A Delicate Balance: You and Military Obedience

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

It's no secret that obedience to orders is a big part of being in the military. But if you're considering joining, you'll need to do some soul-searching first -- and forever after, if you do sign up -- to be sure 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 (and we really do like to think highly of ourselves, despite the evidence.) It gets especially dicey when our morals come into conflict with figures of authority.

Laws of war and personal honor aside, it takes good old knowledge of self to pass through such challenges.

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!" it doesn't do much good to have a bunch of snotty know-it-alls respond with, "Why don't we stop here and come up with a better idea?"

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 it wasn't the last -- and it wasn't always an enemy of the US damning themselves.

In his article "Military Orders: To Obey or Not to Obey?"  Rod Powers provides a great pocket history of cases when US 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

When I returned to school after my second tour in Iraq, I dabbled in psychology courses for a while. The course that impacted me most profoundly was social psychology, which examines the effect of groups and society on thought and behavior. (It often, though not always, appears to be the study of how horrible people can be in large numbers.)

I never saw direct combat in Iraq, yet I still felt my stomach turn as we studied two very important experiments in the history of social psychology: The Milgram Obedience Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. These two studies 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. Go ahead and present a room full of students with the facts of the Milgram study. Ask them if they would, at the urgent behest of a stern man in a lab coat, continue delivering shocks to an unseen person whom they might have just given a heart attack. Most will still believe themselves incapable of such an act: "I'm a good person."

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.

What Would You Do?

Some people who join the military may never have to face a psyche-shattering situation like My Lai or Abu Ghraib. But sometimes, it's the luck of the draw. That's why it's important, before even enlisting, to begin examining how well you know yourself.

To this day, I recoil at the opportunity to abuse others or my power over them (and being a future nurse, caring for people at their weakest, I'll have plenty of opportunities.) Yet at one time, even though I never saw direct combat, I witnessed and even enabled dehumanizing behaviors that, though not technically criminal, certainly kept me up at night for some time after.

It took me a few years to get over wallowing in my negative feelings about those experiences every time I'd had a few beers. Neither am I ashamed of my entire career in the military because of these experiences. I simply bring them up to illustrate my point: Before embarking on a career that requires you to walk the fine line between being a good team player and exercising individual moral judgment -- often under extreme pressure, when it counts -- consider who you are, and what you would do.

Then keep considering it every day, even if you decide not to enlist. We all have as much capacity for evil as good when it counts most, and often the only deciding factor in our control is knowing ourselves.

Find Your Next Job

Job Search by