Cowboy Up

John Wayne knew the canyon was dangerous and was ready. Our ambushes occur in a modern-day canyon of houses, vehicles, and woods, and we also need to have the Duke's "always prepared" mindset.

Dave Smith Headshot

Illustration: Sequoia BlankenshipIllustration: Sequoia Blankenship

One of my favorite genres has always been the Western. I love a good Western whether it's a movie, television show, or book, with all the action and the archetypes they deliver. Usually, the Black Hats and the White Hats are clearly defined, making most good cowboy stories solid morality plays. Choosing which movie or hero is your favorite is a sort of  Rorschach test about how you view the world and your heroic archetype. From Matt Dillon to Paladin to the Lone Ranger, fiction has brought us a variety of modern knights riding around meting out justice and facing great threats.

The one true villain who was beyond redemption in any Western was the bushwhacker, the back shooting coward who waits in hiding for our hero to ride by and then ambushes him. This event usually occurs in the dangerous canyon lands of the west, but can happen anywhere concealment provides the lowlife a chance to use his Winchester to kill from long range. He kills from behind, not facing the wrath of justice that our hero or heroine represents.

From a very young age I was conditioned to see this as a truly debased, cowardly scoundrel who is ultimately cast down for adjudication and condemnation by the deadly aim of one of the good guys' .44 or .45 caliber instruments of justice.

This was the imagery that came to my mind while I reviewed the Officers Killed summary for the last two years. The number one cause of death by assault is the dreaded ambush. Bushwhacked! I thought. I read the various accounts and was stunned by the numerous ways killers and would-be killers ambush law enforcement officers.

Some wait for officers to come into their houses. Others wait in their vehicle for officers to walk up or drive around until they find an officer writing a report in his or her vehicle. The canyons have been replaced by the suburbs, the Winchester '92 replaced by the AK. But the evildoer is still a cowardly bushwhacker who deserves the same fate as the ones from my favorite Spaghetti Westerns.

I have read a few articles that try to explain the causes for this type of predator in our society, but I just think they see the world in a strange manner that could be understood if we had a list of their favorite characters from movies that clearly portray good vs. evil. Show them a good B-grade Western from the 1950s and see if they don't think the Black Hats are kind of cool.

Few "horse operas" are made anymore, and when they are often the morality is downplayed or ambiguous. In fact, the modern cop drama is more likely to follow archetypical models of good and evil. None of that changes my thoughts about the modern ambush. You are one of the good guys, the White Hats, and the motive of the evildoer is not important; winning the confrontation is all that matters.

John Wayne knew the canyon was dangerous and was ready. Our ambushes occur in a modern-day canyon of houses, vehicles, and woods, and we also need to have the Duke's "always prepared" mindset. The heroes of the Western didn't have body armor but they always had their firepower. Do you always have both? I know summer is hot but that body armor is part of your obligation to be prepared to bring Black Hats to justice.

We were always amazed, as children, with our heroes' ability to shoot. Well, I think it is time to "Cowboy Up" and make sure you can get rounds on the bad guy quickly. Modern holsters demand practice and those repetitions will make all the difference in the initial moments of an assault.

Finally, we need to get our minds right about getting shot, since the nature of an ambush gives the bushwhacker the initial advantage—one that we will have to fight through. After interviewing dozens of officers who have won a confrontation after being shot in an ambush, the one common denominator I've found is they didn't quit, didn't stop fighting, didn't surrender. Instead, they used their pain and anger as fuel to fight back and win the confrontation.

So just for an exercise, on a day off in the next few weeks take time to watch some classic Westerns. Think of it as a refresher course in the clear definition of good and evil, and how the hero never gives up.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "J.D. Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Officer (Ret.)
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