Lt. Col. Lee A. Archer died last week at the age of 90. Although his name is hardly a household word, he was notable as a Tuskeegee Airman and the the only black fighter pilot ace (an "ace" being a pilot who shoots down at least five enemy aircraft) to come out of World War II. In his later life, he became a vice president of General Foods and a venture capitalist.
For anyone not familiar with who the Tuskeegee Airmen were: at the beginning of WWII, the military was segregated and blacks were not allowed to be pilots. Indeed, a War Department study in 1925 concluded that "Negroes" didn't have the intelligence, character, or leadership to be in combat units, including pilot roles. The Tuskeegee Airmen were formed to test (and some hoped, to prove) that theory. Their name came from the fact that they were trained in and around Tuskeegee, Alabama.
To the surprise of many, the Tuskeegee Airmen, especially the "Red Tail" P-51 Mustang pilots who escorted bombers in North Africa and Europe, performed exceedingly well. For many years, it was believed that not a single bomber was ever lost on their patrol--an achievement not unrelated to the fact that only one of the Tuskeegee Airmen ever became a combat ace.
Apparently, as numerous Tuskeegee Airmen have related to me, their commanders instilled in them a strict focus on their primary mission. They were to bring the bomber crews home alive. And that meant staying with the bombers, not going chasing after dogfights and combat glory. The group's perfect record has recently been questioned, but nobody argues that very few bombers were lost when escorted by the "Red Tails"--a feat especially notable given that bomber squadrons sometimes lost as many as half their number on missions.
Bomber pilots who objected to integrating the service began to rethink their objections when it became clear that their chances of getting home went up when they saw red-tailed Mustangs pulling up in formation. Skin color becomes secondary when the person in question is keeping you alive in a combat situation. The performance of the Tuskeegee Airmen was also a factor in Harry Truman's decision to desegregate the military in 1948.
Interestingly enough, the same dynamic seems to be playing out now, as President Obama sets his sights on overturning the notorious "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy about gays serving in the military. In a New York Timesarticle on Monday discussing some of factors leading to President Obama's State of the Union declaration to overturn the law this year, an interesting statistic emerged. A 2006 Zogby International poll of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan found that "three quarters were comfortable serving around gay service members." But a 2008 Military Times poll of "largely older" subscribers showed that 58 percent objected to lifting the ban.
There are undoubtedly numerous factors at play. Personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are necessarily younger, and may be more comfortable with gay colleagues in general. And they've already experienced the incorporation of women into combat units without seeing effectiveness destroyed. But they are also seeing comrades they suspect (or know) are gay performing with distinction next to them in battle situations. In foxholes, there are not only no atheists, there are apparently a lot fewer bigots.
(For a really good primer on the history of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: an analysis of the arguments, pro and con, of overturning it, the difficulty of overturning it--the policy now requires an act of Congress, thanks to Congressional objection to Clinton's attempt to end the ban on gays by executive order in 1993--and the real costs of continuing the policy, check out this article by Colonel Om Prakash in the fall issue of the Joint Force Quarterly. An award-winning essay.)
The question of how people's minds and attitudes change is a complex one. Intellectual argument itself is clearly not sufficient. But the history of the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the changing attitudes among military personnel currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan about gay service personnel, certainly seems to argue for the power of example. Once the members of a group we view as incapable of performing a particular job well, or without negative consequences, show us otherwise by example rather than argument, our biases and objections begin to dissipate. Especially in the high-stakes world of combat, where the consequence for choosing bias over competence can be your life.
But if that's true--if some of the strongest forces of persuasion and change are familiarity, example and experience--then it also presents something of a conundrum. If a group is excluded or hampered--overtly or subtly--from serving in the military or any other profession, how can they ever provide the example and experience that, in the end, is perhaps necessary to change minds enough to allow them in? It's a strong argument for affirmative action--a policy that, while imperfect, provides a means by which minority groups can gain enough numbers in resistant populations to show, by example, that resistance isn't necessary.
That the Tuskeegee Airmen and other black soldiers who served in WWII convinced Truman to integrate the armed services, but still returned home to a country that discriminated against them as much as ever, argues, perhaps, for the power of the foxhole. If every citizen in America had had the experience of the bomber pilots brought home alive by Tuskeegee Airmen, civil rights legislation would probably have passed much sooner.
In that sense, gays in the military have an advantage over the blacks who served in WWII. The majority of Americans are now aligned with the combat troops when it comes to the acceptability of gay service members. Now it's just the law that's out of step.
FEMA Director Craig Fugate on why the Katrina response failed, why it’s important to talk about “survivors” instead of “victims,” and why citizens can’t just wait for the government to save them in a huge disaster
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
Fractured by internal conflict and foreign intervention for centuries, Afghanistan made several tentative steps toward modernization in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle, while trying to maintain a respect for more conservative factions. Though officially a neutral nation, Afghanistan was courted and influenced by the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, accepting Soviet machinery and weapons, and U.S. financial aid. This time was a brief, relatively peaceful era, when modern buildings were constructed in Kabul alongside older traditional mud structures, when burqas became optional for a time, and the country appeared to be on a path toward a more open, prosperous society. Progress was halted in the 1970s, as a series of bloody coups, invasions, and civil wars began, continuing to this day, reversing almost all of the steps toward modernization taken in the 50s and 60s. Keep in mind, when looking at these images, that the average life expectancy for Afghans born in 1960 was 31, so the vast majority of those pictured have likely passed on since.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
What do Google's trippy neural network-generated images tell us about the human mind?
When a collection of artificial brains at Google began generating psychedelic images from otherwise ordinary photos, engineers compared what they saw to dreamscapes. They named their image-generation technique Inceptionism and called the code used to power it Deep Dream.
But many of the people who saw the images reacted the same way: These things didn’t come from a dream world. They came from an acid trip.
The computer-made images feature scrolls of color, swirling lines, stretched faces, floating eyeballs, and uneasy waves of shadow and light. The machines seemed to be hallucinating, and in a way that appeared uncannily human.
The idea behind the project was to test the extent to which a neural network had learned to recognize various animals and landscapes by asking the computer to describe what it saw. So, instead of just showing a computer a picture of a tree and saying, "tell me what this is," engineers would show the computer an image and say, "enhance whatever it is you see."
How the Islamic State uses economic persecution as a recruitment tactic
Before Islamic State militants overran her hometown of Mosul in June 2014, Fahima Omar ran a hairdressing salon. But ISIS gunmen made Omar close her business—and lose her only source of income. Salons like hers encouraged “debauchery,” the militants said.
Omar is one of many business owners—male and female—who say ISIS has forced them to shut up shop and lose their livelihoods in the process. The extremist group has also prevented those who refuse to join it from finding jobs, and has imposed heavy taxes on civilians.
“ISIS controls every detail of the economy,” says Abu Mujahed, who fled with his family from ISIS-controlled Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria. “Only their people or those who swear allegiance to them have a good life.” When they took over Deir al-Zor, ISIS gunmen systematically took control of the local economy, looting factories and confiscating properties, says Mujahed. Then they moved in, taking over local business networks.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”