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When war stories do make great CLE

written by Dave Shearon 16 April 2007

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

justice at Dachau Last Tuesday, the 10th, I participated in a continuing legal education (CLE) program that was the exception to the rule that “war stories” are not good CLE.  “War stories” are anecdotes about a trial or other experience in representing a client.  Often, these stories, while entertaining, primarily serve to make the storyteller look good.  They lack educational value.

This program, “To Do Justice”, was different.  It was put together by Douglas Bates, III, a Centerville, TN, lawyer whose father, Douglas Bates, II, was defense counsel for the 40 defendants in the first American war crimes trial of Nazis after World War II.  Joshua Greene, author of the book shown at the right, and producer of the acclaimed “Voices from the Holocaust” documentary, contacted Doug Bates on 9/11/2001 to ask him about his dad.  Professor Greene had just finished reading the transcript of the first Dachau trial at the invitation of the widow of the prosecuting attorney, Bill Denson, and wanted to know what Doug knew of his father’s role in that trial.  Greene and Bates became friends, and Doug Bates conceived the idea of bringing Joshua Greene to Nashville for a CLE program built around the Dachau trial.  Monday evening (the 9th) and Tuesday saw the fruition of that dream.

On Monday, Joshua Greene showed a portion of the “Voices from the Holocaust” documentary and answered questions as part of a lecture series at Lipscomb University.  On Tuesday, we had the CLE program.  Professor Greene talked about the trials and Bill Denson’s story.  A southern boy, Bill Denson grew up in Birmingham, went to West Point and Harvard Law.  He tried all four of the “parent” war crimes trials at Dachau.  At the end of the third, having lost from 165 pounds down to 116 and developed a palsy-like shake in his hands, he collapsed as the verdicts were read.

Doug Bates, II, did not have Bill Denson’s background.  One year at Vandy and one at Cumberland School of Law.  He was married and tried to make a living practicing law in his home town of Centerville.  This was 1937-39 and he felt he failed in the attempt, though really nobody in rural Tennessee was doing well in those years.  Regardless, he was in the National Guard and called into the Army where he was an artillery officer.  Col. Bates was a math whiz, and those skills made him a cracker-jack with artillery and he ended up instructing before being sent over to Europe.  He landed at Normandy 11 days after D-Day and was involved in 240 straight days of combat.  In one action, his unit was involved in shelling trapped units of the German Army and a Panzer division.  They killed 10,000 German soldiers in three days, and Doug Bates traveled through the destruction shortly after.

At the cessation of hostilities, Col. Bates was sent to Dachau.  His first step was, like Bill Denson for the prosecution, to interview the witnesses, and, according to Doug Bates, III, his dad never had any doubt that the atrocities occurred.  Apparently in later years, some individuals, upon finding out that Col. Bates had been defense counsel, would say something like, “Oh, good, I knew all those things they said happened couldn’t be true.”  I suppose that, knowing and liking Col. Bates, they thought he could have never have defended individuals who might have been part of some of the intentional, hideous atrocities committed in the camps.  Apparently, Col. Bates was quick to set them straight.

Col. Denson refused to use some of the more vague charges that were used at Nuremberg.  He settled on a “common design” theory, but even this is far too vague to withstand scrutiny under the standards for criminal law in this country.  And Col. Bates made that argument at the trial, saying that if, as a matter of policy, we wanted to continue killing Germans, then to do so, but not behind the facade of a trial!

When the trial ended, the military tribunal (familiar ring?) returned guilty verdicts against all 40 defendants, 38 to death by hanging.  And what did the defendants do?  They filed out of the box and shook Col. Bates hand (we saw a picture of the scene!) saying that they never expected anyone to work so hard in their defense.  Then they went to the prosecutor, Col. Denson, and shook his hand and thanked him saying they never expected so fair a trial!  Of course, Col. Bates was tasting defeat at that moment.  Col. Denson would taste it years later when virtually all the convictions he achieved in the four trials were, for political reasons associated with the cold war, commuted or reversed.  But, at that moment, both men must have felt that, somehow, they had come close to doing justice when suddenly thrust onto the world’s stage under incredible circumstances.

Enter Positive Psychology

And what, you may ask, does all of this have to do with positive psychology?  It was my assignment to end the day in a one-hour session on “How they coped.”  The part before me (a panel discussing the legal theories and their relevance to today) ran over, so I actually had only 35-40 minutes at the end of what had been a fairly emotional day.  I talked about explanatory style, real-time resilience, and Chris Peterson’s summation of postive psychology, “other people matter.”  I briefly touched on the importance of happiness, its many positive associations with health and good relationships, and so on.  But, I’ve done programs as long as four hours on the relationship of positive psychology to lawyering, and any of these topics could easily be a full-day seminar, so obviously I was only illuminating a few key ideas and exercises.  I thought I did as well as could be expected under the circumstances, but I thougth it was just too fast and the audience too drained to get anything out of it.

I may have been wrong.  The next day, two participants called me to ask questions and talk about how much they had connected with the ideas I presented.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I get good reviews and good reactions when I present longer programs totally focused on positive psychology.  But I was blown away by this response.  Here’s an idea about what happened:  Jon Haidt, U. Va., says that we experience feelings of “elevation” at seeing someone else exercising a strength of character in an outstanding or unusual ways.  Such displays elicit within those who witness them a sense of excitement and a desire to “be a better person.”  We want to do something wonderful also, to be more of the person we know we can be.  One of his students has coined the phrase, “Awe is a draw.”  I think the sense of awe and elevation elicited by the program primed the participants to be ready to receive and to decide to act on information about how they could be more positive, more optimistic, and more of themselves at their very best. 

“Awe is a Draw”

To me, this is a powerful message about the importance of the affective, emotional component of education in any context, K-12 or professional.  Further, it speaks to the motivations that will cause individuals to engage in the effort and acts of will required to become more positive, hopeful, optimistic, and happy.  Change is hard, but the feelings of awe and elevation can make us want to change into more of who we can be at our very best.  And that is the goal of positive psychology.



Greene, J. (2003). Justice at Dachau: The Trials of an American Prosecutor. New York: Broadway.

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Senia 18 April 2007 - 8:04 am

This is really interesting and different. In general, we have talked a lot about Fredrickson’s positive emotions studies – and that positive emotions put people in a headspace of being more creative in problem solving (broaden) and having more psychological reserve (build).

In this article, you are coming at persuation and self-change from a different angle – that in discussions of dark, dismal, horrific events, when shown how survivors prosper and elevate themselves in such situations, the audience gets to a level of awe and deep emotional openness that makes them open to change.

Very interesting. Do you think this is the same reaction that people may have when they’re told or shown something scary? Or is what you write about quite different? When people experience fear people, do they also become open to then experiencing life changing events?

Remember there’s that one study about a guy hiking over a thin, wiry, air-hanging bridge and he sees some woman crossing the bridge from the other side, and when asked to describe her later, he remembers her as incredibly attractive. Related?


Dave Shearon 18 April 2007 - 8:33 am

Senia, I may not have done a good job of explaining what was awe-inducing for this audience.

Remember, the program was focused on two lawyers and how they responded to the incredible situation in which they found themselves. Col. Denson opted for a more just approach to the prosecution and also obviously gave himself completely to the effort. Col. Bates overcame the fatigue of 240 straight days in combat and the psychological barrier of switching from mercilessly killing German soldiers to defending those accused of being engaged in a common design to perpetrate horrors and atrocities that shocked the world to the point of saying (but unfortunately not accomplishing), “Never again.” Col. Bates also had to overcome the adversity of having Col. Denson, with far more training and far better credentials, as the lawyer on the other side.

To a group of lawyers, the fact that these two men were able to step up and perform so admirably, and apparently with a real sense of justice, was awe-inspiring. The setting in one of the most discussed examples of human evil simply added to the emotional impact of the presentation, but it was not the evil that induced awe.

Senia 18 April 2007 - 8:49 am

So it’s the compassion of these men within their situations, and also just how ably they stepped up to the plate to do their job even in difficult circumstances – those are the awe-inspiring parts, yes?

Holly Hitchcock 18 April 2007 - 10:08 am

As a state regulator for CLE and an eternal optimist, I applaud the example you set forth in your article. Often overlooked is the emotional benefit of professional development. The dramatic twist on the “war story”, finding its good service to the profession drives home the wellness point very nicely. When program planners are able to meld substantive topics with genuine and extraordinary inspiration they’re really in business!


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