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Alvin York, Confirmation Bias, and American Touch Tag Day

Alvin York was nearly thirty when he was drafted in 1917 and had recently joined a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade fighting, among other things. But drafted he was. As a marksman of great skill, it was thought odd that he had no stomach for battle, but he did reluctantly agree.

As a member of Company G (3rd Battalion), 328th Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Division, Corporal York’s first taste of combat was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where his seventeen-man patrol got into a confused firefight behind enemy lines on 8 October 1918 and captured an unclear number of Germans: this late in the war, even the elite Prussian Guards were giving up. But a German machine gun tried to compel their comrades to fight again, and York and three comrades eventually silenced the gun, killing 25 in the process. York never claimed to have accounted for more than nine.

Not what you got from the movie, is it?

But America needed a hero, and the beleaguered American Army in France needed one even more. While the survivors of his patrol did capture over a hundred Germans, it is important to remember that by then most of the German Army had been on less than a thousand calories a day for nearly two years. Much of Germany was starving; the fleet was in mutiny; the cities were crumbling from lack of labor. While York and his companions were indeed heroes, he never thought as much of the Medal of Honor that hung around his neck as everyone else did.

http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm
Alvin York (right) and the then-Governor of Tennessee Prentiss Cooper

York spurned the role of hero and icon after the war, and by the 1930s was preaching from the isolationist pulpit with Charles Lindbergh, but Hollywood change his mind. While making and promoting the movie (that he wanted to make to raise money for a bible school) that made him even more famous, he became a preparedness spokesman. The film, Howard Hawk’s 1941 Sergeant York, was based on a 1928 novel Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary which contains excerpts of  York’s diary and greatly exaggerated other contents. It was good enough to win Gary Cooper, who played York, an Academy Award in 1942 for best actor.

Audiences today see the film as a feel-good flag-waver, entertaining enough for a little over an hour once or twice, but after that just old black-and-white hokum. While this purely personal assessment may be just that, the Hollywood folks–and York–in 1940 were after a lot more. They were looking at the ashes of the French Army that had been torn apart by the Germans in less than a month, and at the outnumbered and outclassed British, who barely escaped total annihilation by running back to England, which by then was under aerial siege. The US Army, then smaller than that of Uruguay, was woefully unprepared, and Hollywood was willing to work with the Army and York to make a hokey, black-and-white film with the bankable but down-home Gary Cooper in the lead to get a peacetime draft passed in Congress.

The tactic worked mostly because they used confirmation bias–the tendency for an observer to like something already believed in. The wartime myth of York’s single-handed exploit in the Argonne was played up not just to make the film more exciting and York’s role more central, but to make the down-home country boy who never handled a smokeless powder firearm before he was drafted more approachable by typical audiences and future bond-buyers, and thus more believable. That York never personally promoted the film is usually ignored; that he never saw it is possible.

But it is also irrelevant.

Many consumers of history are the victims of confirmation bias, as they usually enjoy and agree with the works that confirm what they already think they know. Yes, we’re building up to another plug for Why the Samurai Lost Japanbut that’s what this blog is for–selling JDBCOM.COM books. Japan attacked the US, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands in 1941, and yes it was because the West had cut off their oil and other resources because of their war in China. But, why was Japan so interested in China? The West had warned Japan time and again about their military adventures in East Asia. Why, finally, did the showdown come just as the Germans were chewing up the Soviets in the summer of 1941?

It wasn’t as coincidental as it looks.

WHY_07_CUT
Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores this and many other issues. While researching the book, my co-author and I found a great deal of confirmation bias in the sources, some of which nearly parrot themselves and each other with their insistence on Japan’s arrogance (but why), military prowess (but failed to defeat the Chinese in four years), and technological sophistication (but had to import most of its machine tools). While the terrific storm of American military might fought its way across the Pacific from the ashes of Pearl Harbor (where only three warships were permanently lost), the tenacious Japanese fought tooth-and-nail in defense of their far-flung empire (which was so porous US submarines were ranging off the Japanese coast by mid-1942).

But, what a war, anyway, huh?

Our subtitle gives a little better hint at what to expect: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Expect to see it in December.


Today is American National Touch Tag Day for reasons lost in posterity. In the Great Lakes it still might be warm enough for these girls to be playing Touch And Go (didn’t know it just might be an acronym, did you? Neither does Snopes, but what do they know?) in their summer dresses, but it likely isn’t. Still, when was the last time you did that, ran around in the sun, giggling with whoever you can catch? Yeah, me neither.

http://wkdq.com/did-you-know-what-the-game-of-tag-stands-for/
Remember? Yeah, me neither.

The game of Tag is, was and has been an innocent enough activity,  but the Fun Police have been criticizing it lately for encouraging bullying, harassment, reckless running, unwanted touches (which is the point), and predatory behavior.  It is banned in some schools in the US, but so are cellular phones and guns for all the good that’s done.

Defy authority and start up a game of tag. Have some outrageous fun while running and touching friends. Show the Fun Police what you’re made of.

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