The Power of Example: Lee Archer, Gays and the Military

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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 Times article 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.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons