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An Unhealthy Adaptation:
What Cozzens’ Guard of Honor Tells Us About Race & the US Government

3,347 words [1]

James Gould Cozzens
Guard of Honor [2]
New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1948

After some prodding, I was finally persuaded by a friend to read Guard of Honor, a book about military life by James Gould Cozzens. Cozzens was a member of the American WASP elite and was descended from one the governors of Rhode Island during the Civil War. During the Second World War, Cozzens worked at the Pentagon for Army Air Force (the predecessor to the present-day Air Force) commander “Hap” Arnold as a Public Affairs officer, holding the rank of Major. The book has the ring of truth, and it feels like Cozzens condensed and packaged his experiences in managing spin for the AAF’s embarrassing episodes in this book. In the 1950s, Guard of Honor was expected to become the definitive novel about the Second World War; nevertheless, Cozzens is mostly forgotten today. Cozzens’s literary reputation was subjected to a hit job [3] in the American Jewish Committee’s Commentary magazine.

Guard of Honor takes place over a weekend at an Army Air Force base. The problem that gets the plot moving is a highly believable racial fracas. An all-black crew of a B-26 medium bomber nearly causes a collision by failing to follow proper landing procedures as two planes are landing at the fictional Ocanara Air Field in Florida.[1] After the mishap, one of the black pilots is sucker-punched by a hot-headed white pilot on the airstrip. This sets in motion a series of crises on the base, culminating in an integration incident. Cozzens is probably writing about an actual incident – an incident when the black officers of the 477th Bombardment Group (Colored) attempted to integrate an Officer’s Club at Freeman Field, Indiana in 1945. The affair was an embarrassment to the Army Air Force, and no doubt Cozzens managed its spin. The 477th Bombardment Group never became operationally ready.

There are two stories here, the first and most important being the racial story mentioned above. The second is the story of a large, complex organization being run by frail humans. The truth is, military service is mostly camp life. It is based on routine; its leaders keep things down to a dull roar. Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) handle those men who’ve gotten too drunk. Officers deal with legal issues and come up with training exercises to keep the men busy.

Then there is the military service that is bigger than the tactical units, what is sometimes called “echelons above reality.” These are the headquarters, directorates, and bureaus of all sorts where funding connects with procurement policies, and where resources like aircraft get moved from the control of one base to another. In this world, high-ranking civilian bureaucrats argue with high-ranking military men, and insecure senior officers bicker over trifles due to slights incurred years previously. Local politicians and businessmen rub shoulders with the base commander.

Navigating this intricate web is a chore of managing big egos, managing people with wildly different goals and capabilities, and staying within the regulations, while getting surprisingly little done. Cozzens ably paints the picture of such complexity. It is so close to reality that a person who’d worked in such an environment can find Guard of Honor boring.

Does his work speak only to the time in which he wrote it, as they say?

During his life, James Gould Cozzens was a superstar novelist. His books sold in the thousands. However, time has not been kind to Cozzens and his literary reputation. Long ago he disappeared from the top ranks of novelists, and his works aren’t taught in schools today. One reviewer speculates [4] that his writing is only particular to the times in which he wrote.

Does Cozzens’ description of a fictional, but realistic, incident on a fictional, but realistic, Second World War-era airbase still contain any useful lessons for today?

My conclusion is that Cozzens still applies to modern conditions. Segregation as the focus of black agitation is certainly no longer applicable, but there are equally disruptive and novel ways for Negroes to agitate, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Due to integration, there are no longer large numbers of blacks bumbling their way through American bases that are on a wartime footing. The real, childlike jammin’ and jivin’ antics that the blacks of the 477th Bombardment Group (Colored) must have been met with silent incredulousness on the part of the white aviators assigned to the same airfield. There was probably plenty of white resentment that such a feel-good project could soak up so many resources while at the same time being an easily predictable failure. Today, such a unit wouldn’t exist, and the problem has mutated into diffused and desegregated form.[2]

Where Cozzens remains relevant, and probably what he was really trying to say in Guard of Honor, is when he shows how dealing with racial problems soaks up a great deal of the efforts of senior US government officials. Racial problems have a way of getting out of hand very quickly. An argument over a close call between white and colored aircrews can grow into a major disaster for race-relations at an airbase and its surrounding community. In the same way that malaria has led to genetic adaptations in humans that are unhealthy,[3] is it possible that large, complex organizations in the American military and government have unhealthily adapted to racial problems?

There is probably no way to really know in a precise, scientific way, but there are strong indications that this could be the case. News of racial problems at any American airbase will inevitably bring sanctimonious reporters, a delegation of angry Congressmen, and cause headaches for the National Command Authority. Preventing this unwanted attention and embarrassment is sure to cloud the minds of not just senior military leaders, but even the newly-commissioned subalterns. One can conclude that preventing racial problems creates two negative adaptations. First, government officials are so wrapped up with becalming Negro agitation that they don’t have the time to formulate sound strategy. Second, senior government officials rise to the top who have no problem with making decisions based on assumptions that are obviously untrue, phony statistics, and utopian declarations.

Poor strategic decisions

When Guard of Honor was published in 1948, American strategy was in flux, and in retrospect, it is clear that good strategic ideas didn’t win out overall. That failing led to two tragic wars. In his position at the Pentagon, Cozzens could have seen the strategy gap and written about the issues brewing in Korea and Vietnam. He could have written a book about a mid-grade OSS officer concerned with American policy in French Indochina. He could have written the tale of an experienced and far-sighted State Department official trying to improve America’s South Korean policy and prevent war in, say, 1946.[4] Instead, his tale is about how a racial incident consumes the mental resources of the leadership of a Florida airfield.

The wars in Korea and Vietnam grew, it least in part, due to a lack of strategic thinking about the region on the part of American government officials in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Cozzens shows in Guard of Honor that keeping one eye open for racial explosions on the part of black agitators meant that there was less of an effort being made on strategic matters.[5]

In the years since the Korean and Vietnamese debacles, American strategic policy is still lacking. America was completely stumped by the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The US government’s response to the Arab Spring has been a disaster. The Libya intervention of 2011 was a sad misadventure. They have no new ideas about what to do with NATO’s old, but troublesome member, Turkey. Why go to war for the aspirations of Turks, whose only cultural accomplishment is street crime in Germany? US policymakers haven’t even begun to think about out how to disengage from the Korean Civil War. Americans are still supporting and defending Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that is the number one supporter of radical Islamist philosophy and aggression.

Finally, managing racial problems most certainly damaged Hillary Clinton’s ability to formulate an economic strategy. “If,” she said at a campaign rally [5], “we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” Hillary Clinton’s quote perfectly sums up the problem. The Democrats must watch their Negro agitation flank, but doing so means that they can’t come up with any economic reforms.

Misreading evidence, or ‘When we act, we create our own reality . . .’

The other maladaptation is that senior government officials so often misread evidence that their mistakes lead to disasters. Remember, all sorts of “Southern racists” and “bigots” felt integration was a bad idea. The anti-“Civil Rights” faction’s logical arguments against “Civil Rights” weren’t defeated in the 1960s by opposing logical arguments. Instead, senior government officials and members of the press, clergy, and academia simply insulted anyone who did not endorse the “Civil Rights” program and ignored any evidence of desegregation’s failures. No careers have been damaged by ignoring the failures of “Civil Rights.” If one can ignore that, one can ignore or misread the data about anything.

In more recent times, President George W. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove demonstrated this phenomenon when he claimed [6] that the Bush Administration was able to “create their own reality.” There is a pattern to this behavior. In 1982, General William Westmoreland sued CBS for libel. In a documentary called The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception [7], CBS reporters had discovered that General Westmoreland was undercounting the number of enemy forces in Vietnam to give a rosier picture of his progress. He was “creating his own reality.” Before one leaps to a defense of the General from the “lying press,” it is likely that Westmoreland had been doing such things for years. Indeed, one can make a case that General Westmorland was involved in self-deception.

One historian writes, “William C. Westmoreland boasted that when he commanded the 101st Airborne Division, he imposed rigorous quotas for maintenance: ‘If a man couldn’t repair an appropriate number of trucks, we concluded that he was malassigned. We would put a rifle on his shoulder and get another man who had the aptitude to produce.’ He required any unit failing to meet its quotas to work on weekends; he claimed that this so motivated his maintenance staff that he boosted production and could return temporarily assigned workers to their posts. Yet shortly after he left the division, an exercise revealed that twenty-two of the twenty-four vehicles involved had extensive axle damage, some of it dating back over a year. Clearly Westmoreland’s mechanics, and their officer, had been less than honest in their reporting, deceiving even the micromanaging general about the true state of his division’s equipment, and the influence of his leadership.”[6]

Westmoreland was one of the top senior leaders of the US Army from the end of the Korean War until the end of the Vietnam War. At this time, the US Army was integrated, and race problems increased in intensity until, by the early 1970s, the matter was coming to a head. Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., in his classic article about the state of the military at the end of the Vietnam War, wrote [8] that, “Racial conflicts (most but not all sparked by young black enlisted men) are erupting murderously in all services. At a recent high commanders’ conference, General Westmoreland and other senior generals heard the report from Germany that in many units white soldiers are now afraid to enter barracks alone at night for fear of ‘head-hunting’ ambushes by blacks.” Although the senior military officers held a conference about the problem, General Westmoreland never offered suggestions regarding a solution to future officers. This author can only conclude that Westmoreland rose to the top, in part, by not addressing, pointing out, or otherwise dealing with the ever-present threat of Negro agitation and crime. The political class had bought the “Civil Rights” story, and he simply deceived himself and the politicians regarding a military internal matter. In developing his ability to deceive himself about race problems, he was able to deceive himself and others about the problems in Vietnam.[7]

Of all the government agencies, NASA remains the one where merit counts more than appearance. As a result, it has been mostly white for most of its history. There is evidence, however, that its leadership has been as comfortable with self-deception regarding race as Westmoreland was, and this has led to bad ends. For example, the first black astronaut, Major Robert H. Lawrence Jr., was killed in a training crash in 1967.[8] Likewise, in unraveling the 1986 Challenger disaster, investigators discovered that the engineers were certain that a launch during cold weather would cause the failure of its O-Rings. NASA’s management didn’t realize how high the level of certainty was; in fact, management had effectively ignored the warnings [9], and on a cold January day, the politically correct Challenger crew perished in a spectacular way. Again, does ignoring racial problems, or in this case pushing for a multi-racial, politically correct crew, give a green light to ignore other problems, like frost-damaged O-Rings?[9]

As hinted above, during the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Bush Administration convinced itself and the nation of two things: that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and that they would soon be used on America itself; and second, that American forces would “liberate” Iraq, leading to a more functional, democratic society. The first presumption was false, and the latter promise was never fulfilled. Like William Westmoreland, President Bush also ignored and denied racial problems. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” ideology specifically supported “Civil Rights.” Additionally, he ended Arab profiling efforts [10] that made 9/11 easier for the terrorists to carry out. Bush also called Islam a “religion of peace,” in contrast to the far more accurate remarks [11] on the subject by President John Quincy Adams. While Islam is a universalist religion, its main appeal is to non-whites and it is primarily predominant in the non-white world. During his tenure as Governor of Texas, Bush’s educational reforms were likewise statistical smoke and mirrors that made (mostly) Hispanic academic progress in Texas appear greater than it was. He also pushed to give obscenely high housing loans [12] to blacks and Hispanics – a move that eventually blew up the entire global economy.

As mentioned above, there is no way to conclusively prove in a statistical way that an American diplomatic-military-governmental foul-up on one side of the globe can be traced back to the suppression of race problems somewhere else, but one of America’s greatest literary (though forgotten) figures from the immediate post-war period did choose to write a novel that discussed racial agitation’s impact on senior Army Air Force officers. By no means was Cozzens an uninformed or inexperienced man, and he was from a social class accustomed to leadership in the United States. What to do about the dilemma that Cozzens so ably described is a problem that other generations will need to solve.



1. Ocanara Air Field is believed by some reviewers to be McDill Air Force Base.

2. What has happened since desegregation is that the personnel of highly visible, important organizations that pursue the interests of the US government in the most glamorous way tend to be mostly white, or employ the most talented blacks (or other minorities). Important, but less visible, organizations get a professionally solid bunch of non-whites, especially blacks, who tend to be more culturally tuned-in to America’s issues. The less functional but non-criminal blacks get moved into less-important backwaters. For example, I know of a non-criminal, but low-functioning black in a high-level civil service position at the Department of Defense. As his lack of professionalism and intelligence became too large to ignore, he first got moved to an office away from the organization’s important main effort, whose employees had to walk up a flight of stairs, due to “bad knees” and “regulations.” The man took the hint and got a job at the Veteran’s Administration. Since then, the VA has been revealed as a nearly ineffective agency and there was a huge scandal. It is likely that many of such moves shift the burden of integration from one agency to another, shifting people from important, glamorous jobs on the high end to backwaters like the VA – with disastrous results.

3. Genetic ailments caused by mutations which evolved due to malaria include thalassemia and sickle-cell anemia.

4. The roots of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars can be traced back to American policy in Asia following the Second World War. Many (but by no means all) historians argue that Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech to the National Press Club on the January 12, 1950, which did not include South Korea as part of America’s Pacific Defensive Arrangement, gave the green light for the Communist attack in the summer of the same year. Regardless of whether or not the Communists took Acheson’s speech as a justification for their attack, it is certain that the delta between Acheson’s speech and the American military’s response shows that the US government’s strategic thinking regarding Asia was insufficient. The text of the speech is here [13].

5. President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s aide Robert Mann wrote in his excellent study of how the United States got sucked into the Vietnamese Civil War that, “Perhaps Truman’s greatest shortcoming in Indochina was his inability to devote adequate attention to the region in the crucial months after World War II. Had the new president and his State Department responded to Ho Chi Minh’s entreaties in the war’s aftermath, the charismatic Vietnamese leader might never have turned so completely to China for help with his war of national independence against the oppressive French colonialists. But in the period when State Department officials were debating whether to side with the legitimate nationalistic passions of many in Indochina, a preoccupied Truman was absent from the debate. Eventually he blindly heeded the counsel of American officials far more sympathetic to the desires of French leaders. Ho was snubbed and a potential ally was lost to the Chinese.” (Robert Mann, Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam [14] [New York: Basic Books: 2001], p. 724.) It is important to note that Truman did not have anyone who had answers about what to do in Vietnam in the late 1940s. Robert Mann’s biography is here [15].

6. Brian McAllister Linn, Elvis’s Army [16](Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 129.

7. Linn also writes in his excellent book, Elvis’s Army, that in the 1950s, “The German press, recently freed from many occupation-era restrictions, excelled in sensational exposes of thuggish or criminal GI behavior. The most infamous incident, the gang-rape of a fifteen-year old German girl by seven African-American soldiers of the newly arrived 10th Infantry Division, aroused international condemnation and even campaigns in Germany and the United States to have black troops withdrawn. This crime became the basis of a best-selling novel [17] and later the movie Town Without Pity.” (p. 154) The movie Town Without Pity [18] (1961) is notable in that it replaces black troops with white ones.

8. In his defense, Major Lawrence was flying the F-104. That particular jet developed a reputation for being exceptionally easy to crash. However, that must be countered by the fact that the first black astronaut did indeed die in a training mishap. Major Lawrence’s tragic death follows a pattern of “firsts” involving politically correct recruits who are moved into glamorous but dangerous jobs. The first female US Navy fighter pilot was also killed in a training mishap.

9. I’ve ignored the Columbia disaster of 2002 in this paragraph. There is no way to argue that a lack of “race realism” caused the destruction of the Columbia and its crew. The cause of the disaster was a piece of foam that broke off and fatally damaged the Columbia’s heat shield during launch. It wasn’t until afterwards that NASA realized that a lightweight piece of foam could be so damaging. Space travel is a dangerous job, and there is still much to learn. The next manned spacecraft to enter service will avoid this issue by placing the crew compartment atop the rocket, thus avoiding the risks that the Space Shuttle had by being positioned astride the rockets.