A brief discussion of the old TV western Bat Masterson, and westerns of that era in general, has been taking place on the LRC blog. Lew Rockwell was disturbed to find that a program of which he had fond memories actually perpetuated the myths of the noble Yankee white man and the ignorant, savage red man, while Ryan McMaken pointed out that the western myths had the added effect of increasing the public’s acceptance of a large, centralized, corporate state. Thus did the discussion end largely in despair of finding a western series with which libertarians can be comfortable.
I hereby nominate for the most libertarian-friendly western TV series not a stalwart, deadly serious, white-hats-versus-black-hats drama like Gunsmoke but the 1965—67 situation comedy F Troop.
Now it might seem odd to suggest a series in which the central characters are, for the most part, members of the United States Army as a libertarian’s dream. However, when one considers the particulars of the show, it becomes obvious that, as is often the case, comedy can tell the truth which drama shrinks from bringing to light.
First of all, the men of F Troop are a miserable lot of lazy bumblers, exactly the sort of people who in real life couldn’t be employed anywhere except on the federal gravy train. Stationed at Fort Courage (the last word that could be used to describe the soldiers therein), Kansas, they include the exceptionally myopic lookout, Vanderbilt; the over-the-hill and slightly senile Duffy; the overweight immigrant Hoffenmueller; the eager but far from musically inclined young bugler, Dobbs; and the scheming Sgt. Morgan O’Rourke (played by Forrest Tucker) and his rather dim sidekick and partner in crime, Cpl. Randolph Agarn (Larry Storch). O’Rourke and Agarn are forever scheming to make money off the taxpayers’ backs, ordering more supplies than necessary and diverting the excess to their own profitable ventures, including the local saloon. The commanding officer of F Troop is Capt. Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), a clumsy but well-meaning sort who accidentally continues his family’s tradition of military heroism by sneezing in the midst of a retreat during a Civil War battle. His sneeze is misinterpreted as a command to charge, and the troops reverse direction and win the battle for the Union. (Okay, so this one thing makes him less than a hero to most LRC readers, but since it was an accident, I’m willing to cut him some slack.) His "reward" is to take command of Fort Courage.
Now I ask you: Where else in popular culture could you find a more accurate portrayal of how the federal government, including its military, actually operates? People who couldn’t find work in the private sector get sinecures on the government payroll and then do their level best to extract as much as they can out of the taxpayer, while the people in charge are incompetent dolts who would be just as useless in the private sector as their subordinates.
Whereas Gen. Sheridan, much to Lew’s dismay, was featured positively in Bat Masterson, Gen. Custer fares much more poorly in F Troop. In the episode "Old Ironpants," Capt. Parmenter attends an officers’ training school run by Custer. Upon his return to Fort Courage, accompanied by Custer, he bids the general adieu with the parting comment, "Good luck on your new assignment at Little Big Horn." Meanwhile, Parmenter has been transformed into a Custer clone, complete with goatee. He proceeds to treat everyone in Fort Courage like dirt, drilling the men to death and even trying to have his erstwhile girlfriend, Wrangler Jane (Melody Patterson), arrested for the mere act of being friendly and speaking to him. (When O’Rourke tells Parmenter that he can’t arrest Jane because she’s a civilian, the captain replies, "Then draft her. Then arrest her.") The men and Jane have to "un-Custer" him in order to be treated like human beings again.
Now that’s how to portray a mass murdering general — as a man who considers his own soldiers worthless objects that are beneath his dignity and entirely expendable. No wonder he had no trouble slaughtering Indians by the score (when they didn’t get him first) and ordering his men on to certain death! As far as he was concerned, only one person, himself, and only one cause, the glory of the U.S. government, mattered. It certainly beats the glorification of Sheridan on Bat Masterson.
Finally, and probably unwittingly, F Troop demonstrates the glories of capitalism. Wrangler Jane, one of the most kindhearted and good-natured characters on the show, runs the local general store. O’Rourke and Agarn, for all their faults in skimming from the army for their own gain, run a profitable business in partnership with the local Indian tribe, the Hekawis. The Hekawis, while comic figures just as the soldiers are, are treated with a great deal of respect by their business partners, who often come to them for help. Best of all, it is precisely this partnership that keeps the relationship between the white man and the red man peaceful — not that the Hekawis seem particularly eager to fight, but it doesn’t hurt that they stand to lose substantial cash if they disrupt the relationship. For example, in one episode Don Rickles guest stars as Bald Eagle, the renegade son of Hekawi Chief Wild Eagle. When he asks Wild Eagle if he will lead the Hekawis in an attack on the fort, Wild Eagle replies, "Not during big end-of-month sale." Thus we see that trade is a powerful deterrent to armed hostilities.
So let’s hear it for the men (and woman) of Fort Courage! In their own highly comedic ways — and F Troop, as far as I am concerned, is one of the funniest TV series ever, especially in its first season — they show us the bad, the ugly, and the just plain inept of government and the good of free markets and respect for individuals, whether soldiers, civilians, or "Indians."
Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.