I recently completed reading Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers, a compelling history of Texas’ more shameful episodes, that of James Fannin’s incompetence during the Texas Revolution at Presidio La Bahia near the town of Goliad. Slaughter at Goliad is written by Jay A. Stout, a retired U.S. Marine fighter pilot who flew thirty-seven combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. Stout’s concise book is as much a study in crisis leadership as it is an important summary of what is, to this day, regularly glossed over in the 7th Grade here in Texas. The story of James Fannin has historically been presented tersely as one of holy heroism in the face of a rapacious Mexican horde. To be sure, Fannin and his hapless command met their destiny at the hands of two of the most depraved men in Mexican history, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and General Jose Urrea. But Fannin has wrongly enjoyed a certain degree of ethereal veneration for his actions – or really inactions -- in March of 1836. He is subconsciously honored by the more bigoted Texas element as that brave Gringo who stood his ground and was ignominiously murdered for it. Most Texans hear “Goliad” and think “Remember Goliad” the same way they think “Remember the Alamo.”
But this book will change one’s battle cry. Stout’s excellent work served not just to feed my inner history nerd. It made me think more about the current political climate – but not in the Santa Obama sense.
President Obama doesn’t live rent-free in my head. He has been, without question, destructive, but I don’t sit around stewing about him and allowing myself to be afraid. And this is why Slaughter at Goliad has resonated so loudly in the political part of my brain. Narcissistic, disturbed tyrants don’t scare me near as much as arrogant, bumbling good guys. Tyrants, without fail, fall into the trap set by themselves (re: Qaddafi). Stout relates that an elderly Santa Ana spent his final days trying to recruit fighters to retake Mexico for him – in New York City! Instead, fools with self-righteous ideals but no skill can lead an entire nation off a cliff. Enter a certain type of fellow Republican.
I have been involved in political activism for over twenty five years. I have had the great adventure of being close to policymaking for thirteen years. I am sick and tired of my fellow Republicans who refuse to understand this great system our Founders gave us and which was copied by Fannin’s smarter contemporaries.
There is a strand of conservative out there, many TEA Party-linked, but many not, who would rather indulge their limited education and experiences, megalomania and idealistic fervor with the goal of parlaying such into the honor of being the most right of anybody. I am convinced that rather than move the ball forward incrementally, as our Founders designed, they would rather die the martyr’s death during a March Primary. This was the shameful lesson of James Fannin and the deaths of the more than 300 subordinates for which he was responsible.
Martyrdom only applies to saints who are individuals devoid of any selfishness, even when the presence of the Lord Jesus awaits then. Only the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s heart prior to death can accomplish this. If any ego or self-righteousness resides in a martyr’s heart, he or she is nothing more than a self-serving jihadist, I don’t care where they go to church. These are the false actions of legalists. Political activism is more about being right than it is about just, caring and humble. These people are Pharisees deserving of the rocks they are so eager to cast toward others (you can check my previous blogs to see that I would never decry those whose faith motivates their involvement in the public square. In fact, I enthusiastically cheer it. Who I’m talking about here are those who would rather be right than Republican).
And this is what must happen in 2012, through the primaries at every office level and down through the general: conservatives must reject faith-based motives that are legalistic. I'm not going to pretend to know what this looks like in public policy, but I’ve thought a lot about it. I think the correct interface between faith, public policy and government should be subjected to a single test: what makes the best citizen? Notice I said the “best.” This does not mean “righteous,” because only God can do that. And it most certainly does not mean “best” in such a way as to make me feel better knowing certain laws are on the books. If we utilize this test for our policies and candidates, conservatism will win every time (more on specific examples of this in later blogs). Legalism in public policy is completely counter to what our Founders envisioned, and it is poison on Election Day.
James Fannin was the illegitimate son of a prominent Georgian whose relatives had fought in the American Revolution. Trading on the family name, Fannin was able to secure a West Point admission, but his social obtuseness and the paternal chip on his shoulder prevented him from yielding to educators before and during his time at the Military Academy. As a cadet, he failed to complete the first year’s curriculum even when given two years to do so. For this, he was expelled. He later became a slave trader and made some fast money by selling human beings in pre-revolutionary Texas. From there, he got involved with the actions of the early fighters, including a successful foray which led to some notoriety alongside Jim Bowie when the pair helped capture San Antonio in late 1835.
But during the first three months of 1836, Fannin’s service would be self-promoting at best and grossly inept at worst. His total ignorance about military command, his fervor to earn the honor his illegitimacy denied him, and his pitiful inability to get along with others created a perfect storm of bad tactical decisions. This resulted in him and his small regiment being caught in the open, flat Texas prairie without water and adequate provisions by Mexican dragoons and soldados. This happened after abandoning the Presidio they had worked night and day to harden! Wounded and weak-minded, Fannin allowed himself to be deceived by an expert deceiver, General Jose Urrea, into capitulation. This was aided by the clumsy translations of a German national serving in the Mexican Army, Juan Jose Holzinger. A couple days later, Fannin was shot in the head at the orders of a mid-level colonel, Jose Portilla, who was afraid to defy Santa Anna when Gen. Urrea left Goliad to continue his campaign. That morning, Fannin’s motely command were marched out in three groups, shot, bayoneted, looted and left to be eaten by wild animals.
Ask yourself, is this any way to be satisfied that you did the right thing, that you held to your principles, whatever they are? Is this the badge of a “true conservative?” Fannin accomplished absolutely nothing but the death of himself and others who were badly needed elsewhere. The truth is that given the incredible freedom of our state and nation today, the power and discretion we as citizens have to address problems, and the resources of our state and nation to help others, a conservatism that is rooted in self-righteous legalism is shameful and pathetic.
Today we commemorate the millions of Americans who have made truly unselfish sacrifices all over the world. Remember Goliad because of our tendency toward vainglory.