'It Had Been Alive': An Essay on Guns

A Marine and CIA agent explains why he has had enough.
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John Stockwell is a Marine and former CIA agent, known for (among other things) his book In Search of Enemies.

He sent this message about why he, as a person well familiar with guns and shooting, no longer had any stomach for them. For reasons I will describe at the end, this resonated with me. John Stockwell writes:
I was around guns much of my life. Grew up in the Congo, hunting.  Marine Corps recon, professional training and use. CIA paramilitary, more training and use. Three wars: upcountry in Vietnam I had a bunker full of exotic weapons that had been collected over a ten-year period but were not on the inventory and could not be taken home by our military when they left -- we'd take them out and fire them every week; we carried guns everywhere we went, again upcountry just a few miles from the enemy's battalions; then in the Angola War I hired and organized three bands of professional mercenaries, killers by definition. 

In the consulate in the Katanga I had an impressive collection, bought out the weapons of the retiring elephant hunter. And I hunted. And at the family ranch in South Texas I hunted deer and javelinas.  

Then I lost all interest in hunting. I killed a beautiful animal and looked at the carcass thinking how much more beautiful it had been alive. I shot a bird and had the same feeling. Both dead so I could have the dubious Freudian pleasure of pulling a trigger and killing them.

The Katanga had been flush beautiful wildlife; it had been alive, the hills crawling with beautiful animals.  Then came independence and arms turned over to the new armies.  And our war in the Katanga (JFK/CIA), thousands of modern semiautomatic and automatic weapons left in the hands of our disbanded army, and the animals were broadly exterminated, the rolling plains were lifeless--we could drive all day and not see an animal.

In Burundi, where I served, President Micombero got himself a helicopter. Began flying around the shores of Lake Tanganyika machine-gunning hippopotamuses in the water.

 Recalling as a boy in the Congo driving with my father in a truck across the plains area.  We came on a Belgian who had been hunting all day, had a camera, wanted my father to take a picture of him with his trophies. He stood with his gun and his foot on a pile of 26 heads of little gazelles he had killed. In later years we drove through the same plains, and never ever saw another antelope.

 Even here in Austin, we are retired across the street from a lovely quiet park on the river. I walk my dog. Talk to the squirrels - - they sit on limbs not far above my head. Then one morning I found my neighbor down in the park with his son and a 22, killing the squirrels to "teach his son how to hunt." I pleasantly explained to him that he could teach his son how to enjoy live animals, that the squirrels he had killed were gone, dead. (He won-- the park no longer has any squirrels.)
Here is the part that connected with me, and that has kept me from giving the standard "I love to hunt, but ..." preface to discussions about gun policy. When I was a Boy Scout long ago, learning to shoot was part of the drill. One time I was out in the canyon and, with our scoutmaster, we were shooting at rabbits. I shot one, and then it was dead. And I thought, I never want to do that again.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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