Atrocities happen during times of war that are almost impossible to imagine. The idea that young soldiers would kill innocent people or be involved in war crimes does not seem possible. Yet it does happen. In World War II the Nazi leadership was ordering soldiers to round up and kill innocent people. During the Viet Nam War in 1968 the My Lai Massacre took place. In 2004 the torture and war atrocities being carried out in the Abu Ghraib Prison near Baghdad, Iraq were reported. This paper considers the reason the soldiers follow the rules even when the rules are immoral and unethical. The reason may be because they fear being outcast. First the My Lai incident which happened in 1968 will be described. Next the essay by Erich Fromm on disobedience will be discussed. Then a prison experiment and a pain experiment carried out by American psychologists will be discussed.
My Lai Massacre
The Vietnam War was a war with many tragedies, just as all wars are tragic. Some of the stories of terrible things that happen in war never make it back to the USA in the mainstream media. The Mai Lai Massacre was different and it shocked the whole nation. The whole concept of the Vietnam War changed perceptions of what was really happening. On March 16, 1968 about one hundred and twenty US troops from a unit of the American Division 11th Infantry Brigade were sent to My Lai to find the 48th Viet Cong Battalion. Instead they found a peaceful village and were met with no attack; even so after three hours “more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were killed in cold blood at the hands of the US troops” (“Murder in Name of War”). Not all the one hundred and twenty soldiers took part but the massacre was only stopped when a helicopter landed between the innocent people and the soldiers. Two of the men in the helicopter and the family of the third were honored as heroes in March 1998. (“Heroes of My Lai honored”)
Fromm and Disobedience
Erich Fromm was born in Germany but fled from the Nazis and Hitler to live in the United States. He became an American a citizen in 1940. He was a psychologist and educator. His books are internationally famous because his topics are about human nature, both the good and the bad. In his essay on disobedience he notes that when a person is disobedient to one rule they are at the same time being obedient to another rule. In other words there is a paradox in the choices we make. Some acts of disobedience are good and some acts of obedience are bad. The obedience of the soldiers at My Lai who participated in the massacre is an example of how bad obeying ones commander can be. Fromm states that there is a great fear to disobey the powerful. A person can feel relief too by not taking responsibility for their own actions. If a person acts in a good or a bad way because the powerful say he/she must do it, then a person feels the responsibility is on the powerful instead of taking their own responsibility. The frightening part is that acting badly in order to obey seems to be a part of human nature. Fromm gives Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat in Nazi Germany as an example.
. . . It is clear that if he were once more in the same situation he (Adolf Eichmann) would do it again. And so would we – and so do we.
The organization man has lost the capacity to disobey, he is not even aware of the fact that he obeys. At this point in history the capacity to doubt, to criticize and to disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization. (Fromm 12)
Fromm’s words “And so would we . . . and so do we” are a warning that we need to be aware of what we are doing and be aware if we are acting morally. The examples of Nazi Germany, the My Lai Massacre, and the torture at Aub Ghraib all three demonstrate that people can act very badly and also that they do not learn from the past mistakes of others. Two psychologists who devised experiments in order to understand this behavior better are W.C. Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram.
Zimbardo-Stanford Prison Experiment
Zimbardo designed a prison experiment while he was teaching at the Stanford University Psychology Department. The purpose of the experiment was to understand “whether the brutality reported among guards in American prisons was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or had more to do with the prison environment” (“Zimbardo-Stanford Prison Experiment”). Out of a sample of seventy five volunteers, twenty one college students were chosen to take part in the experiment. They were each screened for their psychological stability. Guards and prisoners were randomly chosen from the group of 21 students. The prisoners were arrested without prior warning in their homes. The prison was in the basement of the university’s psychology building. Three guards worked on shifts to guard the nine prisoners. Each role was adopted seemingly naturally. The observations after a short period of time were startling to the researcher. The guards started mistreating the prisoners verbally. They forced them to do chores that were meaningless. After only one day the prisoners had become submissive and the guards turned into bullies. As the prisoners became more submissive the guard’s behavior became worse. After thirty six hours one of the prisoners had to be released because he was emotionally upset to the point of uncontrolled anger, screams, and crying; then three others who had been in the role of prisoners had to leave. Finally the brutal bullying of the guards to the prisoners became so bad the experiment was stopped after only six days. Zimbardo concluded that when people are asked to play stereotypical roles they easily conform just like the students who became the guards fell quickly into the role. Each of the participants in the role playing had demonstrated that they were psychologically stable before the experiment.
Milgram and the Problem of Obedience
Milgram was a professor of social psychology at Yale University when he carried out an experiment to learn if people would hurt a complete stranger if the person in authority told them to do it. The experiment was set up so that the participants were told that one participant was in the role of a teacher, the other in the role of a learner. The learner was seated in a type of electric chair and the teacher could control how many volts of electrical shocks to apply. In fact the learner is an actor who does not receive a shock. Each teacher was given a 45 volt shock before the experiment started to understand how it feels. Receiving the shock also reinforces their belief that the learner really is receiving shocks. Sixty percent of the students in the role of teachers obeyed the authoritarian figure (the experimenter) and applied shock at higher and higher levels of pain. When the experiment was carried out with workers in industry, unemployed people, white collar workers and professionals the results were the same. Milgram explained that the teachers obeyed consistently when the authoritarian figure was in the room but not when given orders over the phone. No shocks were given when two authoritarian figures were present if they did not agree on whether or not to give a shock. In one subset of the experiment two actors were present acting as teachers with the participant also acting as a teacher. When the two actors refused to obey the third person was likely to disobey also and stop delivering shocks. Milgram concluded that although the authoritarian figure had no real power to punish the teacher; the teachers still obeyed over half of the time.
The two experiments were eye opening because they showed the way people behave when they are placed in different roles. The students who had played the guards said afterwards that they were shocked at their own behavior. This may give some insight into how the soldiers in Viet Nam behaved and the Nazis behaved: they took on highly stereotyped roles of soldiers and they had real weapons. The teachers were experiencing only a small part of what soldiers in war or guards in prison would experience as pressure from an authoritarian figure. Milgram pointed out that obedience is not only psychological but it is also societal and cultural. The soldiers at the My Lai Massacre had a stereotypical role of how they should act when they were soldiers. They were committed to obeying the commands they were given. Eichmann saw the concentration camps first hand and thought they were awful, but he returned to his desk job as if his work had nothing to do with the people in the camps. A hypothesis was made at the start of this paper that fear of being an outcast caused people to obey even when the orders were to commit a murder. This may only be a small part of the reasons for obeying terrible orders. It may be that pretending that the authority figure is the only one responsible seems to play a much bigger part in the actions discussed here.
Fromm, E. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem” in On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying “No.” New York: NY: HarperCollins. 2010.
“Heroes of My Lai honored” BBC News World Edition. 7 March 1998. Web. 5 October 2012
Milgram, S. “The Perils of Obedience.” Harper’s, 247-1483 p. 62-77. December 1973. Web. 5 October 2012.
McLeod, S.” Zimbardo-Stanford prison experiment.” Simply Psychology. 2008. Web. 5 October 2012.
“Murder in the name of war – My Lai” BBC News World Edition. 20 July 1998. Web. 5 October 2012