Over Obedience in Military Caused My Lai Massacre

Overview of the Massacre

In 1968, March 16, U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, an American division that was led by Lieutenant William Calley, entered My Lai village, with a mission to search and destroy (Trueman, 2011). The platoon was commanded by the lieutenant and were told to expect to find members of the NFL, who the U.S. soldiers referred to as Vietcong, in the village, since the NFL were active in this area. The troops started firing at the villagers they found upon arrival, without considering that most were women, children and the elderly, and there was no resistance. The number of people killed was said to be more than 175, and it could have been as high as 504, and the ages ranged from 1year old to 82 years. According to some of the soldiers, they said that it was out of orders that they had to kill the civilians, putting considerations that any age group member could belong to NFL, from the experience during their three years in Vietnam. The soldiers considered all of them to be members of the fighting group, or supporters (Trueman, 2011).

The experiment

Milgram and Zimbardo have conducted several experiments on the influence of authority on the action of a person, where total obedience is required. With their experiment, this massacre can be described as an “obedience crime.” The experiment involved taking a college student into the laboratory, and there was an actor, who was to play the role of a learner. There were two volunteers, one playing the role of the teacher, and the other one played the role of the experimenter. The student was put in another room, different from the teacher, and the teacher together with the experimenter, in front of a generator meant to inflict shock on the leaner in case he got a question wrong. The generator would inflict intervals of 15 volt of power, increasing up to 450 volts. At the start, the teacher was to press the 15 volts button, for the first question gotten wrong, and press the next button for the next question, on until 450 if the learner got the questions wrong. The experimenter was there to ensure the teacher continues with the experiment. The teacher could here the learner. The aim of the experiment was find out at what point the teacher would stop pressing the buttons, and defy the authority. In case the teacher wanted to stop, the experimenter would urge him on and on. To the psychologists, it was a surprise when many of the teachers, continued up to the last button. Most continued upon knowing they would not be held responsible.

Conclusion of the experiments

From the results of the experiment, several conclusions were made, where it was realized that under authority, a person would do things he may not do as himself. According to Milgram (1974), “Although a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience; it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus.” He further continues to say that the person does not interpret the actions using his moral judgment but rather, using consideration of how best or not to perform the particular action. He further says that the person may not want to withdraw due to the feeling of obligation or duty to perform as instructed, and more so, they put the consideration of not going through with the task. He identifies this as the biding factors that stop the people from stopping the experiment. He goes ahead to say that, “a number of adjustments in the subject’s thinking occur that undermine his resolve to break with the authority. The adjustments help the subject maintain his relationship with the experimenter” (Milgram, 1974). It is the same way that a soldier will not feel guilty bombing a place, since is acting under agency for the authority, and feels good when he meets the expectation of the authority.

When some variations were made such as bringing the learner to a place where the teacher was, many hesitated, and when other teachers were added in the experiment, who withdrew, the volunteer teacher too withdrew. After the experiment, most stated that they were doing their duty, and were not responsible for their actions, while others said the learner was so poor that he deserved it, and hence did not treat him as they would treat another person (Zimbardo & Milgram, 2008).

Connection with the Massacre

In the massacre, the soldiers were under authority to perform as instructed, and did not make judgment from their moral conscience, but rather, they were doing a job that had to be done. During training, the soldiers are taught to take orders from their seniors. They are taught to act on behalf of their country, where they are told that who ever they stand against and kill is an enemy of their state and in not doing so, they will be leaving their country in danger of their enemies. This removes the moral judgment in them, and they act on the consideration that failure to do so, they will be doing their country a disservice. According to Milgram (1974), “its ostensible purpose is to provide the recruit with military skills; its fundamental aim is to break down any residues of individuality and selfhood.” Hence, in the battlefields, the soldiers are not themselves, but rather, viewed as machines meant to take orders. More so, after training, the soldiers take an oath, swearing to abide to orders issued to them with due diligence, and without questioning. This way, the soldiers do not take blame of their actions, since they do as ordered, and not as they think. The oath ensures that they remain committed to their roles, which is executing orders of the authorities.

Moreover, the soldiers are made to believe that their subjects deserve to get the treatment that the soldiers are asked to do, and they consider their actions justifiable without questioning, and are in a position to commit inhuman actions on their victims, since they do not consider them as they would consider others. The soldiers are made to believe that they are killing justly, by the highest authority in the military, and they feel secured to carry on action as instructed. More so, according to Milgram, the Vietnamese were another race, so they did not have a feeling for them, and considered all as enemies of their country. In this case, the soldiers are normal people under instructions, which they are obliged to follow, though on their moral account, they would refrain. Just as the experiment showed that normal working and students would inflict pain on another person, it is the same way with the soldiers, as long as they do not take responsibility of the actions, which in their own moral judgment, they know is inhuman. In the experiment, if the teacher was told that, he or she will be responsible for the consequences of the action; very few would have carried on, amid screams from the learner, for fear of taking the blame, and humane feelings, which they showed, but ignored upon the assurance that they will not be held accountable.

Some soldiers will have the thought of disobeying, but considering the situation they are in, they have little choice to make, and especially when disobeying would mean danger to the unit, they are fighting in. In case a soldier disobeyed the orders of the sergeant, it would mean defecting from the unit, and considering the situation, he would have to desert the unit, and would face more danger, since he has nowhere to go to, leaving him no choice except to obey for his own safety (Milgram, 1974). In addition, there are heavy penalties for not obeying the orders, since it is equal to defying the oath of allegiance, which a soldier must take before going to war. Most soldiers dread ever entering the court martial, which is quite strict, and offers stiff punishments, to disobedient soldier.

It is evident that the massacre was because of orders issued to the soldiers. According to an interview with a soldier, the soldiers said that he fired because he was commanded to do so by the lieutenant, who had left them surrounding a few of the civilians in the center of the village, and upon coming back, asked why they had not killed them yet, and started shooting, ordering the others to do so. Obedience required in military is quite high and unquestionable, and soldiers are left with little decision of making choices on their account, hence have to comply.


Works Cited

Milgram, Stanley. “Obedience to Authority.”, 1974. Web. July 1, 2011.

Trueman, Chris. “My Lai, 2011. Web. July 1, 2011.

Zimbardo & Milgram, Stanley. “Psychology experiments – Zimbardo and Milgram.” wellbanked.blogspot, 17 April 2008. Web. July 1, 2011.



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