was one young gunman who was faster than Dillon, and did manage to shoot the marshal). He’s a solid fighter with his fists, too, and he’s pummeled and beaten men much bigger than he is. So, Dillion is “good enough” in that he possess the technical skill to defeat anyone who challenges him.

But there’s another meaning here, I think, to “good enough.” Dillion is a “good man” in a world where “bad men” are constantly doing violence. Here, we have an insight into what Dillon’s being “good enough “ means: he is bothered by the violence he does. It hangs heavy on his conscience. He has nightmares about it (though, only in this episode), even when the bad guys — people who themselves kill without mercy, pity, and conscience — hound him for it.

Matt Dillon is a sheepdog, protecting the sheep of Dodge City from the wolves of the world. He does the violence needed to maintain peace and order. And he does an awful lot of violence over the course of the Gunsmoke radio series. Sometimes it is capricious violence — “Why are you throwing me in jail?” once received a response akin to “I’ll think of a reason later!” Dillon as a character is unafraid to run men out of town, beat them to a pulp, threaten to shoot them, muse about hanging them himself, and tell them their ultimate fate — after a fair trial, of course — will be at the end of a rope. He frequently interferes in family life to protect children and women, something very enlightened for a character living in the frontier wilderness of the 1870s. He never takes the side of the wealthy in disputes with the poor, and several times refuses to follow the law in order to secure “greater justice” for smallholders threatened by the rich and powerful. More than once, he tells those who complain of his methods, “I AM the law!”

But what’s clear from all of this is that Dillon almost never makes a mistake. His violence, as capricious and lawless as it frequently is, is always aimed at people who deserve it — who have it coming. Bad people. Wolves.

This, I think, is the myth of authority and violence in America. Violence is always well aimed, always hits the right target. He may be violent and sometimes even lawless in his approach, but Matt Dillon is never unjust. The ends of justice are always served in Gunsmoke. The poor and weak are always protected, the innocent are always avenged, the disorderly are always brought to heel, the guilty are always punished, and the wicked are always dealt with.

Of course, it does not work that way in the real world. Power and authority frequently visit their violence on the weak and the powerless. Power and authority are rather good at constantly victimizing the innocent. It’s just easier that way. It’s fine to pretend to be sheepdogs, protecting the weak, but honestly, most sheepdogs are just wolves with badges. It’s simpler to prey on sheep.

There is one other thing about this narrative that interests me. Dillon is a “good man” who does the violence necessary for a peaceful, ordered existence. But because he is a good man who does “bad things” to secure peace and order — who does “bad things” for “good reasons” or “the greater good” — Dillon bears a special moral injury, a moral wound. He is wounded by what he does, he sacrifices himself to the violence he must commit, and the fact that he does it makes him a better person than the rest of us. “I’d do it,” Chester tells him, “but I just ain’t good enough.” He’s not fast enough on the draw, and he can’t handle a six-shooter well enough, but Chester also doesn’t possess the soul needed to be the kind of man who can do “bad things” for “good reasons” day after day.

It’s a calling, Chester says — an unfortunate calling — when he tells Dillon “that’s the way it is.”

This makes Dillon a kind-of distorted Christ figure, one I suspect frequents popular culture and myth across Christendom. He bears the sin of the world, he defeats evil (as opposed to sin and death, a common confusion among Christians of all flavors and persuasions) by doing the works of death better than wicked and bad men do. That it bothers him is proof of his goodness — the evil sleep soundly and well at night. The good and decent toss and turn, troubled by conscience, wondering about the fate of their souls, bothered by the sheer amount of death they must deal in securing the good order of the world.

And even that troubling is vicarious. Almost no one else seems to be bothered by the violence Dillon does to maintain peace and order. He also gets hounded by the very sheep whose lives he protects.

Again, this is myth. It doesn’t work this way in the real world, not really. Just as there are no sheepdogs, there are no Christ-like bearers of sin who do righteous violence so that we can sleep well. It is, as I said, too easy to brutalize the weak and powerless and call it just and righteous. THAT is how the world works.

There’s only violence. And sin. And human beings, struggling. There’s order, barely constrained and contained by sinful men (and women), whose sin itself is only partly restrained. That we impose this narrative of virtuous violence on the real world is one thing that causes so much undue pain and so much undeserved suffering. Because we believe those on the receiving end of that violence have it coming. Deserve it. Merit it. Earned it. After all, they are bad people. Wolves. And we are good people who do difficult things so that the world can work right. Sheepdogs.

We believe deeply in one thing scripture never teaches — that good people must confront and defeat evil. There are no good people in scripture. Just Israel — sinful, miserable, wayward Israel. The is no innocence in scripture save for Christ, who goes willingly to the cross. There is no virtue in scripture, save for a God who confronts our violence by surrendering utterly and completely to it.

Because … we are not good people. There’s no such thing. And few very bad people really twirl their mustaches and confess their wickedness. So much of what we do, and who we are, has no meaning. No purpose. No telos. No virtue. No evil. It just is.

It just is.

4 thoughts on “Moral Injury and Moral Superiority

  1. There is always violence and back-violence in the City of Man. That is the substrate upon which the City of God must manifest itself in this world. Christianity has sometimes been successful in curbing the worst horrors of the secular world, though always very slowly.

    If there is no rule of law in the City of Man, then there will be unrestrained interminable blood feuds and cycles of massacres and counter-massacres. The rule of law itself is often brutal and unjust, but is still generally preferable to the aforementioned alternatives. The trick is to get to a condition of civil society in which violence rarely appears “necessary” — one in which, as Confucius said, the weapons are all kept out of sight. England in the early 20th century maybe came as close as any society has to that state: police were rarely armed; public displays of aggression or violence were taboo. And yet there was still plenty of hidden violence and injustice.

    The gospel does not itself call for a holy war against evil. But there is a kind of subtle dynamic between the Cities of Man and God. A state of the secular world which inhibits compassion and fosters cruelty is a kind of poison which affects all souls. Even the church is corrupted. There are still saints who struggle to uphold the rule of love, and they often succeed … slowly.

    I would have supported Lincoln. Even with the clarity of hindsight, knowing the ghastly toll of the war and the limited nature of its success (though it would have been a close thing in balancing the equation). Slavery in the US in 1860 was so horrific, and getting worse because of the nature of the newer plantations from Alabama to Texas, and its proponents becoming so militant and imperial in their ambitions, that it qualified as one of those things which is so distinctly evil that it must be actively opposed.

    Being a lawman in the old West is something else. A US Marshall in a territory not yet admitted to the union would probably have been working for people with money and government influence, as part of an effort to create conditions which would lead to admission on terms favorable to those who had invested in the territory. And various other local interests would organize to promote the ends they desired. All a brutal business, and not very edifying.

    The popular romanticizing of the West increased as the lawless West itself was passing away. Western novels and films were huge in the 1st half of the 20th century. Then suddenly in the 1960’s the genre practically disappeared. People no longer needed to put a sheen of respectability on a brutal past which was now the distant past. And lone heroes in Dallas were, it turned out, just as likely to be lone gunmen aiming at the president. There were occasional films with ambiguous protagonists like Clint Eastwood. Horror is now a genre as dominant as Westerns were in the past, whatever that says about us.

  2. I think this article is a bit cynical. There really are good people (you are one of them, I think). Goodness may be more slender than we imagine, but it something people long for, when they don’t see enough of it. I can’t believe there are really differences between good and bad authority. Your own experiences of being on the negative end of power show that it really does make a difference what kind flourishes.

    • I think what I’m really trying to say is that there are no “good people” good enough to go bad things — violence, force, coercion — regularly and continuously for good purposes.

  3. I’d agree with that. Movies like the “Dark Knight” (which I do like) are all about bringing about good by morally dubious means. However, I think people are genuinely trying to wrestle with what it takes to be good in a world where there is sin. Some of these movies are just silly, such as Chuck Norris or something like that, but these morally gray areas are things real people have to wrestle with. How do I use power to promote good in a world where evil is often successful? Since we aren’t Christ, do we have the same obligation towards non violence and sacrifice? That’s why I admire someone like Bonhoeffer. His ethics were worked out under a regime of evil (which hopefully none of us have to confront on the same level). He was willing to confront dark realities and respond to them, with goodness and courage, and not piety. He was willing to become complicit and guilty if that is what freedom and responsibility dictated.

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