A STUDY conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s dismayed psychologists. Prof. Stanley Milgram had wondered, along with millions of others, how so many Germans could have tolerated or participated in the Nazi atrocities. And how could a person who had gassed thousands of Jews say later that he was not responsible for the killing: Rather, he was just "following orders"?
Most of us were sure that Americans would refuse to obey cruel orders; and Milgram set out to try to confirm this. He devised an experiment and advertised for volunteers. When two volunteers arrived at the psychology lab, a researcher told them that they would be participating for just one hour in a study of "the effect of punishment on learning." One volunteer became the "learner" and was strapped into a chair with electrodes attached to his wrists. The other, designated the "teacher," sat in an adjacent room at the control panel of an electric-shock machine. Whenever the "learner" gave a wrong answer to a question in a memory test the "teacher" was to punish him with a shock, increasing the voltage at each successive wrong answer.
The "teacher" didn't know that the "learner" was an actor who would not actually receive any shocks. The real question under investigation was: How strong an electrical shock would a person give before refusing to obey the researcher's orders to continue?
By the time that the "shocks" reached 150 volts the victim (the "learner") was crying out to be released from the electric chair; and as the voltage increased his screams became more agonized. Beyond 330 volts, if the "teacher" went that far, the victim became silent -- as though he were unconscious or dead. Psychiatrists predicted that most people would refuse to continue when the victim demanded to be released, and that practically no American would follow orders to continue giving shocks after the victim became silent.
The actual outcome was alarming. Volunteers of diverse ages and occupations continued following the orders of the researcher - a young man in a lab coat -- to administer dangerous shocks to a screaming or a silent victim.
These volunteers were not sadists. Most were seriously troubled by what they were doing, and they protested the researcher's orders to continue. But an astounding 65 percent of the subjects obeyed orders and administered shocks of 450 volts - the maximum on the control panel.
Having initially volunteered to help in a scientific experiment, they lacked the strength to disobey the authority figure directing their actions. (For details and analysis see Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority, Harper & Row, 1974.)
When similar studies were performed in other cities and other countries the results were confirmed. So we could no longer assume that Germans were the exception in their obedience to cruel orders.
In the experiment it was necessary to convince the "teacher" that he or she was participating in a noble scientific experiment. In time of war it helps to dehumanize the target population -- whether Jews, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kosovars or Serbs.
The war in Vietnam offered many examples of behavior that Americans would find unthinkable in other circumstances. Americans who wouldn't abuse an animal followed orders from Presidents Johnson and Nixon to drop napalm on human beings, from an altitude of 10,000 feet. And at My Lai on March 16, 1968, American soldiers obeyed orders from Lieutenant William Calley to kill at close range hundreds of unarmed and pleading men, women, children and babies. On February 24, 1991, American soldiers, obeying orders of Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, used bulldozers to bury alive thousands of Iraqi soldiers. (Providence Journal, Sept. 13, 1991.)
Recently, under orders from President Clinton, Americans manufactured, delivered and dropped "cluster bombs" - among our most gruesome weapons - on human beings in Yugoslavia. Our bombs landed on hospitals, buses, refugees, an embassy and even on the wrong countries (Bulgaria an Hungary) by accident. But on April 23, it was not an accident when American pilots following orders from President Clinton bombed Belgrade's TV station, killing 15 employees because, Mr. Clinton said, they were broadcasting "disinformation."
Surprisingly, on April 28, the U.S. House rejected a resolution supporting the bombing of Yugoslavia. But the bombing continued, and eight days later the House returned to obedience and voted $12.9 billion to pay for it. (There was never any resistance from Rhode Island's congressmen.)