youth, morality . . .

Ben Friedlander (
Sun, 28 Jul 1996 10:52:31 -0400

I've been thinking about my experience with my class, and mulling over
the comments from folks on the list, and I realize now that I misrepresented
the responses of my students. They were, in fact, quite outraged by the
story of My Lai--viscerally upset by the reports of genital mutilation
and rape, less so by the murders (which I guess they perceived as an
unavoidable outcome of war). Nonetheless, once discussion moved away from
the soldiers' conduct and onto My Lai's _implications_, the students became
befuddled. They all agreed the decision-makers should have been punished,
and that the soldiers who actually comitted the atrocities shouldn't have
been singled out, but when the conduct of the "decision-makers" became
entangled with the conduct of the war more generally, they pulled back.
At the same time, their desire to go easy on the soldiers foundered on
the ugly specificity of the crimes, which troubled the students' committment
to situational morality, and belied the "just following orders" defense.

So when I say these kids have lost their capacity to feel outrage, I really
mean they've lost the ability to think abstractly about the implications of
their outrage. I see this happening in two ways. First of all, their
outrage is linked to something intensely personal (my dad's a vet; this is
how the police would treat _me_ if they could; I know what it means to be
raped) or something intensely graphic (a shaken Vietnamese woman describing
the gang-rape of her sister; a haunted vet expressing his own remorse). Once
they step back and try to deal with their outrage intellectually, they're
incapacitated by the contradiction between their emotional response (this
is wrong) and their coldly "rational" world view (war is necessary and
inevitable; our government may be bad but it's better than the others;
behavior is determined by context; big fish eats little fish; codes of
conduct are just for show--they have no meaning when the fighting starts).
Second, however, if we begin abstractly rather than viscerally (the cold
facts about the Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Phoenix, Agent Orange), their
rationalizations short circuit emotional response before it can even
occur--almost as if this short-circuiting were thinking's sole purpose!

I don't think the problem is a lack of "idealism" or "good politics"--I
really believe their incapacity or unwillingness to think clearly or abandon
superficial assumptions keeps them from confronting the lessons of Vietnam,
even when they _are_ roused to anger.

Hope this clarification helps.

Ben Friedlander