Military Obedience

Young soldiers at their adjuration, Heldenplatz (heroes sqaure), Vienna, Austria
••• Gunter Flegar

It's no secret that obeying orders is a big part of being in the military. But if you're considering joining, you'll need to do some soul-searching to ensure you can face the nuanced hazards of this type of work structure.

The sad truth is that psychology research shows our personal moral courage is much more precarious than we think. It gets especially dicey when our morals come into conflict with figures of authority.

Unlawful Obedience

From day one, military recruits are not only taught the value of instant obedience to orders, they're conditioned through the rigorous, rapid, and heavily directive nature of boot camp.

The idea is to acclimatize new recruits to the idea of following the leader to hell and back. When people are dying around you and your lieutenant tells you to "Take that hill!" then obedience and training are required for swift and efficient action.

But as a society, we've had to embrace the hard lessons of unthinking obedience gone wrong. The Nuremberg defense is the classic example of why "just following orders" is an unacceptable excuse for morally damning actions. But this wasn't the last, and it wasn't always an enemy of the U.S. damning themselves.

In his article "Military Orders: To Obey or Not to Obey," Rod Powers provides a great pocket history of cases when U.S. troops were punished for following unlawful orders.

Among recent prominent cases are "the court-martial (and conviction for premeditated murder) of First Lieutenant William Calley for his part in the My Lai Massacre" and the horrifying abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by soldiers who "claimed that they were only following the orders of military intelligence officials."

To reduce such crimes, part of the boot camp curriculum includes training on codes of conduct and the laws of war.

The central theme is essentially to remind recruits that they're the "good guys"—exercise appropriate moral judgment and decline to follow orders that are obviously illegal, such as murdering innocent civilians, looting, or abusing prisoners. But is it that simple?

Social Psychology

The Milgram Obedience Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment are two studies that strongly support the idea that influences such as perceived authority, environment, and assigned social roles can (often easily) overpower a noble sense of self and lead to the commission of immoral acts.

In addition to their obvious consequences, these immoral acts can have a devastating psychological effect on the person committing them.

That's because despite the objective evidence supplied by social psychologists, we have a natural, self-preserving tendency to believe we are inherently good.

The Milgram experiment had subjects, at the urgent behest of a stern man in a lab coat, continue to deliver shocks to an unseen person who may or may not be suffering a heart attack as a result.

The issue, unfortunately, doesn't come down to good or evil, but to understanding ourselves and our human nature.

Obeying an unlawful order—or even just one you find personally troubling—is not a guaranteed behavior, but we should all understand that social pressures can often be much more powerful than our own perceived morality, especially in the heat of the moment.

Consider What You Would Do

Some people who join the military may never have to face a psyche-shattering situation like My Lai or Abu Ghraib. That's why it's important, before even enlisting, to do some self-reflection. Consider who you are, who you want to be, and what you're willing to do.

Then continue to consider these questions, even if you decide not to enlist. We all have as much capacity for evil as good, and often the deciding factor is how well we know ourselves.