Thursday, March 21, 2013

Heroes, Not Icons

From the time at which both elementary schools and high schools began requiring classes which included “the civil rights movement” and “African-American History,” the famous ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ have become familiar icons alongside Rosa Parks, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and a host of other famous Black Americans. But aside from the vague notion that these airmen were pilots in WWII, the typical student has no detailed understanding of what they actually did, despite the fact that both documentary films and a Hollywood movie have portrayed their exploits.

Historian William Percy provides insight into who the Tuskegee airmen were, and what they did; this knowledge can transform them from one-dimensional characters in a rehearsed civil rights narrative into the three- or four-dimensional historical individuals they actually were.

The “airmen” actually included commissioned officers, an important step for African-Americans in the Army (no separate Air Force existed until after WII). Their exemplary work in a ‘semi-integrated’ setting, as Percy calls it, gave the Air Corps a head start over the other branches of the military in achieving further integration. The Army itself had operated in a highly segregated manner since the administration of Woodrow Wilson; soldiers recruited from the South, who had already lived under ‘Jim Crow’ laws, were familiar with the system, but soldiers from the North – both white and black – were sometimes surprised by the system, having attended, e.g., the integrated high schools in many Northern cities. Having served and fought in ‘semi-integrated’ settings, returning to segregated Army bases in the U.S. was a rude awakening for some of the airmen.

Higher officers in the Army Air Force, the AAF, acknowledged the accomplishments of the Tuskegee units – the 99th Fighter Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group – but saw the integration of African-Americans into AAF as a wartime necessity or a political statement, and seemed willing to return to the segregated status quo antebellum.

One reason for the success of the 332nd was their leader, Colonel B.O. Davis, Jr.; he was a West Point graduate and was praised by his superiors, General Eaker and General Dean Strother. The airmen compiled an impressive record; measured by nearly any statistic – number of missions, number of enemy craft shot down, number of medals earned, etc. – they performed as well as, or better than, other units. The only criticism made of them was that they might have more aggressively pursued enemy fighter planes; but this criticism fails to consider the fact that, to make such pursuit, they would have had to leave the bombers which they were escorting, and giving escort was their assigned task at that moment. Thus it was that no bomber escorted by the Tuskegee pilots was ever shot down by enemy fire: this unique statistic is one of their main claims to fame.

Various specific anecdotes serve to illustrate the heroism for which these men became known. On a sixteen-hundred-mile raid to Berlin, bombers were to be accompanied by three different fighter groups: one group for the first third of the mission, another group for the second third, and a final group for the remainder of the flight. The Tuskegee pilots were assigned to the middle third, but when the final group of fighters failed to appear at the rendezvous point to takeover escort duty and relieve the Tuskegee pilots, the Tuskegee fighters continued protected the bombers for the remainder of the mission, including shooting down at least three ME-262 jet fighters, a feat which earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Among the white officers and white airmen of AAF, there were certainly some whose racists attitudes emoted a strong distaste for working with the ‘Negroes’ – the majority of white fliers, however, respected and appreciated the work of Black airmen and officers. High-ranking AAF officers, including even General “Hap” Arnold, visited the bases and praised the ‘Negro airmen.’ Aside from friendliness and praising the skill of the Black pilots, the crews of the American bombers realized that the Tuskegee airmen had saved their lives in many situations. When a bomber suffered either mechanical difficulties, or damage from enemy fire, and had to separate from the formation and return to its base alone, it was especially vulnerable to German fighters, and especially thankful for the protective escort of the Tuskegee fliers.

The 332nd Fighter Group was formed in January 1942 and arrived in Europe in January 1944. Initially, the 332nd was equipped with P-39 fighter which had inferior technical features, and the missions given to the 332nd were “boring, routine patrols.” Bombers needed protection, however, and the 332nd was re-tasked to escort them, was re-equipped with technically superior P-47 aircraft, and earned its fame protecting the vulnerable B-17 and B-24 bombers.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was older than the 332nd, having been founded in July 1941. The 99th trained at Tuskegee on a variety of non-combat ‘trainer’ aircraft – the BT-13 and the AT-6 – and was then equipped with P-40 fighters. The 99th arrived in Africa in April 1943. (The reader may recall a TV series from the 1960’s called “Rat Patrol” which captured the flavor of the North African Theater of combat.) After training briefly with the 27th Fighter Group, the 99th was assigned to the 33rd Fighter Group; the 99th was with the 33rd for only May and June of 1943. The officers of the 33rd alternated between ignoring the 99th and belittling it; while individual officers, and most of the airmen, of the 33rd were supportive of the 99th, the commander set a hostile tone. The 99th was reassigned to the 324th Fighter Group in June 1943. The 324th was somewhat better to the 99th; the intelligence officers of the 324th “fully credited the black squadron for its escort and ground-support missions over Sicily,” but the 324th seemed more puzzled than anything else at the African-American airmen, and largely ignored them, keeping them segregated and sending them on their own missions apart from the white squadrons. It was during this time, over Sicily, that the 99th got its first confirmed kill, and the highest officers visited the 99th to congratulate: General Eisenhower, General Doolittle, Air Vice Marshal Coningham of the RAF, and other superstars of air power. This demonstrated that the Tuskegee fliers were being supported and watched by the top-level officers, even if the mid-level officers seemed oblivious or antagonistic. (“Ike” Eisenhower also integrated ground troops during the Battle of the Bulge, long before President Truman’s postwar executive order to integrate the armed services.)

In July 1943, the 99th was reassigned back to the 33rd Fighter Group. This time, the 33rd was less hostile to the 99th; instead, the 33rd merely ignored the 99th. In October 1943, the 99th squadron was reassigned to join the 79th Fighter Group. Of the groups to which the 99th had belonged so far, the 79th was by far the best. The 99th was one of four squadrons in the group, and duties were assigned equally. In January 1994, the 99th had twelve confirmed kills in two days, establishing a level of performance comparable to any other unit. While with the 79th, the men of the 99th enjoyed a collegial and professional relationship with the white fighter pilots of the 79th’s other three squadrons; this marks a high point in race relations. Also while with the 79th, the 99th began upgrading to P-47’s to replace their P-40’s, a signal that highly-placed officers had confidence in the 99th and were investing in its future. In April 1944, the 99th was reassigned back to the 324th, were they were largely ignored by the white officers but continued to perform excellently, particularly in support of U.S. Army ground forces in Italy. In June 1944, the 99th was reassigned to the 86th Fighter Group. After June 1944, the 99th was assigned to the 332nd, where it would remain for the duration. With the 332nd, the 99th would have new duties as bomber escorts.

This dizzying summary of the 99th’s history and 332nd’s history suffices to demonstrate two points: first, that the Black pilots performed well; second, that some white officers were hostile and some were friendly. In any event, the Tuskegee fighter pilots certainly earned their places in the history books.

The value of William Percy’s article is this: it transforms vague icons into concrete data. References to “The Tuskegee Airmen” appear in every standard presentation about “the civil rights movement” and about “African-American History,” but remain merely imprecise allusions. It is a disservice to these warriors to allow them to remain icons; such symbols are instruments, carrying little meaning in themselves, and used for whatever goals various rhetoricians may choose. The Tuskegee Airmen were not merely symbols or metaphors, but rather real men, servicemen who saw combat. They are not merely tokens to be used in a game of civil-rights discourse; they protected their loved ones and their nation. Only a presentation of quantifiable and observable data, such as William Percy gives us, confirms that the Tuskegee pilots were and not merely figments in the imagination of some political leader who creates exhibitions and lectures for schoolchildren. The Tuskegee airmen were flesh-and-blood heroes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Second Amendment's Complex Details

The political debates surrounding the Second Amendment lead the reader into many obscure niches of legal history. As a part of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment was intended to do more than guarantee to the individual citizen "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." It is the prepositional phrase "of the people" which tells us that this right is for the individual private citizen. However, the same text also preserves for each of the states the right to maintain its own "well-ordered militia," separate from the army of the federal government.

America's military systems were once structured so that the bulk of the nation's military forces was maintained by the states in their own militias. The national government had sometimes a small army, but had also the ability to call the state militias into action. The nation's army consisted then primarily of the combination of state militias, and only secondarily of a standing federal army.

For this reason, then, the Second Amendment guards not only each citizen's right to "keep and bear," but also the right of each state to maintain its militia. Indeed, the federal government depended on each state not only having that right, but exercising it. As Adam Winkler writes in The Atlantic magazine,

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the "individual mandate" that has proved so controversial in President Obama's health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters — where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls.

A few years prior to the Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson wrote, while drafting the constitution for the state of Virginia,

No freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.

Jefferson worked through three drafts of the state's constitution, and each draft contained this line (with slight variations in wording). It was apparently important to him.

Although the immediate context of the Second Amendment was the struggle against England for independence, the text came into play at the close of the Civil War. At that time, two things were clear: blacks had gained their freedom, and blacks would not have an easy time keeping that freedom. Adam Winkler continues:

Indisputably, for much of American history, gun-control measures, like many other laws, were used to oppress African Americans. The South had long prohibited blacks, both slave and free, from owning guns. In the North, however, at the end of the Civil War, the Union army allowed soldiers of any color to take home their rifles. Even blacks who hadn’t served could buy guns in the North, amid the glut of firearms produced for the war. President Lincoln had promised a “new birth of freedom,” but many blacks knew that white Southerners were not going to go along easily with such a vision. As one freedman in Louisiana recalled, “I would say to every colored soldier, ‘Bring your gun home.’”

The history of gun-control legislation, i.e., the history of attempts to undermine the freedoms given by the Second Amendment, is rooted in post-Civil War racism. Recall that the war ended in 1865 - Lee surrender to Grant on April 9, and President Johnson declared the war ended on May 9. Between the war's end and Congress's vigorous reconstruction - often titled "Radical Reconstruction" in history books - in 1867, there was little protection for the civil rights of the newly-freed African Americans. Ex-slaves were at the mercy of the same local government who had opposed Lincoln, declared secession, and maintained the war effort.

During this time, Democratic Party officials in the South developed "Black Codes" - laws aimed at reducing the civil rights of blacks. This injustice would not be rectified until the Republican Party enacted three constitutional amendments - the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth - and sent federal observers into the South to verify compliance. This "Radical Reconstruction" beginning in 1867 was the Republican Party's effort to continue Abraham Lincoln's vision.

After losing the Civil War, Southern states quickly adopted the Black Codes, laws designed to reestablish white supremacy by dictating what the freedmen could and couldn't do. One common provision barred blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing black communities. In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had "seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen" in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan.

Attempting to address these injustices, before Congress organized the full-blown Radical Reconstruction, northern military officers occasionally intervened during the milder "presidential reconstructions" under Lincoln and during the first months of Johnson's presidency.

In response to the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen's constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns. General Daniel E. Sickles, the commanding Union officer enforcing Reconstruction in South Carolina, ordered in January 1866 that "the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed." When South Carolinians ignored Sickles's order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen's Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the "full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms."

It became clear to Congress that Second Amendment rights among blacks in the South needed to be protected. Between the KKK's illegal activities and the blind eye which local Democratic Party officials in the South turned toward the Klan's activities, the African-Americans needed "the right to keep and bear" in order to defend their civil rights.

That same year, Congress passed the nation’s first Civil Rights Act, which defined the freedmen as United States citizens and made it a federal offense to deprive them of their rights on the basis of race. Senator James Nye, a supporter of both laws, told his colleagues that the freedmen now had an "equal right to protection, and to keep and bear arms for self-defense." President Andrew Johnson vetoed both laws. Congress overrode the vetoes and eventually made Johnson the first president to be impeached.

In December 1865, Republican Congressman John Bingham of Ohio proposed the text that would become the Fourteenth Amendment. His co-sponsor, Republican Senator Jacob Howard from Michigan, presented the text in the Senate by reminding his colleagues that in preserving for blacks the "privileges or immunities of citizens," the text of the amendment kept "the right to keep and bear arms" for the ex-slaves:

the men behind the Fourteenth Amendment — America’s most sacred and significant civil-rights law — clearly believed that the right of individuals to have guns for self-defense was an essential element of citizenship. As the Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar has observed, "Between 1775 and 1866 the poster boy of arms morphed from the Concord minuteman to the Carolina freedman."

As the amendment progressed through the ratification process, and Congress's more assertive vision of reconstruction began to replace President Johnson's milder version,

The aggressive Southern effort to disarm the freedmen prompted a constitutional amendment to better protect their rights.

A century of civil rights progress - from the 1860's to the 1950's - was marred by setbacks during the Progressive Era, when Woodrow Wilson re-segregated federal departments, like the Post Office, which had been already integrated. Wilson also took steps to reduce black enrollments in the nation's universities. Recovering from these blows, African-Americans benefitted from the return to "normlacy" and by 1921, Presidents Harding and Coolidge supported blacks by introducing anti-lynching legislation in Congress, aimed at the state of affairs in the South.

As partial desegregation in the military during WWII continued the positive momentum, the stage was set for the emergence of a vigorous civil rights movement in the 1950's.

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as "an arsenal." William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recalls that, as a child, she saw her father organize local black men to patrol the streets of their Birmingham neighborhood. The men were armed as they patrolled. They protected their families this way. Rice recalls:

The way I come out of my own personal experience, in which in Birmingham, Ala., my father and his friends defended our community in 1962 and 1963 against White Knight Riders by going to the head of the community, the head of the cul-de-sac, and sitting there, armed. And so I'm very concerned about any abridgement of the Second Amendment.

Rice continues:

I also don't think we get to pick and choose from the Constitution. The Second Amendment is as important as the First Amendment.

The New York Times confirms:

Ms. Rice's fondness for the Second Amendment began while watching her father sit on the porch with a gun, ready to defend his family against the Klan’s night riders.

For Martin Luther King, for Condoleezza Rice, and for the black civil rights movement as a whole, Second Amendment rights were seen as vital. Carrying that notion forward by several decades,

in 2008, in a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the government cannot ever completely disarm the citizenry. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court clearly held, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to possess a gun. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court declared unconstitutional several provisions of the District's unusually strict gun-control law, including its ban on handguns and its prohibition of the use of long guns for self-defense. Indeed, under D.C.'s law, you could own a shotgun, but you could not use it to defend yourself against a rapist climbing through your bedroom window.

The court's ruling in this case muddies the water somewhat, inasmuch as there is a distinction to be made between firearms for self-defense against criminals, and for defense against violation of one's civil rights. The history of the Second Amendment shows that the latter is the stronger current in the narrative of American history.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

German Guns - American Freedom

America's war for independence including innovations in both technique and technology. Virtue, noble character, and leadership also played important roles - George Washington and Paul Revere exemplify this, as do the thousands of nameless Minutemen and militiamen.

The technology incorporated into rifles enabled snipers to shoot with accuracy from long distances. Rifles offered an advantage over an opponent armed with a musket or a blunderbuss, both of which were smoothbore weapons. Historian Thomas Sowell writes:

The Pennsylvania Dutch also developed a hunting rifle that was to play a very different role from that intended by these German pacifists. Unlike most European muskets of the time, German weapons had spiral grooves (called rifling) inside the barrel to produce greater accuracy. Some of these rifled muskets were brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants. Here they developed a new rifle, with a very elongated barrel for even greater accuracy. This product of German craftsmen in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was originally known as the Pennsylvania rifle. But it acquired fame in the hands of frontier sharpshooters like Daniel Boone and then became known as the "Kentucky Rifle." It later proved very effective in the guerrilla warfare used by Americans against the British during the Revolutionary War.

As the bullet spun, the axis of its spinning was also its flight-path, and the gyroscopic effect keeps the lead ball flying in something very close to a straight line. Projectiles from smoothbore weapons deviate more to the right or left. Historian Geoffrey Norman writes:

The rifled musket was, indeed, a game-changer in the American Revolution, even if it was not quite as decisive as some have made it out to be. American gunsmiths were not the first to cut grooves into the barrel of a musket, thus putting spin to the lead ball it shot. The spin imparted stability to the ball in flight and improved accuracy over the smoothbore by orders of magnitude. German gunsmiths were the first to employ the technique. German immigrants brought it with them to the New World and made the refinements and improvements that became the Pennsylvania (or Kentucky) long rifle and so famously knocked General Simon Fraser out of the saddle at Saratoga and, a few years later, dropped rank after rank of British troops carrying smoothbores that left them outranged and vulnerable to Andrew Jackson’s men at New Orleans. As usual, the British were brave but slow to learn.

The Americans seemed to incorporate rifles into some of their units quicker than the English, and combined with guerrilla tactics, allowed a small number of Americans to effectively harass larger British armies. (The word 'guerrilla' wouldn't be used until later - when Napoleon invaded Spain - but the Americans had effectively conceptualized the technique.) The British army would eventually shirt to large-scale use of the rifle, but only after the United States had won independence.