Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I used to teach Kurt Vonnegut’s funny, sad, and important novel Slaughterhouse Five in my American history classes, but gave up after being met by seas of incomprehension and even outright hostility. Why was I teaching a novel in a history class, they wondered, as if novels weren’t written in the past or in historical contexts. In this, the most expansive of disciplines, students too often have been straightjacketed into thinking that history is merely a bill of facts about war and politics to be committed to memory. And there is no shortage of historians who want it that way.

Above all, I was distressed by the inability of history students to think coherently about the very thing that almost invariably is most important to the people we study – morality. Slaughterhouse is about an American POW, Billy Pilgrim, who in 1945 witnesses the firebombing of Dresden only to be abducted by time-travelling extraterrestrials called Tralfamadorians, beings whose response to every moral catastrophe in the history of the universe — including the entire universe’s eventual destruction at their own hands — is the same: they intone the phrase, “So it goes.”

Unwittingly, I had handed my students what many of them thought was an ideal philosophy of ethics. “So it goes.” A way to shrug and say, “Oh, well. Can I get back to Facebook now?”  Vonnegut himself later said he was distressed by the ease with which so many readers accepted the legitimacy of what is self-evidently a hideously immoral proposition. “So it goes” – not stoicism in the face of history’s cruelties, but indifference; not acceptance, but apathy; “so it goes” – the proposition that we are not moral agents, that we make no choices, that we bear no responsibility for the consequences of our actions, whether it’s firebombing Dresden or blowing up the universe, or, at the very time Vonnegut was writing, waging war in Vietnam. 

On Measure of Doubt and its briefly extant sister blog, Suspended Judgment, I wrote on several occasions that the biggest problem with our education system is that we’re good at getting students to memorize facts but not good at getting them to think about facts. Despite all our protestations to the contrary, most of our education system consists of telling students stuff and getting them to regurgitate it, what one colleague of mine inelegantly calls the "binge and purge model of education." Even in universities the lecture – a tool for conveying facts – remains at the core of our methodology, although students who steadfastly refuse to read anything are partly to blame for this. 

Over the years, I have attempted on many occasions to initiate conversations in class concerning the great moral questions of the Second World War: the Holocaust, Japanese atrocities in occupied China, Allied area bombing, and so forth.  Year after year, these discussions take on a predictable and depressing sameness. They run the usual gamut from soft moral relativism and all its attendant confusion (“our side was just as bad”, they would say, as if this empirically false claim were somehow relevant even if true) through to the positively fascistic view that military service must automatically be accorded the deepest reverence, regardless of the cause in which one served. But at least those students articulated a coherent worldview. The relativists basically said: “Who am I to judge? Not for me to say what’s right or wrong. Everyone has their own way of looking at things. We shouldn’t be biased.” Blah dee blah blah blah. So it goes. Generation meh. 

All this brings me to the case of the German cemetery at La Cambe, in Normandy, France.  It is the resting place of many young men who were caught up in the lunatic asylum we call the Third Reich, teenagers forced to fight for a totalitarian regime that sought to redraw the racial map of Europe through war. Their graves are important reminders that few countries suffered so much because of Adolf Hitler as Germany itself.  But La Cambe is also the burial place of a large number of straightforwardly wicked men who were enthusiastic supporters of the Nazi program. Among them is Sturmbannf├╝hrer Adolf “Otto” Diekmann, an SS officer who ordered a hideous crime against humanity at Oradour, France. Diekmann’s troops massacred 642 men, women, and children – the men were shot in the legs and then burned alive – for no military purpose whatsoever a few days after D-Day in the summer of 1944.

In early June, I visited La Cambe, not certain if I should. I’m not sure what possessed me, on that cold and damp morning, to venture off, alone, into the far corners of the cemetery in search of Diekmann’s grave. It might have been morbid curiosity. Or perhaps it was a desire to gloat slightly over another exemplar of the absolute failure of the worst system of governance ever devised. Anxious and distinctly unsure of myself, I stumbled about for ten minutes, looking for the marker, half-hoping not to find it, when suddenly it seemed to appear before me, flat and rather disappointingly innocuous against the ground. 

I reflected at once on the words of A.J.P. Taylor: “I come to history not as a judge, but to say what happened and why” – outright hypocrisy from one of the 20th century’s most judgmental historians. What do historians do except judge? The whole enterprise is a process of gathering, evaluating, weighing, assessing, in short, judging evidence for one position or another. Above all, to say “I cannot judge” is itself a moral judgment of the very strongest kind. Not one moral relativist, while themselves being murdered, would calmly accept death with a shrug and say, “Who am I to judge this murderer?” but they will do it when other people are being or were murdered. Appalling. Appalling.

I reflected, too, that historians are wary travelers in the realm of moral philosophy, not because they know it to be dangerous, but because they’re lost.  We pass our moral confusion onto our students. The problem isn’t that most historians are abstaining from engaging their moral sensibilities – that would be a considered position. The problem is that their training has left them unprepared to assess moral issues at all, even from the perspective of the period they’re studying. With nearly three thousand years of moral philosophy before them, the best most of them can do is shrug and mouth, “Well, who’s to say?”  So it goes. 

I also found myself thinking about the firmest conviction I have as a teacher: that education, like physical exercise, should hurt a bit. It should destabilize the intellect and force it to adjust to new demands. It’s not a teacher’s job, of course, to tell students what to think – even if the teacher actually knows what to think. But it is a teacher’s job to get students to think. This involves more than just holding up a mirror to youthful vanity and awarding gold stars for sharing. Good teachers make students understand that extracting knowledge from information takes serious effort. 

Here was a teachable moment, but there was no one teach. So I must have stood there for five minutes or so, above Deikmann's little plot, wondering what to do or say. I do not believe that the dead are conscious of the living, so having words with the man seemed rather pointless. It was, moreover, getting on, and there was a schedule to keep. I walked off, briskly, troubled by all this. Then I surprised myself.  Well, hell, I thought. Why am I debating historical theory with myself? I’m an historian for maybe forty hours a week. The rest of the time I’m a human being. And my human obligations come first.

So I stopped. Turned around. Returned to Deikmann’s marker.

And spat on his grave.

May he not rest in peace.