milgram-imageIn order to understand the mechanism of obedience, the roles within it and the power dynamic that coincide with it, I will take a look at Stanley Milgram’s ‘Obedience to Authority’ (1961) experiment.
Whilst Milgram’s experiment isn’t carried out in a military environment per se the participants and processes involved can be extrapolated into any model of life. This is especially true of a militaristic model given the hierarchy and authoritative rank structure within.

The aim of Milgram’s experiment was to determine how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person, specifically when the instruction came from a figure of authority. In this case it involved three roles (teacher, learner and figure of authority), a dummy electric shock generator with 30 switches ranging from 15-450 volts and a controlled environment consisting of two rooms, partitioned by a door to separate the ‘learner’ from the ‘teacher’ and ‘figure of authority’.

The learner and figure of authority were colluding with one another to monitor the behaviour of the ‘teacher’. Prior to commencement of the study the teacher was initially given a low voltage shock to demonstrate the capability of the machine whilst adding an element of realism to the experiment (although no shocks were delivered to the learner during the experiment).

The role of the teacher was to read out a sequence of words and then test the learner on his ability to recall said sequence. When the learner incorrectly recalled the words he was ‘shocked’ by the teacher using the generator. The shocks started at 15 volts and increased in voltage with each mistake made by the learner. Pre-recorded audio responses to each shock given were played at shock intervals. When some participants vocalised their concern during the experiment, they were prompted to continue by the figure of authority (who was wearing a lab coat).

The prompts used by Milgram and his assistants were, “Please continue”, “The experiment requires you to continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and “You have no other choice but to continue”. These prompts were enough for all participants involved to dispense shocks of up to 300 volts whilst 65% delivered 450 volts, a potentially lethal and life threatening shock.

Stanley Milgram was born in New York City in 1933 and the son to Jewish immigrant parents. The motivation for Milgram’s experiment is interconnected with his lineage as much as it is with the time it was conceived. The trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the major architects of the Holocaust, was already underway.

Milgram invokes the Nazis within the introduction of his 1963 paper: “Obedience, as a determinant of behaviour, is of particular relevance to our time,” he wrote. “Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded; daily quotas of corpses were produced … These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders.”

This idea is interesting because it supports the compartmentalisation process which is prevalent within the military. An overall mission along with the orders to carry it out is broken down into segments for individuals and/or groups of people to complete. Whilst this may make logistical sense it’s also a mechanism to detach and disconnect all serving personnel from a complete comprehension of the collective nature of their actions. This simultaneously protects and abdicates all involved from any meaningful responsibility.

This fits in with Milgram’s ‘Agency Theory’. He explained that people actually have two states of behaviour in a social situation.

The autonomous state – this can be described when people direct their own actions and they take responsibility for the results of those actions.

The agentic state – this can be described as when people allow others to direct their actions and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.

abu-ghraibWhenever evidence is uncovered or released of any military abuse, torture or crime the military establishment goes into damage limitation and self-preservation over-drive. The upper echelons of military hierarchy will attempt to deflect, discourage and deny any involvement and project responsibility onto a ‘few bad apples’. This alleviates them of any kind of involvement and protects the overall system which created the very conditions for such atrocities to take place. So whilst most military personnel primarily operate within the agentic state it’s only when abuses, torture and war crimes come to light that the focus is switched to the autonomous state and those directly responsible are hung out to dry.

Milgram carried out numerous variations of his experiment (approximately 20) where conditions were changed, including proximity of participants, change in environments and the roles involved. All presented changes in obedience rates but subsequently highlighted that when the conditions and circumstances are apt, approximately two thirds (65%) of people will inflict lethal levels of harm upon others.

‘Situationism’ and ‘Identification’ also play integral roles in understanding the importance of the Milgram experiments. Situationism is the theory that human behaviour is determined by surrounding circumstances rather than by personal qualities. ‘Identification’ is the belief that a conflict of importance exists between carrying out a behaviour/action and whether or not the person carrying it out identifies with the subject in question. Both theories are applicable to a military environment.

Can a soldier, sailor or airman maintain personal qualities and strict adherence to morals, ethics and international law when placed in a foreign, hostile and uncertain situation?

Can a soldier, sailor or airman identify with people from foreign lands who speak different languages, who partake in different cultures, follow different religions and live different ways of life?

Milgram’s experiment highlights the harm and abuse that one human can do to another in a controlled environment when instructed to do so by a figure of authority, encouraged with simple prompts.

What would happen if you conditioned a person via an intense military indoctrination programme; enshrined them with exceptionalism, sent them to a foreign land after telling them everyone who looks and speaks a certain way is the enemy and then exposed them to un-imaginary conditions?

Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, My Lai, Mau Mau, Amritstar to name but a few.

Would they become heroes or villains?

Daniel Lenham served in the Royal Air Force and is a member of Veterans For Peace UK.


  1. Heather Speight says:

    This is an excellent thoughtful and disturbing article. Thank you Daniel.

  2. I knew of Milgram experiments but did not make military connection. Thanks Daniel good article.

  3. David Marchesi says:

    We mostly learnt , perhaps, the “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die”, and ,I would have thought, there is an obvious contradiction between “discipline” (i.e., obedience to a “superior”) and self-control. At least, while a person may be capable of obeying orders in some situations (especially fear-induced: “do this, or you’ll be punished”) for most of us, growing-up surely involves the growth into self-control.
    It seems to me that quite a lot of young men (fewer young women ?) use the excuse of having a bit of fun, with uniforms, hard physical challenges (not, of course, essentially special to the military) comradeship and adventure to give themselves over to a vast killing machine.
    The results are often quite horrible.

  4. Good Daniel, and good here

    Quote from Milgram re gas chambers – some doubt but picture of vast group evil remains.

    And the publics? Hitler relied on God, Racial supremacy, Patriotism, and FEAR

    If you bear with me, read the quotes from Milton Mayer ‘The Germans: They Thought They Were Free’

    And you might like my analysis of the machine for shredding little ones



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