Do We Need “Rough Men”?

I came across this quote the other day on social media:

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand read to do violence on their behalf.

It was attributed to George Orwell, but it probably won’t surprise readers to learn that it was actually said by a right-wing cultural columnist named Richard Grenier. A look at a Wikipedia page on misquotations and a site called Quote Investigator suggests that it is a paraphrase of some ideas Orwell expressed.

Regardless of who actually said those words, I think the general sentiment is widely shared by a large number of people. I recall it being an underlying point in the many spy thrillers I read back when I was in high school (Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and even Ian Fleming, plus others who were big in the 1960s and later).

It’s also something you hear from police officers and people in the military. I think it has a strong following, particularly – but not exclusively – among men, regardless of their political opinions.

Back when I was in my early 20s, I had a discussion with a good friend who was a Vietnam War vet. I stated my strong opinion that the fact that the draft only applied to men led to increased sexism and that women could and should serve in combat if military action was necessary.

To my surprise – I didn’t expect a lot of push back from my friends for my radical opinions in those days – he disagreed vehemently.

Twenty years later, he explained to me that one of the things that he held onto for a long time that let him tolerate his miserable war experience was that at least he was protecting others from having to do it. He had by then thought the subject through more deeply.

The sentiment makes sense, in our violent world, but on the whole I think it’s a myth that many people, like my friend, tell themselves to deal with the trauma of the horrors of war or other violent actions.

In truth, one of the key things that makes us safe is that some people – and sometimes enough of them – stand up against various kinds of injustice.

This is dangerous. People are killed for taking such stands – think about all the Black people lynched for even small such acts – and many others end up in prison or unable to get a job or otherwise pushed aside to suffer.

But this, like much of nonviolent civil resistance, is the kind of action that pays off in the long term. This is what brings about the change we need.

Now I know there are violent people in the world, and all too many of them are willing to attack ordinary people to get their way. We are rather fortunate that the ones who attacked the U.S. Congress on January 6, 2021, were mostly incompetent, but they still caused deaths.

And yes, brave officers of the Capitol Police did protect the members of Congress who were under attack.

But on the whole, I haven’t noticed that the heavily armed people who are supposed to protect us are doing a very good job of it. We have mass shootings of various kinds – many of them right-wing terrorism, though some just people who think killing will solve their problems – and very little seems to stop them.

The murder of so many young children in Uvalde, Texas, is a particularly awful example of no one doing what was necessary to protect. The supposed “rough men” showed up on the scene and waited while the killer rampaged through the school.

Of course, we still have wars, some of them outrageous invasions that must be resisted with  violence. There might be other ways of stopping them, but the United Nations is a very weak organization because so many fear “world government.”

I’m pretty sure that people who live in war-torn countries who aren’t on the front lines are not sleeping well in their beds at night even if the soldiers on their side are doing terrible things to protect them.

We human beings are not yet civilized.

One step toward becoming civilized would be to question our many myths about violence.

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