Joe Paterno and the Cossacks: Thoughts on Atrocity and Honor

One of the areas that I study is why soldiers behave the way that they do, especially in the period of World War I and the Russian Civil War.  This has led me repeatedly to the question of atrocity.  Why do atrocities occur? How do witnesses respond? How do outsiders react?

Americans have been thinking about this same set of questions over the past week.  Pennsylvania State University, the flagship public university of my home state, was rocked by the arrest of a former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, on multiple counts of sexually abusing children.  It soon developed that several of these assaults had taken place in the expansive football facilities of the school.  On one occasion, in 2002, a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary had walked in on Sandusky raping a ten year old boy.  McQueary, a former quarterback on Penn State’s team, fled the scene without stopping the felony or calling the police.  The following day, he told head coach Joe Paterno, who in turn reported the offense up the Penn State chain of command.  No one ever called the authorities, and no one thought to ask why not.  For nine more years, Sandusky continued to abuse children.

The public response to Sandusky’s arrest last week (and the accidental leaking of the grand jury testimony that occasioned it) varied widely, from outraged disgust to rioting on the part of Penn State students when Paterno was fired.  One of the most common questions, however, was how this could have happened.  On call-in shows, on message boards, on social media sites, and in letters to the editor, citizens wondered why McQueary hadn’t stopped the rape and why no one from him to the president of the university had called the police. What was it about the culture of the institution that made these men act immorally?

Whether the participants know it or not, this debate is part of a larger debate regarding atrocity more generally, especially when it comes to the culpability of people who witness atrocity and fail to act. Many find comfort in the “bad apple” argument.  Atrocities are committed by evil men like Sandusky and are abetted by cowards like McQueary.  “If I’d have seen him raping that boy,” many comments begin, “I’d have beaten the crap out of him/called the cops/insert moral response here.”  This position centers morality around the individual.  Those who articulate it reaffirm both their own moral strength and the norms of the broader society. This is laudable, but historians of atrocity may find themselves murmuring “that’s what they all say.”  We know that the pressures of small group socialization wreaks havoc with moral codes and that people respected for their morality in normal times can do awful things in times of crisis.

There were also immediate systemic explanations for the atrocity, many of them coming from within the culture of big time college athletics.  Stewart Mandel, writing in Sports Illustrated, blamed the problem on the idolatry of famous coaches, which gives them unchecked power and warps the views of their subordinates. Thus, “what some view as cowardice probably seemed courageous to McQueary at the time: He went to The Authority’s house and relayed bad things about the coach’s long-time trusted confidant.” End the deification of coaches, Mandel writes, and people will report atrocious behavior when they witness it. This systemic view is more convincing in many regards.  Anyone familiar with the history of ethical lapses in college sports knows that this situation could have happened just as easily at Alabama or Texas.

Still, there is something ultimately unsatisfying about a purely systemic analysis as well. Individuals can and do act in different ways when faced with moral dilemmas.  Not every graduate assistant would have neglected his civic duty to notify the authorities. By the same token, not every soldier tolerates atrocity.  In one case I ran across from November 1914, a Russian convoy commander entered the recently conquered Galician town of Sanok to discover a bacchanalia of marauding. Cossack enlisted men and local Ruthenian peasants were looting stores and apartments in the town as Cossack officers relaxed, indifferent to the carnage.  This commander shot his revolver in the air and began beating the ne’er do wells before turning to the Cossack officers and demanding that they regain control over their troops. They reluctantly did.

What accounts for this difference in behavior?  In the first place, it is important to notice that the failure to expose atrocity, whether in the Penn State locker room or among Russian army soldiers, is only partly about cowardice or careerism or other negative traits.  It is just as importantly about a conflict between conflicting positive values.  On the one hand, the witness belongs to a broader society that has norms prohibiting murder, marauding, or rape.  On the other, he or she belongs to a much tighter small group that has enforceable norms that promote unconditional loyalty, obedience, and protection of other in-group members.

These small-group norms are strong, usually stronger than those of the broader society, and they are consciously developed and enforced.  Military sociologists have long known and recognized that this “primary group solidarity”  is among the most powerful motivating factors for soldiers around the world.  As a result, establishing the “primary group” is a key goal of basic military training in all modern armies.  Organized sports, which emerged out of a broader militarizing urge in the era of national armies, consciously mimicked this process.  American football’s adoption of the military model is extreme even in the world of sports, as coaches and players take the notion of “going to war with my brothers” to comic lengths.  In other words, it is not only about rich and powerful coaches, or, in the case of military men, about charismatic officers and warlords.  It is also about the nature of socialization and the conscious creation of small group norms that may (and eventually do) conflict with the norms of society as a whole.  For most of us, including 18 year old recruits (athletic or military), there at first appears to be no conflict between an unconditional commitment to the squad and morality. They are not told that they must condone child rape to play for Coach Paterno.  It is only later, after the socialization has occurred, that someone like McQueary or a Cossack subaltern is faced with the conflict between protecting his group and protecting the vulnerable. By that time, as we have discovered, it is often too late. Modern states have been promiscuous in encouraging the extension of military models throughout their societies and cultures, so we now are more exposed to the dangers of in-group protection with very little broader social gain (unless an Outback Bowl berth counts as a compensation for these ills).

So what does give an individual the strength to challenge small-group dynamics in the name of a broader moral code?  There are many possible answers for this, but the one that most military officers and other conservatives of a bygone age would have pointed to would have been “honor.”  It is therefore more than a little ironic that the motto of the Penn State football team under Paterno was “success with honor.”  For honor had at least partially tempered conformist and destructive pressures in the past.  It was honor, for instance, that compelled the Russian convoy commander to confront his own army in the defense of the property of enemy citizens. This concept of honor had never been universal, much less universally applied, and it was waning precipitously already by the early part of the last century.  In any case, aristocratic honor was never unconditionally good for the broader societies in which it was present. But now, it has been gutted by systematic mass militarization and the broad spread of a shallow right-wing populism, both of which converge neatly around the phenomenon of big-time American football in many ways. Honor has become a hollow phrase, cheapened by its pasting on football tunnel walls, military barracks, and $15 t-shirts at the campus store. It is mocked by Sandusky and by Abu Ghraib. Perhaps we are better off without this relic in our midst, but there are times, now that it appears to be gone, that we might have cause to miss it, just a little bit.



By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

10 replies on “Joe Paterno and the Cossacks: Thoughts on Atrocity and Honor”

Hi Josh,
I had doubts at first about how you would relate Joe Pa to your Russian soldiers, but you really pulled it off. The idea of clashing imperatives between the smaller and larger group makes sense to me — and seems to be a nice way to deal with the historical problem of why so many people are silent in the face of atrocities. Thanks for this.

This is a very interesting way to use the blog, and, I think, shows the blog’s potential to reach a wider audience in ways that are difficult to accomplish on the pages of an academic journal.
In both cases you mention, while the group dynamics are clearly crucial (you make a strong case), shouldn’t we also be discussing masculinity?

Wilson, absolutely. Despite the length of this post, I left several things cryptically undeveloped, including the link between right-wing populism and militarization. The substance of that link is largely a particular sort of masculinity, one that I’ve described elsewhere at some length. It’s definitely worth exploring more, however.

Josh, I think you bring up some really interesting comparisons here. However, there’s–in my experience–a great deal more than an “old” honor that can stir someone to go against the group ties and intervene in cases like these.

While I grant that “going against the current” is fairly rare, I don’t think it’s any rarer than it ever was. The majority of people do not have the courage under pressure that they imagine themselves to have; and the minority who do have never lived their lives according to what was popular. The kind of character who acts to protect others is one who believes in sacrificing self. It’s someone who has made silent, but perhaps difficult decisions over and over again until a trend of action is established. It’s the person who lives out his beliefs when nobody’s watching–and then when somebody is, he goes on doing what he’s always done, and all of a sudden, he’s a hero.

And the code of self-sacrifice has to come from somewhere. Sometimes it’s by example, sometimes self-chosen, sometimes from a profound belief in answering to a Divine power. But it’s not outdated, and it’s still very much alive. The only difference is that where societies used to idolize it–but not act upon it–our society has lost the tendency to idolize it. It’s not a fad anymore, as it was in, let’s say Victorian days. And there were, even then, many who lived according to the fad, while it was easy to do; and a few who lived it when it wasn’t.

I salute the Russian commander.

Lucy, I agree that there are more motives than aristocratic honor that might spur someone to stand up against their primary group and that there are several potential codes of self-sacrifice. My point was simply that “honor” was the one far most prevalent in the military culture from which contemporary football culture sprang and that when people today talk about “honor” it is likely to be of a far different kind than the sort that motivated members of traditional officer corps. And that older honor had a relatively long history – it was more than a “fad.”

Again, this isn’t a nostalgic defense of aristocracy – far from it. It’s simply a recognition that those old systems had a structural “check” against destructive conformity that our current ones now lack. Or, rather, that our own check – legalism – has proven itself to be relatively weak.

Thanks, Josh. Of course, maybe “fad” wasn’t my best choice of word, but I’ll admit that I was thinking of the military/honorable man-idolatry that George Bernard Shaw railed against when he wrote Arms and the Man.

As to a check against destructive conformity–my own impulse is to hesitate at that one, remembering the unchecked cruelty of the English army in the Peninsula, following the taking of Badajoz. But I do think you’re right that at least on some levels, there was an internalized military code that was stronger than it is now. What I question is whether that went more than skin deep, or whether it was followed by most, but only when convenient, or when supported by the structure. Human nature would seem to suggest the latter.

If I understand correctly, though–you’re saying that societal structures as a whole tended to support the concept of honor–at least among the officer corps in various parts of Europe, I agree completely with you there.

[…] news hook in this post put me off at first, but also read Joshua Sanborn on primary group solidarity versus a broader moral code. A lens through which to read Kochubei and Mazepa in Pushkin’s Poltava or Shatov in […]

In this blog cossacks seem to be interchangeable with Russian army soldiers, but I don’t think that is the right thing to do. I think that even in the early 20th century cossack troops had a strong sense of entitlement to loot. They well knew that their history was of raiding and plunder. I believe Russian commanders would be significantly less likely to crack down on cossacks doing, well – what cossacks do, than on regular soldiers caught maurading.

Absolutely – Cossacks were indeed different in many ways from regular Russian army soldiers. The incident I write about here highlights this – it is a regular Russian army officer who comes across a looting Cossack unit. The Cossack commander is nonplussed by the marauding. The non-Cossack officer is outraged.

I’ve found several episodes of this in my research, and I’ve even run across one plaintive Cossack who laments in his memoir that he was upbraided for looting in Anatolia, since it was only natural that Cossacks should despoil conquered Turks. One of the interesting aspects of these conflicts is precisely that there is a clash between different military values within the broad spectrum of the Russian army. In a war that was, in a significant way, about atrocity and civilization, this was a substantive clash.

Looking at the Penn State situation, careerism and fear of going against a superior overshadowed a moral obligation. Ironically in the Penn State case, the risk to act had nothing to do with survival or physical threat to oneself, which were risks to the Officer in his situation. We live in a culture where ‘see something, say something’ does NOT apply to the work environment, and potentially serious outcomes take a back seat to moral or ethical obligations. We are conditioned that what few laws there are to protect people in their working environments just don’t work as they allegedly are supposed to. I know from firsthand experience. I worked in the State Department covering a program for Gaza and raised a red alert about considerations that would have canceled the Fulbright program for Gazans, who were in the US on grants, and potentially stranded them and family members in a third country. I experienced non-stop retaliation and lost my job. A year later, the program was indeed canceled and the US government greatly embarassed. The NY Times wrote an editorial “The Gaza Fulbright Seven” criticizing how lower-level functionaires failed to act properly. But I had. It was a tremendous situation for me. I know I did the right thing and people’s well being were more important than my damn career. But I can’t tell you how the majority of my office colleagues, including local superiors, went along with “the treatment” or kept quiet, from fear for their own careers. There is no gold medal or happy ending for my situation. I wouldnt have done anything different however. In our ‘civilian’ lives, our priorities are not properly ordered, material well being supercedes moral or ethical duties. It is hard in the military environment – in the case of the Russian officer, clearly he was alone in his decision at first – but he had strong conviction. That’s important – one has to have loyalty to their moral convictions. The situation may determine the outcome, though, for better or worse

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