Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last Train to Nuremburg ...

... Last train to Nuremberg!
All on board!

Do I see Lieutenant Calley?
Do I see Captain Medina?
Do I see Gen'ral Koster and all his crew?
Do I see President Nixon?
Do I see both houses of Congress?
Do I see the voters, me and you?

Who held the rifle? Who gave the orders?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land?
Who manufactured the bullet? Who paid the taxes?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands?

If five hundred thousand mothers went to Washington
And said, "Bring all of our boys home without delay!"
Would the man they came to see, say he was too busy?
Would he say he had to watch a football game?

Last Train to Nuremburg by Pete Seeger

I heard this on Pandora yesterday and it nicely fit into what I was going to talk about anyway. Pete Seeger wrote this song during the Vietnam War. Calley, Medina, and Koster all had degrees of complicity in the My Lai Massacre and it's subsequent cover-up.

The My Lai Massacre ... was the mass murder conducted by U.S. Army forces on March 16, 1968 of 347 to 504 unarmed citizens in South Vietnam, all of whom were civilians and majority of whom were women, children, and elderly people.

Many of the victims were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated.

... When the incident became public knowledge in 1969, it prompted widespread outrage around the world. The massacre also reduced U.S. support at home for the Vietnam War. Three U.S. servicemen who made an effort to halt the massacre and protect the wounded were denounced by U.S. Congressmen, received hate mail, death threats and mutilated animals on their doorsteps. Only 30 years after the event were their efforts honored.

The song intimates that the troops involved and their superiors were not the only ones guilty. Nixon (and various other Presidents) were guilty for conducting the war at all. We, as citizens, were guilty for voting for these people and for paying taxes to fund illegal wars. We had "blood upon my hands", all of us. And we continue to. We comfort ourselves that when bad things happen, it's someone else's fault.

Bad actions by bad people do not doom our world. What curses us is that supposedly good people will do and support the most vile acts because they were told it was OK by someone of authority. We tell ourselves that we are not personally guilty because it was given a pass by our President, our church leader, our "freedom fighters". It's OK to invade Iraq because they have WMD's ... OK, Mr. President, whatever you say. It's OK to torture because they might give us some important information ... OK, Mr. Vice-President. It's OK to hate gays because God says so ... OK, Pastor. It's OK that I shot that illegal alien because he was on the wrong side of some arbitrary line ... OK, Mr. Minuteman, you were just fighting for our "liberty".

What is this that comforts us in our guilt? Is it a defense mechanism or is it just human nature? There was a great discussion on Science Friday on NPR yesterday about the famous research psychologist Stanley Milgram. Besides conducting studies which became the basis of six degrees of separation, he is most famous for the Milgram Experiment:

"The experimenter orders the teacher , the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner , who is actually an actor and confidant. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level."

The supposed shock levels increased all the way to 450 volts, a fatal level. An unbelievable 65% of the participants continued to administer a shock all the way up to this level merely because they were told to do so. Only one person refused to administer the shock before the 300 volt level. Milgram's conclusions:

"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous importance, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study ...

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

Milgram's experiment was in response to the crimes of the Nazis and the complicity of the German people. But it's relevance to any situation where good people "go along" with the crowd is obvious. In effect, we're all on that "last train to Nuremburg".


Laura said...

I've actually SEEN the Milgram study videos and it's horrifying to see men, women, young, old, all races, all religions - simply did what they were told. Some needed more pushing than others - but almost all submitted completely to perceived authority. Remember that concept too - PERCEIVED authority. This was some schlep paying them to participate in a voluntary study - not even a real authority figure. Now imagine the Military - where you're systematically stripped of your identity in order to make you submit completely to your commanding officers.

Horrifying as all this is - I am still surprised at the surprise most people have when things like this happen. I'd like to think it's not human nature - but most of me things if it happens this often, in so many circumstances, that it must (at least in part) be.

dbackdad said...

Wow. I've never seen video of it. And you're right ... it is a very important distinction that it was "perceived authority" that they responded to.

Like I've always said, I believe that people are inherently good, but it's an irrational thought (or hope) not necessarily based on fact. Perhaps, we're not inherently good or bad ... we're just inherently "human", and will revert to instinctual actions that have benefited us evolution-wise in the past.

Scott said...

You know Lance, there's a lot I'd like to say on this and maybe sometime over the next couple of days I'll get un-lazy enough to do it, but just in case let me say for sure that this is an awesome post. One that so few people would truly understand.

Well done.

dbackdad said...

Thanks Scott. I always love your input ... and your posts.

I just don't have the ambition or time to get "unlazy", as you say, and do these types of posts more often.

Sadie Lou said...

Man's inhumanity to Man is such a disappointment.
Then, to add insult to injury, man will shift personal responsibility to someone else to avoid blame and ease their conscience.
This post was stomach turning. I saw the picture you used to go with it and I'm thinking, "Is that a baby? Am I seeing a baby?"
How can we do this to ourselves?
What is going through a person's mind when they are killing women, infants, children, innocent, unarmed civilians? I don't know--I really don't know how's it's possible?
Because someone told me to? Some authority said it was OK?
No way--that does not explain it. You can't even get a handful of employees to do what the boss says half of the time--this is some other evil at work.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie said: You can't even get a handful of employees to do what the boss says half of the time--this is some other evil at work.

Oh, I think that people are quite capable of this kind of 'evil' on their own. We don't need to invent any supernatural bad-guy to take away our responsibility for our *long* history of atrocity.

Laura said...

There might be a video available at a local college library, or even the public library. I highly recommend watching it. It's far more complex an issue than simply "doing what you're told". Believe me - everyone in this study said the same things Sadie just said - that there's no way they'd do something to hurt another person just because they were told to... but they did. here's a partial video. Seriously - look for it. It's fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

shrimplate said...

It's not the evil, it's the banality.

Sadie Lou said...

"Believe me - everyone in this study said the same things Sadie just said - that there's no way they'd do something to hurt another person just because they were told to... but they did."

You can't tell a mentally healthy individual to kill a child and expect them to do it-even if this person tells the healthy person "it's OK". I'm sorry--there's something more to it--there is something far more disgusting and evil going on behind the scenes.

CyberKitten said...

Sadie said: there is something far more disgusting and evil going on behind the scenes

Such as?

Laura said...

Yes - that something is the psychological phenomena uncovered by these studies:

1) The need to follow the social order. We are herd animals.

2) That when you place responsibility on someone else, people do bad things. Diffusion of responsibility.

3) Fear of retribution from authority figures if you don't comply. --> self preservation

dbackdad said...

I'm such a slacker. I had the house to myself for a week and a half and didn't do a single blog post. It just seemed like I was busy every day.

I'm going to try and force myself to do a post a day for a week or so.

Jonathan Klein said...

Thank you for explaining "Last Train to Nuremburg." I used to listen to Pete Seeger's "The World of Pete Seeger" when I was a child, and as a kid never understood that it was General Koster, not General Custer....anyway, it's one of the great underrated songs of his repertoire, and I found this blog in the process of trying to purchase the song (does anyone have a copy for sale?).

Thank you for your progressive thinking. I actually think that the last frontier is Economic Justice, and as a rabbi, I am trying to get all clergy to stand with low wage workers...the issue is invisibility in our society and the damning impact of it on all of us.

Blessings to all,
Rabbi Jonathan Klein
Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles
jklein at cluela dot org

dbackdad said...

Jonathan - Thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind words.

I've really gotten into Seeger in the last few years. My wife is a big Springsteen fan and we went to his tour with the Seeger Sessions band. They played a lot of songs popularized by Seeger and by other well-known folk artists like Woodie Guthrie.

Seeger has an amazing ability to give voice to the downtrodden without being preachy and while still being entertaining. He is truly a national treasure that I think that a lot of people don't know about.

I checked out your organization's website and I love the work that you guys are doing. Keep it up. I live in Glendale, AZ but get out to LA a couple of times a year because my wife has relatives in Manhattan Beach. I might have to stop by one of these times we are out there.

Take care.