Learning a Lesson the Hard Way


Columnist Robert Bateman remembers a West Point lecture gone awry

From the late 1990s and into the first years of this century, I taught military history at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. It was a rewarding assignment. As we used to put it among the faculty, we taught our cadets military history “from Plato to NATO.”

Another professionally pleasing aspect of the assignment was the knowledge that we were teaching the next generation of officers not just academic history, but also giving them a deeper understanding of the profession upon which they would soon embark. West Point’s history department has a motto, “Sapientia Per Historiam”—roughly “Wisdom Through History.” But there is also another motto: “Much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught.” For that reason, if no other, one must be careful in the classroom.

In the spring of 2000, we were covering World War II. Now because the course was not just about teaching history, but about teaching life/combat lessons to future officers, I liked to bring in veterans. There was a veterans’ group in the Hudson Valley explicitly for those who’d experienced the Battle of the Bulge. I reached out and asked if anyone was available, and I was in luck: an infantry combat veteran volunteered to speak with the cadets.

The Battle of the Bulge, fought from mid-December 1944 through early January 1945, was a Nazi attempt to split the British and American forces apart and drive on toward Antwerp, Belgium. In much the same way they split the French and British in 1940, they planned to go through the Ardennes Forest. A surprise attack, it was successful in the first few days. And leading the way for the Nazis was a “battlegroup” (about 5,000 men) named after their commander, Joachim Peiper. Near the town of Malmedy, on December 17, 1944, Kampfgruppe Peiper massacred at least 84 American prisoners taken earlier in the day before moving on. By mid-afternoon, American forces discovered the bodies and a few survivors—and by evening, almost the entire Allied command knew what had happened. 

I interviewed the veteran by phone and found him lucid and well-spoken (not always a given), so come the day for the Bulge lesson he arrived, and we both went to the classroom. There, I gave a brief summation of the battle, and then for the second half of the hour, I turned the floor over to him. To move things along, I had prepared a few questions to prompt him. 

Near the end of the class period, I asked a question from which I derived two important life lessons. I asked, “So, what happened after you got word about Malmedy?”

“Oh,” he replied, completely deadpan, “we didn’t take prisoners after that for about a month. Well, we took some, but they never made it back to battalion, and never the SS guys.” 

“SHIT!” I thought, “I just had a man—a decorated American combat veteran of World War II who I touted as a role model—admit to war crimes in front of a roomful of future officers. What do I do? This is not the ‘lesson’ I wanted to teach.” (Since that day, I have had other veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam say the same about other fights. But those are stories for another time.) 

In the end, I truncated the class, thanked the veteran for his time, and had a cadet serve as his escort to his car. He was never aware of my distress over his admission. The two lessons I learned? War is ugly (I would not experience combat until Iraq in 2005-2006 and Afghanistan in 2011-2012), along with what every courtroom lawyer already knows: never ask a question to which you don’t know how the respondent will answer. ✯

—Robert Bateman, a former Airborne Infantry Ranger and retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, has taught military history at George Mason and Georgetown universities, as well as West Point.

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of World War II.