Posse Time


Posse Time

James Look

The use of the image of the “posse” was the “perfect”
iconography for the promotion of the first war “of the 21st Century”.
Response to “Terrorism of Viral Power” (Event-Scene 97)

CNN’s photo of American special-ops on horses, showed realistically the culture that exists– life in the third century. It was presented to us at a time when the public had started to wonder about the progress of the efforts, hearing reports of innocent civilian casualties from the relentless bombing on Afghanistan, and of the tenacity of the Taliban. Previously (about a week before the cities started to fall to the now Western-backed Northern Alliance, an interminable time in the era of “live” instantaneous news reception) we were not provided with any insight (photography or otherwise) into what was going on there except for blurred night vision scenes of distant explosions from the CNN-style televised war coverage, carried on a multitude of TV channels. The “American people” were desperately hungry for the media imagery to which they had become accustomed.

While it was no small indicator of the import of the presentation of the posse picture being given by the Secretary of Defense, himself the most senior (in age and experience in war) in command of the US forces, (and seemingly the most conservative staunch defender of the “world’s freedoms”), there is much more to be made of that simple image itself. The evocations and connotations run (like the horses themselves) very deep. The angle of the direction of the group of riders went from top down diagonally to the right (our strong side), a dominant, oppressive posturing inflection. Presented possibly as an air surveillance photo or satellite image, we were not able to be see the faces of the soldiers, keeping the viewer at a safe distance from the war (although the technology would have allowed for a higher resolution). Nothing else was visible except for the men on horseback and the sloping undulations of sand dunes, stark and exotic, they were heading quickly into who-knows-where towards the steppe. Just to know they were there, (pointed out to us) those two American “special forces” in assistance (read “the lead”) of the “natives”, headed in that direction, was satisfaction enough. America was “on the ground” (not just cowardly bombing from the dominant skies) and in control of the situation.

Most obviously, the denotation of that image is so similar to the Hollywood construct of the “posse” in pursuit of the bad guys. It brings to mind the classic cowboy movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (set in the era immediately a step from the modern age). For most of the plot the two bank robbers are pursued relentlessly and tirelessly by a posse of professional lawmen led by a supposed, unknown to them but, reputable stalwart intelligent expert and gifted native guide. They were doomed–having to leave the country and killed in the end: tragic anti-heroes for the time, paving the way for modernity.

The other narrative of the posse is one consisting of the community up-at-arms frustrated by lawless bandits on the rampage. (9-11) It is the common folk, the husbands and fathers who are relied on to volunteer (as in, “our boys” in the armed forces), to be “deputized”, to go get the bad guys (in truth, more likely, they were usually a band of vigilantes). They chased them down, beat the information out of them and hanged them to the nearest tree. This was real “Justice”- (American style?)

The “posse” also consists of the culture of the great genre (now globalized) of the western, the cowboy– an American icon, like the Marlboro man. Since we have been looking for “heroes” to pin our hopes (not much of these days) on, this image is totally convenient. We are in reaction. So it is that we look back to the days of old, where “folks” reclaimed and tamed the forbidden wild through, through the initiative (technology) and brute strength (domination) of the individual pathfinder (CIA/special forces soliders) in adverse conditions (the other’s territory) and of a reliance on community (support of “the people”), wherein we team up (coordinate/coalition) to round up the animals (the resources) and circle the wagons (missile shield).

But do we know that the cowboy is not only a media manufactured glorified image? No, not the “Urban Cowboy”- the Texan oilman, the California corporate farmers or even the country-living Billy John or Joe– that superficial twangy sounding band of good-ole white boys, with their put-on, up-turned, wide brimmed hat and pointy-toe boots, who live in the outskirts of suburbia with a pickup truck and rifle racked on the rear window. We are already familiar with film characters associated with the forced “settlement” of the west– beginning with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and extending to John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood. They were created to entertain (for a profit) and help sell things. However, looking back before the robber barons and the railroads and the rise of the captains of industry, what do we know of cowboys then?

The real original “cowboys” were poor and downtrodden. They were African ex-slaves seeking to escape from persecution, and poor young white children. Nobody else wanted to do that dirty filthy, arduous, boring job of driving cattle up the Mississippi corridor to the industrializing urbanity of Chicago. And where did they learn the trade? It was the Gauchos from Mexico who developed cowboy culture- the style of hat and boots, and the skills of horsemen came from them. (Now we ostracize, exploit, murder them for crossing “our borders.”)

And horses? They were transplanted to North America from Europe in the days of the Spanish conquistadors in South America. (How ironic in this day of the new directional flow of globalization– the circle is complete.)

There always seems to be so much rich history and culture everywhere that the United States government and western media co-opts, usurps, corrupts and promotes for profit.

And that posse photo as propaganda… What does the cowboy figure represent? Is it good against evil? The racial stereotype of “Cowboys and Indians?” And what of Native Americans? Cowboys were the vigilantes, one of the tools used (in addition to the US government’s Cavalry) in the genocide of that great people that existed in the country. A culture that was open, harmonious and cherished nature, they were self- sustaining and had wonderful mythology and tradition. But they were weak compared to the onslaught of powerful forces seeking territory, equipped with barbed wire to wrap it in. Today the remaining few are relegated to the “badlands”, living in squalid conditions and tread upon constantly. Even their distant marginalized memory is simultaneously resurrected and abused by professional sports which continues to name sport franchises after disappeared aboriginal tribes like phantom ghosts.

Today, the Cowboy image represents a politically backward white American society that carries the confederate flag as its logo. It stands against social justice, ethnic minorities and progressive thinking. That is the connotation of that icon. In a posse, they are ever so much more frightful. Posse tribes of special ops forces hunting for whom?