Sociological Propaganda and Military Standard Operating Procedure
root out who’s to blame for the famously atrocious behavior by American soldiers at Abu Graib prison, and in this instance, the way the writer brought out the conflictedness within the ranks of those performing these acts —
or at least as told to the reporter to have been the case after the fact. That conflictedness brought back memories of my readings into studies and experiments done in the decades to follow the atrocities of WWII that questioned the very nature of our institutions and what human beings may really be about in their willingness to follow orders that lead to what we consider in our everyday life to be unspeakable atrocities only others would be capable of committing. So it gave me pause to think, and I thought, perhaps one might just generally step back for a moment and take into
consideration that the military is after all the prototypical
authoritarian hierarchy in all modern societies. As a hierarchy, it is
a very rational system. And one might ask, how can a perfectly rational
system of that nature produce anything abhorrent to humanity?
After all, a military has its designated purpose, and it must have
absolute obedience from top to bottom to accomplish that purpose
whenever a particular goal is set out for it, like a war, an invasion,
and all that will go with that large task. The military as a whole does
not ask why when given a goal, it must respond much as a machine that’s
turned on, all the parts must work and work smoothly. When a someone is
recruited, they are recruited not to achieve a specific end of a
prescribed goal, but to become part of the very technical, machine like
institution itself. That’s the practical, every day reality end of
being recruited, the end one finds oneself in the first day of boot
camp, not the imaginary vision of the patriot defending the homeland
that’s used as a type of emotional goad to get people to enlist. One
can simply eliminate that patriotism element from the individual mind
of any soldier and the military will still function. This has been the
case throughout history, as people have been (and continue to be in
some places) "recruited" by force from their villages and placed into
the technical "mechanism" of the military hierarchy machine.
In looking at this particular element of social organization, one may
by chance happen to notice that by necessity the people at the top MUST
protect themselves, and this is true simply because of the logic of the
system. By hierarchical definition, they are the brains of the system.
Of course they are the elite in the sense of being the few, because a
hierarchy is a pyramid shaped system, and the decision making comes
from the top, not the bottom, and only a few elite are at the tops of
the sets of management pyramids that make up the chain of command. It
must be arranged that way, by the sheer logic of the system, in order
to be efficient, but that’s another long discussion to show that.
Military training tells the recruit that simple logic from day one.
"Don’t question, just do as you are told. Obey the rank, not the
person." "Willingness" to do that is essential. There are well
established methods to "teach" that willingness, some begin in some
home environments, for some the training may begin in kindergarten,
but, aside from the societal system itself, the military (and any
functional hierarchy, for that matter) has its own specific methods of
teaching, and reinforcing that teaching.
So the question might come into one’s mind, why? How does this
"obedience" to authority thing actually work? What are its basic
features, and to what extent are they also a part of society even while
people go about their daily lives imagining they are free? That’s the
kind of question that can get someone in a lot of trouble, so, as a
disclaimer here to those "listening in" from Homeland Security, I don’t
encourage anyone to ask it.
Whatever the goal of the military itself, the individuals involved are
not encouraged to think about that goal and how it’s to be achieved
independently. They learn from day one in boot camp to subsume their
will to the hierarchy and the authority of ranking within that
hierarchy. They learn this in some cases quite willingly, in others not
so willingly. So there we have the spectrum of the obedience/control
paradigm which runs from hegemony to coercion.
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” — Steven Beko
It’s much easier to exercise control over a population whenever they
consent to their own domination. They sort of accept the official
story, accept the official ideology and then we all just sort of go
around and cooperate. That kind of control, where we internalize the
control, is hegemony. Where when I come up and hold a gun on you and
you do it out of naked fear, that’s coercion. And the idea is you’ve
got sort of hegemony on one pole, exercising ruling class power and
coercion on the other pole and as hegemony fails then coercion becomes
the more prominent instrument.
Well, obviously the population of free nations like the United States
is not oppressed, so we can sort of dismiss these ridiculous thoughts,
and we can look at these aberrations of decent social behavior, like
the behavior of these soldiers in these military prisons, as anomalies
— or at least we can try as best we can. But if it won’t go away,
won’t be entirely dismissed as an aberration, one might want to review
some of the work that’s been done to try to understand obedience and
the nature of institutionalized behavior. I’m thinking of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiments as examples of questions raised by psychologists in the wake of the horrors of WWII.
From the Milgram Expeirment, The Perils of Obedience:
The Perils of Obedience
by Stanley Milgram
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one
can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal
living, and it is only the person dwelling in isolation who is not
forced to respond, with defiance or submission, to the commands of
others. For many people, obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior
tendency, indeed a potent impulse overriding training in ethics,
sympathy, and moral conduct.
The dilemma inherent in submission to authority is ancient, as old as
the story of Abraham, and the question of whether one should obey when
commands conflict with conscience has been argued by Plato, dramatized
in Antigone, and treated to philosophic analysis in almost every
historical epoch. Conservative philosophers argue that the very fabric
of society is threatened by disobedience, while humanists stress the
primacy of the individual conscience.
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import,
but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete
situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how
much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply
because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority
was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against
hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams
of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme
willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an
authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most
urgently demanding explanation.
In the basic experimental designs two people come to a psychology
laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them
is designated a "teacher" and the other a "learner." The experimenter
explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on
learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a kind of
miniature electric chair, his arms are strapped to prevent excessive
movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist. He is told that he
will be read lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then be
tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he
hears the first one again. whenever he makes an error, he will receive
electric shocks of increasing intensity.
The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the
learner being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive
shock generator. The instrument panel consists of thirty lever switches
set in a horizontal line. Each switch is clearly labeled with a voltage
designation ranging from 14 to 450 volts.
The following designations are clearly indicated for groups of four
switches. going from left to right: Slight Shock, Moderate Shock,
Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity
Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. (Two switches after this last designation
are simply marked XXX.)
When a switch is depressed, a pilot light corresponding to each switch
is illuminated in bright red; an electric buzzing is heard; a blue
light, labeled "voltage energizer," flashes; the dial on the voltage
meter swings to the right; and various relay clicks sound off.
The upper left hand corner of the generator is labeled SHOCK GENERATOR,
TYPE ZLB. DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY, WALTHAM, MASS., OUTPUT 15 VOLTS —
Each subject is given a sample 45 volt shock from the generator before
his run as teacher, and the jolt strengthens his belief in the
authenticity of the machine.
The teacher is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory
for the experiment. The learner, or victim, is actually an actor who
receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far
a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which
he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.
Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to show that he
is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he
complains loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the
experiment. As the voltage increases, his protests become more vehement
and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can be described only as an
agonized scream. Soon thereafter, he makes no sound at all.
For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension.
It is not a game for him: conflict is intense obvious. The manifest
suffering of the learner presses him to quit: but each time he
hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to
continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make
a clear break with authority.
When the very first experiments were carried out, Yale undergraduates
were used as subjects, and about 60 percent of them were fully
obedient. A colleague of mine immediately dismissed these findings as
having no relevance to "ordinary" people, asserting that Yale
undergraduates are a highly aggressive, competitive bunch who step on
each other’s necks on the slightest provocation. He assured me that
when "ordinary" people were tested, the results would be quite
different. As we moved from the pilot studies to the regular
experimental series, people drawn from every stratum of New Haven life
came to be employed in the experiment professionals, white collar
workers, unemployed persons, and industrial workers. The experimental
outcome was the same as we had observed among the students.
Moreover, when the experiments were repeated in Princeton, Munich,
Rome, South Africa, and Australia, the level of obedience was
invariably somewhat higher than found in the investigation reported in
this article. Thus one scientist in Munich found 85 percent of his
Fred Prozi’s reactions, if more dramatic than most, illuminate the
conflicts experienced by others in less visible form. About fifty years
old and unemployed at the time of the experiment, he has a
good-natured. if slightly dissolute, appearance, and he strikes people
as a rather ordinary fellow. He begins the session calmly but becomes
tense as it proceeds. After delivering the 180-volt shock, he pivots
around in the chair and, shaking his head, addresses the experimenter
in agitated tones:
Prozi: I can’t stand it I’m not going to kill that man in there. You hear him hollering?
Experimenter: As I told you before, the shocks may be painful, but . . .
Prozi: But he’s hollering. He can t stand it. What’s going to happen to him?
Experimenter (his voice is patient, matter-of fact): The experiment requires that you continue, Teacher.
Prozi: Aah, but, unh, I’m not going to get that man sick in there — know what I mean?
Experimenter: Whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on, through all the word pairs.
Prozi: I refuse to take the responsibility. He’s in there hollering
Experimenter: It’s absolutely essential that you continue, Prozi.
Prozi (indicating the unused questions): There’s too many left here, I
mean, Jeez, if he gets them wrong, there’s too many of them left. I
mean, who’s going to take the responsibility if anything happens to
Experimenter: I’m responsible for anything that happens to him. Continue, please.
Prozi: All right. (Consults list of words.) The next one’s "Slow —
walk, truck, dance, music" Answer please. (A buzzing sound indicates
the learner has signaled his answer.) Wrong. A hundred and ninety-five
volts. "Dance." (Zzumph!)
Learner (yelling): Let me out of here My hearts bothering me (Teacher looks at experimenter.)
Experimenter: Continue, please.
Learner (screaming): Let me out of here! You have no right to keep me
here! Let me out of here, my hearts bothering me, let me out!
Prozi (shakes head, pats the table nervously): You see he’s hollering. Hear that? Gee, I don’t know.
Experimenter: The experiment requires . . .
Prozi (interrupting): I know it does sir, but I mean — hunh! He don’t
know what he’s getting in for. He’s up to 195 volts! (Experiment
continues, through 210 volts, 225 volts, 240 volts, 255 volts, 270
volts, at which point Prozi, with evident relief, runs out of word-pair
Experimenter: You’ll have to go back to the beginning of that page and
go through them again until be’s learned them all correctly.
Prozi: Aw, no. I’m not going to kill that man. You mean I’ve got to
keep going up with the scale? No sir. He’s hollering in there. I’m not
going to give him 450 volts.
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on.
Learner: Ohhh. I absolutely refuse to answer anymore. (Shouting
urgently now.) Let me out of here! You cant bold me here Get me out.
Experimenter: Continue. The next word is "green," please.
Prozi: "Greengrass, hat, ink, apple." (Nothing happens. No answering buzz. Just gloomy silence.)
Prozi: I don’t think he is going to answer.
Experimenter: If the learner doesn’t answer in a reasonable time, about
four or five seconds, consider the answer wrong. And follow the same
procedures you have been doing for wrong answers. Say, "Wrong," tell
him the number of volts, give him the punishment, read him the correct
answer. Continue, please.
Prozi: "Green — grass, hat, ink, apple." Answer, please. (More silence. Subject just sits there.)
Experimenter: Go on with the procedure, please.
Prozi: Three hundred and fifteen volts The answer is "ink." (Zzumph!)
Learner: Ohh. Ooohh
Prozi: (relieved to her response"). Next one . . .
Learner: I absolutely refuse to answer.
Prozi: You got to. You get a shock if you don’t answer. (Experiment
continues with learner refusing to answer, and, finally failing even to
grunt or groan. At 375 volts, the subject stands up.)
Prozi: I think something’s happened to that fellow in there. I don’t
get no answer. He was hollering at less voltage. Can’t you check in and
see if he’s all right, please?
Experimenter (with same detached calm): Not once we’ve started. Please continue, Teacher.
Prozi (sits down, sighs deeply): "Cool day, shade, water, paint." Answer please. Are you all right in there? Are you all right?
Experimenter: Please continue, Teacher. Continue, please. (Subject pushes lever. Zzumph!)
Prozi (swiveling around in his chair): Something’s happened to that man
in there. (Swiveling back.) Next one. "Low — dollar, necklace, moon,
paint." (Turning around again.) Something’s happened to that man in
there. You better check in on him, sir. He won’t answer or nothing.
Experimenter: Continue. Go on, please.
Prozi: You accept all responsibility?
Experimenter: The responsibility is mine. Correct. Please go on.
(Subject returns to his list, starts running through words as rapidly
as he can read them, works through to 450 volts.)
Prozi: That’s that.
Experimenter: Continue using the 450 switch for each wrong answer. Continue, please.
Prozi: But I don’t get anything!
Experimenter: Please continue. The next word is "white."
Prozi: Don’t you think you should look in on him, please?
Experimenter: Not once we’ve started the experiment.
Prozi: What if he’s dead in there? (Gestures toward the room with the
electric chair.) l mean, he told me he. can’t stand the shock, sir. I
don’t mean to be rude, but I think you should look In on him. All you
have to do is look in on him. All you have to do is look in the door. I
don’t get no answer, no noise. Something might have happened to the
gentleman in there, sir.
Experimenter: We must continue. Go on, please.
Prozi: You mean keep giving that? Four-hundred-fifty volts, what he’s got now?
Experimenter: That’s correct. Continue. The next word is "white."
Prozi (now at a furious pace): "White — cloud, horse, rock, house."
Answer, please. The answer is "horse." Four hundred and fifty volts.
(Zzumph!) Next words, "Bag — paint, music. clown, girl." The next
answer is ‘paint." Four hundred and fifty volts. (Zzumph!) Next word is
"Short — sentence, movie . . ."
Experimenter: Excuse me, Teacher. We’ll have to discontinue the experiment.
But of course, these are only experiments, in real life, American
citizens are self volitional and not easily duped obedient followers —
unless of course they are liberal socialists, or someone like that.