Foley saw a connection between his experience at Auschwitz and heightened sensitivity to civilian casualties in war. The drone attacks that kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan trouble him. “How many civilians are we allowed to kill in order to get high value targets?” he asked. “We can’t keep killing civilians like this. That is something I struggle with.”

At Auschwitz, future U.S. military leaders learn what not to do

Krzysztof Galica / NBC News

Military academy students, from left to right, Kelly Laurent, Mollie Hebda and Ian Cameron, look at a photo of an emaciated woman who had been held captive at Auschwitz.

 By NBC News' Donald Snyder
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.”

Foley, from Butler, Pa., is a 23-year-old senior at Annapolis. A Chinese major, he spent an academic year living in Beijing to improve his language skills.

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The train tracks leading into the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.

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.”

Will the experience at Auschwitz help them face potential battlefield dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Foley saw a connection between his experience at Auschwitz and heightened sensitivity to civilian casualties in war. The drone attacks that kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan trouble him. “How many civilians are we allowed to kill in order to get high value targets?” he asked. “We can’t keep killing civilians like this. That is something I struggle with.”

Jordan Foley, a midshipman at Annapolis, trims hedges at the Jewish cemetery near Auschwitz.

Krzysztof Galica / NBC News

Cameron believes every officer must ask questions about policy. “We rarely reflect on the ethical foundations of military operations that we are involved in,” he said, adding that even if young officers are not involved in shaping military policy, they still should ask themselves if the policy is wise.

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The students struggled with the horror of the Holocaust and German military complicity during their three days at Auschwitz.

“I thought I would come here and discover what the victims went through and come away understanding the Holocaust,” said Foley. “What I can’t understand is how Germany, such a well-educated country, could commit this atrocity.”

Walking through the red brick barracks of Auschwitz I, the original camp with the perverse “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes Free”) sign at the entrance, the students appeared numb. They passed enormous glass cases piled with human hair, shoes, eye glasses and other ordinary articles that belonged to those exterminated in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex where more than a million persons, mostly Jews, were murdered.

“I was able to touch the walls that prisoners touched,” said DiMarco. “I saw what they saw. When you close your eyes you feel something here that you don’t feel in a museum.” 

The role of the German military and issues involved in obeying unethical orders were pervasive themes in the discussions.

Krzysztof Galica / NBC News

West Point Cadet Sara Roger looks at photos of people who were imprisoned at Auschwitz concentration camp.

“I could not live with myself if I carried out an order, knowing that it would harm civilians,” said Foley. He said he would follow Navy protocol to protest a questionable order. “The protest must be public and well thought-out,” he said. “My only regret would be if I carried out a questionable order to save my career.”

Paris Scott, a 22-year-old Annapolis senior from Maryland, was frightened when he entered the crematorium.

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“I got sick walking through this graveyard,” he said. “I will never know what it means, but it is so overwhelming to be there and know that some people deny it happened. I never would have survived this place.”

Kelly Laurent, a 21-year-old Air Force Academy student, said she cried when she heard someone say “See you tomorrow.” She realized there were no tomorrows for those who died in the gas chambers.

Krzysztof Galica / NBC News

Ian Cameron, a midshipman at Annapolis, hauls trash from the Jewish cemetery near Auschwitz.

On their last day in Oswiecim, the group worked in a Jewish cemetery. Although, no Holocaust victims are buried there, the Germans desecrated the cemetery that dates from the 18th century.

The students trimmed hedges, weeded walkways and removed snails from the tombstones. “Part of our program for the cadets is to have them do something real to preserve history,” said Tomasz Kuncewicz, director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center.

As they were working, the students found a dying bird covered with flies. All agreed it should be put out of its misery, but they were reluctant to do the killing. Finally, Foley struck the bird with a hoe.

“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.” 

 

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