2018-12-05 / Voice at the Shore

West Point Holocaust Center director speaks on atrocity prevention at Stockton


David Frey, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at West Point, spoke on teaching the military to prevent atrocity at Stockton University on November 7. David Frey, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at West Point, spoke on teaching the military to prevent atrocity at Stockton University on November 7. What can West Point Military Academy recruits learn from the Holocaust?

Quite a lot, said Dr. David Frey, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at West Point. Frey, who is also an associate professor of history at the nation’s premier military academy, spoke to students and faculty at Stockton University on “Mass Atrocity Response Operations” on November 7. His appearance at Stockton was sponsored by the university’s Office of Military and Veteran Services and the Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center.

Frey’s work goes far beyond teaching West Point recruits. He has also spearheaded efforts to increase awareness and understanding of genocide and its prevention at other military service academies— including the Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and Reserve Officer Training Corps—as well as throughout the Department of Defense.

Notably, the stated mission of West Point’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies is “to instill within current and future military leaders a sophisticated understanding of the Holocaust and other instances of genocide, and to inspire them to prevent future atrocities in their roles as military leaders.” The ultimate goal is to find better means of detecting and preventing mass atrocity.

Why does the government use the term “mass atrocity” rather than “genocide”? That was the first of many questions that Frey posed to a jam-packed room of roughly fifty Stockton students and faculty who came to hear him speak.

According to Frey, “mass atrocities” is an umbrella term that encompasses crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

Mass atrocities are of grave concern to the U.S. Military, stressed Frey. Since 1904, he said, an estimated 80-200 million people have died in mass atrocities—well over the number of people killed in wars during that same time period. The number of people who have died from terrorism is extremely small in comparison.

Mass atrocities are also devastating. It usually takes an entire generation to restore the economy to its prior status after the atrocity, and the event frequently causes people to flee from their homes—often to other countries that are in turn destabilized by the influx of refugees. Syria is a prime example of this occurrence, said Frey.

Moreover, planning and responding to mass atrocities runs counter to the traditional approach to military operations, he noted. While most military conflicts involve two groups who are fighting one another, there is much more going on when there is a genocide or ethnic cleansing taking place. “There are many more actors on the ground,” stressed Frey.

Planning for Mass Atrocity Response Operations must be done quickly and secretively. “If people hear that plans are being made, the atrocities can escalate,” said Frey. For example, the perpetrators might choose to exterminate their victims more quickly, or the victims might take risky action under the assumption that help is on the way.

Sending in the troops is rarely a good solution for ending mass atrocities, added Frey. “A military solution should always be the last resort,” with diplomacy as a preferred course of action. “Research shows that military operations are counterproductive” in dealing with mass atrocities, even when done as a last resort. “When we intervene militarily, we do so to solve the problem. The military is good at stopping violence but not at stopping underlying problems,” said Frey. The military is also usually ineffective in establishing stable democracies in unstable areas that are poor, lack protections for women, and do not have a good system of law—precisely the kinds of places where mass atrocities generally occur.

As a result, when the military leaves, these areas remain fragile and unstable, so the atrocities are likely to recur. “The most likely place for a genocide or mass atrocity is a place that has already had a genocide or mass atrocity,” stressed Frey.

That’s why the West Point Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center’s focus on teaching cadets and officers about Mass Atrocity Response Operations is so important. “Since 2008 every conflict we’ve been in has been an atrocity conflict,” said Frey. As a result, today’s troops and their leaders need to think not just about military dominance but also protection of civilians, he stressed.

Last year, the West Point’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies joined forces with the U.S. Naval Academy’s Never Again Initiative and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to conduct the first-ever Joint Service Academies Mass Atrocity Prevention Program. The overall goal of the student-led symposium was to create a greater understanding of atrocity detection and prevention, while encouraging students-who will one day become the military officers responding to future atrocities-draw lessons from the past and learn new ideas for prevention. 

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