OSWIECIM, POLAND — In an upstairs room at the only remaining synagogue in Oswiecim, 37 miles west of Krakow, 13 future American military officers, clad in jeans and T-shirts, were wrestling with ethical questions in the shadow of Auschwitz.
The cadets and midshipmen were from West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the honors program of the United States Coast Guard Academy. One, a 21-year-old Coast Guard student named Christopher Clifton, called the murderers who carried out the killings at Auschwitz “evil people who enjoyed doing evil to people.”
“The Holocaust goes beyond evil,” responded midshipman Jordan Foley. “This was not carried out by an army of psychopaths,” he said, adding that blaming the Holocaust on “evil people” ignores the systemic character of Nazi racist ideology. “If we write the killers off as psychopaths for this event, then we excuse humanity for allowing this to happen.”
Regina DiMarco, a 19-year-old cadet from West Point, agreed with him. “It was not an army of psychopaths who did this,” she said. “It was an army of idealists inspired by dangerous Nazi ideology.” DiMarco, from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., plans to become an army doctor.
The 13 involved in the discussion were chosen for the American Service Academies program from among 170 applicants. Sponsored by the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, the annual two-week educational program is intended to heighten awareness of ethical issues in the military. It provides a framework for examining what can happen when military leaders abandon their responsibility to prevent atrocities.
“Everybody has the capacity for absolute evil,” said Ian Cameron, a 21-year-old midshipman at Annapolis. “It’s important to realize that we shouldn’t build up the mystique that there was something particularly evil about the Nazis that we couldn’t repeat.”
“I felt really bad,” he said. He recalled the Auschwitz guide’s story about a German bashing an infant’s head against a concrete wall. “How can someone do that to a human being?” he asked. “I had a rough time killing a dying bird.”
Source: NBC News’ Donald Snyder