By Michelle EberhartOctober 13, 2016
"Sometimes when people see the word 'Holocaust' in particular, they think niche issue, they think this is a Jewish issue. But my approach to this and my feeling about this, very strongly, is, that's not the case at all. This is a universal issue that any particular group could have been the victim group, and has been throughout the course of history. There have been all kinds of other victim groups and the Holocaust is only one example of when the prejudice becomes so intense and the conditions become so untenable that you get a mass killing that is unprecedented. But sadly, it's no longer unprecedented. Throughout the 20th century [and into the 21st], we've had all kinds of significant mass killings of targeted groups. So the study of [atrocity], for West Point in particular, and not just why this occurs or how it occurs, but the link to warfare and the ways and the tools that the Army has that can allow prevention to occur before we get to the point of needing to put troops on the ground [is absolutely necessary]." -- Dr. David Frey
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS) serves to study past genocides and hopefully prevent future atrocities. Dr. David Frey, Associate Professor of History and Director for the CHGS, formulated his brainchild in 2007 and the Center was subsequently created in 2010-- soon after, it became an inter-academy center.
"I realized that, especially in light of what was occurring in Iraq, we needed to do more study of atrocity than we were currently doing," Frey said. "At the time, there were no courses on those topics so I started working with my department, the Dean and the Superintendent to create a program to specifically study atrocity and integrate atrocity and genocide studies into what the cadets do at West Point."
Through the History Department and the CHGS, Frey currently teaches two interdisciplinary classes, The Holocaust and Its Legacy and Genocide & Ethnic Cleansing, both of which are offered to all cadets. The Center also offers a Mass Atrocity Education Workshop (MAEW) to faculty and an inter-academy conference called the Joint Service Academy Mass Atrocity Prevention Symposium (JSAMAPS) which conducts an annual forum in Washington D.C.
"We're at an institution that studies war and we are educating the practitioners of war," Frey said. "In my mind, what they also need to be aware of are the harms of the worst kinds of atrocities, many of which occur in the context of war."
In fact, most scholars estimate that genocide and mass atrocity have killed three to four times as many people as war, and have produced long-term economic, cultural, physical, psychological and political damage that last generations. Frey hopes that by teaching future officers of all military branches from a wide range of undergraduate backgrounds, more leaders will be aware of the causes of genocide and, in turn, be better prepared to prevent them.
"War is not a disciplinary problem, no one comes along and says, ok, this is a physics war," Frey jested. "That's the whole basis of the curriculum here, you need to be able to think across the different types of methodologies and different types of thinking… When you have a theme as powerful as genocide or the Holocaust, then you have a concept that allows people to really think hard about how their unique perspectives from their majors can help solve these problems."
To expose cadets to a variety of viewpoints, the Center has invited a wide range of speakers to the Academy. Over the course of the last six years, speakers have ranged from President Bill Clinton to genocide survivors, liberators and scholars--each with a different story to tell.
"You get a sense of how complex, how emotionally fraught and how difficult these situations actually are, and it leaves an impact on cadets that is far greater than whatever I can do in a regular class," Frey noted.
On top of engaging with guest speakers, cadets are provided the opportunity to listen to one another during JSAMAPS. During the conference, cadets and midshipmen present capstone projects with no other requirement but to use their disciplines to look at some issue of atrocity. Cadets observing the presentations were "incredibly impressed" by the work of their peers. What's more, is that after the symposium, some cadets even changed their majors as a result of their experience.
"It showed that there's creative thinking among the cadets and midshipmen and potentially down the line that could have long-term policy implications. That's the idea behind the Center," Frey remarked. "I'm hoping that I can help educate and inspire the next generation of lieutenants, some of whom may become general officers. They're the ones, who in 20 or 30 years, are going to make significant contributions to how we mitigate conflict and prevent atrocity."
In addition to aiding future research, CHGS hopes to make a difference on a daily basis around the country. Army ROTC will be adopting one of the Center's publications, "Ordinary Soldiers: A Study in Ethics, Law and Leadership into its required national curriculum. The Center also works with the other service academies; Army, Air Force, and Marine Professional Military Education programs; the Department of Defense's Senior Advisor on Atrocity Prevention and Response; Combatant Commands; and on the civilian side, museums, study centers, and other universities. It closest relationship, however, is with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. to further educate people about the magnitude of genocide and atrocity, as well as ways to prevent them.
The Director for the Civic and Defense Initiatives at the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the Museum, Jennifer Ciardelli, recently wrote to the Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr. about how productive the partnership with the Center has been over the last six years.
"Our cooperative efforts, which have grown substantially since West Point's founding of its CHGS in 2010, have not only filled presidential and national security imperatives to improve our nation's abilities to predict and prevent mass atrocities, but continue to produce innovative ways for service academy students and faculty to study and teach about these enduring problems," Ciardelli remarked. "Our jointly facilitated MAEW has not only garnered praise from President Obama, but remains unique in that it is the only current DoD effort designed to create interdisciplinary and inter-academy curricular research projects."
Currently, USMA and Air Force cadets are working in conjunction with Dartmouth students to create a Mass Atrocity Risk Assessment app to tentatively predict warning signs of genocide. Using tools from the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and long, medium and short term risk assessments, the app will allow a greater predictive capacity of atrocity. The app is a capstone project which will be presented during JSAMAPS in April 2017 and ultimately be available for download in the Holocaust Museum's "Memory to Action" room and elsewhere. Frey anticipates technology like this can be used by our NATO allies, most of whom currently lack such capacity, to predict future atrocities.
Over the course of the next few years, Frey hopes CHGS will be able to support the efforts of faculty at the other service academies to also expand their atrocity-related studies. Frey helped Navy stand up a new "Comparative Genocide" course and has helped Air Force build its "Genocide and War Crimes" course into the single most popular elective at the Air Force Academy. At West Point, he hopes to support more post-doctoral fellows-- currently, the Center has its first one, Dr. Peggy O'Donnell from the University of California Berkeley -- as well as faculty and cadet research. He would also like to offer more opportunities for cadets to study atrocity domestically or abroad. The CHGS offers these programs either through summer internships, such as those the Center has supported at the Army War College studying Boko Haram, or though study abroad, such as the study of the wars in Bosnia 1992-95, a trip Frey and the History Department conducted last academic year. He plans to expand a regular distinguished lecture series at the Academy. Most of all, he hopes to attract cadets and faculty of all disciplines to study mass atrocities.
"To get people alert to the signs that some kind of mass atrocity might be imminent, to have them start looking for underlying causes of conflict within societies, and work to resolve them before they result in some kind of conflict that we might get drawn into," Frey said. "That's my motivation."