A Brief Review of Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers

“…the sense of history hangs like heavy smoke.”
-Swanson, p. 396

By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated PG)

NB: Cult of Glory was recommended to me by a Texas Ranger, a long-time friend and an honorable man, who was interviewed for this book. 

Mr. Swanson began writing this book several years ago and it was published early this year; it is not a fashionable pile-on of law enforcement.

If today you find yourself in the company of Texas Rangers, no matter who you are, you know that truth and justice will prevail.

But it was not always so, and that is the thesis of Doug J. Swanson’s disturbing but well-documented book, Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers (New York: Viking, 2020).  In a time when the concept of research is a casual “You could look it up,” which means uncritically accepting the first search response that shimmers before one’s eyes on the InterGossip, Mr. Swanson labored for years through physical files of crumbling reports, numerous unpublished first-person narratives, newspaper files, audio files, newsreels, news reports, and personal interviews.

The bibliography runs to seven pages in tiny print, with a professional mix of primary and secondary sources, including some fifteen books published in the 19th century, dozens more published in the 20th and 21st, scholarly works of collected interviews and narratives, and a flavoring of popular works, including movies.

However, despite the consistent excellence of research, conclusions, and presentation, an inexplicable error obtains, the populist concept that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers do little but write traffic tickets. The DPS are our state police, and they enforce the people’s laws in a variety of services and programs (https://www.dps.texas.gov/). That most of us encounter DPS troopers only through the occasional “Sir, you were doing 75 in a 65 zone…” moment is to fail to understand their many missions.

I am advised that the first two women Rangers (p. 398) were not in “clerical positions” in the DPS. They were both sergeants specializing in criminal law enforcement. One had earned a master’s degree before promotion and is now a PhD.

Beyond the metaphorical and sometimes literal legwork, the next challenge in writing history is sorting out the veracity of sources. No one has ever chosen to tell the complete truth about himself (the pronoun is gender-neutral) in an autobiography, which includes letters and interviews. There is also the reality of perception: if ten people witness an accident or a crime, none of them, even if all are determined to be objective, will agree on exactly what happened.

As St. Thomas More is said to have said, “I have no window with which to look into another man’s soul.” Given that caveat, it appears that Mr. Swanson has worked out his research far better than most writers, and has written an accessible, fascinating, and honest book which we should read neither defensively in protection of one of our cultural myths nor judgmentally in smug triumphalism for propaganda purposes, but in humility. 

Everyone whose education and thoughtful personal reading consists of more than chanting “Learn. To. Code.” is aware of the reality that history is violent and that borders are where nationalities and cultures meet and fight. Such conflicts, after all, are much of the Old Testament. The Scotch and English borderers were as mindlessly bloody as any of the armies, outlaws, guerrillas, and, yes, Rangers along the Rio Grande.  European wars have almost always been predicated on who owned what useless bog, and, as for that line from Stettin to Trieste that Churchill noted 80 years ago, it’s still a mess. We also have Russia and Finland, China and Taiwan, China and Viet-Nam, China and India, Poland and the Czech Republic, Serbia and Croatia and Bosnia in a three-way hissy-fit, the continued occupation of Constantinople by Turks, and on and on.

Even the purportedly friendliest border in the world is a two-hundred year narrative of fighting: Americans have invaded Canada at least seven times (https://www.history.com/news/7-times-the-u-s-canada-border-wasnt-so-peaceful), and the British who burned our capital in 1814 were Canadian colonial troops. Admittedly this was in reprisal for Americans burning York (now Toronto).  

Maybe we could work it out over a cuppa at a Tim Horton’s, eh.

No culture, then, can in good conscience be prissy about border wars.  But the reader must be warned that the Rangers’ rough riding in our border wars makes for rough reading now.

The narrative becomes even more painful after the Civil War and well into the 20th century, when some of the various manifestations of the Rangers (there was no consistent organization until 1957) often deteriorated into genocide, banditry, land theft, official oppression, murder, false testimony, and hired thuggery even while fighting others who were also practicing genocide (the Comanches were not merry young fellows out for a lark).  Swanson argues that some of the Rangers’ enormities not only prolonged wars and hostility but sometimes generated them through unwarranted attacks on mostly (not always) peaceful groups such as the Apache and the exiled Kickapoo. Further, the Mexican population along the border seems to have had little connection with or trust in either Mexico City or Austin, preferring to be left alone, and were pushed into resistance through the violence of Ranger bands acting out the Anglo-ascendancy arrogance of the times.  In East Texas, prosperous, patriotic, and industrious African-American communities and towns were subjected to pogroms by resentful whites, and the Rangers of that era were complicit in their failure to defend their fellow Texans.

Texas history is not a John Wayne movie, with the goodies and the baddies neatly sorted out.

One of the more interesting parts (with fewer corpses) in the book about recent history is the Lyndon Johnson-Josefa Johnson-John Douglas Kinser-Mac Wallace-Henry Marshall-Hattie Valdez-Billy Sol Estes-FBI-Texas Rangers continuum in Chapter 20, complete with a county judge ruling that Henry Marshall committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest five times with a bolt-action rifle.

And let us not forget the absurdity of our throw-grandmama-from-the-train lieutenant-governor, Dan Patrick, nee Dannie Scott Goeb, in demanding that the Rangers solve a locker-room theft. In the event the theft was solved by Mexican police because, in that fine old Texas tradition, the miscreant fled across the Rio Grande / Rio Bravo to Mexico.  But we can be sure that the Rangers were happy to be pulled from such frivolous matters as murders and drug cartels in order to serve in the cause of a man separated from one of his shirts.

Mr. Swanson has done us and the Texas Rangers great service, and he has helped greatly not only in our understanding of Texas history but in our understanding of the histories of nations and peoples in conflict.

For our immediate purposes, it is good to know that if today you find yourself in the company of Texas Rangers, no matter who you are, you know that truth and justice will prevail.


(pp. 395-396).

Image copyright Viking Publishing Company.

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