Deadly obedience

IssueMarch 2011
Feature by Milan Rai

For a long time we in the peace movement have been looking in the wrong places when we’ve been looking for the deepest roots of war. This has led to misdirection in creating strategies for abolishing war.

The common argument against the effort to get rid of war is that violence is innate in human nature, and that therefore there will always be war. I would like to suggest that arguing with this position is the wrong move. If we as abolitionists allow ourselves to be trapped by arguing about violence-as-part-of-human-nature, it will be very difficult to move forward. The first thing we need to do, I suggest, is separate “violence” from “war”.

The most constructive way of responding to the argument that “violence is inherent in human nature”, I suggest, is to point out that: “War is not primarily about violence.”

Our starting point should be that, whether or not violence is inherent in human nature, war can and should be abolished. To put it in stronger terms, even if we are “inherently violent as a species”, that is not the reason wars happen, and it does not pose an obstacle to the abolition of war.

Violence control

The reason people generally think that “violence is inherent” may well be that they experience their own anger and rage and desire for violence, every day. They stand in a queue and someone takes forever at the counter, and they want to bash someone over the head. They get stuck in a traffic jam and someone honks their horn over and over again, and they want to get out and bash someone in the face. Every day, most people experience frustration and a resulting desire for some kind of violent satisfaction. Much of mainstream entertainment is based on fantasies of violent satisfaction.

In fact, we control ourselves. Virtually everyone who feels this way controls themselves and holds back from physical violence. This restraint, however, is a much less powerful emotional experience. The impression that lasts is one of violence, not of restraint. We makes judgements based not on the evidence of self-control, but on our thwarted desires.

We are all familiar with the moment of rage in which we wish someone else was not there. But this feeling of rage has nothing to do with why wars happen.

What’s war?

Wars are industrial processes.

Wars are fought using machines and supplies that are made in factories by patient careful workers. Bullets are not made by people in a rage. Wars are fought using technologies that are developed in laboratories by calm and thoughtful researchers. Nuclear bombs are not constructed in a red haze of fury. Wars are fought by soldiers, pilots and sailors who are trained over many years in a deliberate educational process. Torpedo loading, flight checks, and squarebashing are not drills learned by women and men shaking with fury.

Wars are fought on the basis of logistics. Meals are not cooked, fuel is not delivered, intercontinental supply lines are not managed by people who are feeling that visceral urge to smash someone in the face. Wars are fought using funds raised through complex funding and financial management systems. Taxes are not raised and budgets are not compiled by people ready to scream with anger.

Anthropologists Clifton B Kroeber and Bernard L Fontana comment: “It is a large step from what may be biologically innate leanings toward individual aggression to ritualized, socially-sanctioned, institutionalized group warfare.” These words are quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich’s valuable book Blood Rites: origins and history of the passions of war (1997). Ehrenreich points out: “Most of war consists of preparation for battle – training, the organization of supplies, marching and other forms of transport – activities which are hard to account for by innate promptings of any kind.” She then quotes an anthropologist of war, Clark McCauley: “The hypothesis of a killer instinct is not so much wrong as irrelevant.”

Even at quite low levels of technology, war is a ritualised, socially-sanctioned, institutionalised group activity, based on taxation/fundraising systems, combatant training, weapons development, (food) supply management and a chain of command. Out of all these group activities and structures, only one small part invokes that sense of killing rage: the training or preparation of combatants.

Killing machines?

It turns out that it is quite hard to train soldiers to kill.

Former US army ranger, and later professor of military science at Arkansas State University, lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman has written two books dealing with the psychology of inflicting lethal violence: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995); and (with Loren Christensen) On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (2004).

Grossman started with a startling historical fact. US brigadier general SLA Marshall, a US Army historian during World War II, found through interviews with thousands of soldiers immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during a period of encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 soldiers “would take any part” with their weapon. The others would not fire at the enemy; they would not run or hide, and many would take great risks to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or to run messages.

Though Marshall’s work has come under sustained attack, Grossman found a wide range of other studies that confirmed this finding, pointing to something that he later termed “the universal human phobia” against killing another person. (Grossman also found evidence that the phobia had declined over the decades among US soldiers, as the rate of solders shooting to kill increased to 90% during the Vietnam war; Grossman also believes that violent video games – which he calls “murder simulators” – also erode the phobia against killing.)

Many of us, most of us, perhaps all of us, have experienced at some time that flash of killing rage that wishes someone was not there, and gives us however briefly the desire to seriously physically harm them and perhaps end their lives. And yet, it turns out that most of us would find it extremely difficult to actually kill people face to face, even if we have chosen to enter the military. Grossman has written:

“Before retiring from the military, I spent almost a quarter of a century as an army infantry officer and a psychologist, learning and studying how to enable people to kill. Believe me, we are very good at it. It doesn’t come naturally, you have to be taught to kill.”(, emphasis added)

Military emotional complex

War only happens because complex social institutions are created to create the capacity for war: uniforms, bullets, bombs, tanks, meals, fuel, all delivered to the right place at the right time, all paid for by systems of taxation and budget allocation, all made by trained personnel working dispassionately, all to be consumed or deployed by combatants drilled repeatedly in their use, with only a very small proportion of those drills invoking feelings of killing rage. Wars happen not because humans are inherently violent – because it seems that most humans have to be emotionally reconstructed by the military in order to be able to kill strangers face-to-face.

Wars happen because we are willing to obey.

In Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment at Yale University in 1961–1962, people from nearby New Haven, of all different occupations, were led to believe they were participating in an experiment to test the role of punishment in learning. Specifically, they were to apply steadily increasing electric shocks to a “learner” strapped into an electric chair. The switches on the shock machine were labelled: “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, “strong shock”, “very strong shock”, “intense shock”, “extreme intensity shock”, and “danger: severe shock”. Two switches after this were marked “XXX”. The maximum voltage was 450.

In fact, the shock machine was fake, and the victim was an actor, but the man being observed did not know this. The experiment was performed in different ways, but the basic form was that the victim’s memory was tested, and every mistake they made in learning word pairs was punished with an increasingly high voltage shock.

In most versions of the experiment, the victim could be heard pitifully complaining. Milgram wrote: “At 120 volts, he complains verbally; at 150 he demands to be released from the experiment. His protests continue as the shocks escalate, growing increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can only be described as an agonised scream.”

Overall, 65% of the participants carried on past this point, and gave shocks up to the maximum 450 volts (beyond the “danger: severe shock” label) despite the fact that the victim had done nothing to “justify” such violence. Only 35% of people stopped before 450 volts.

The highest rates of obedience were found in experiment 18, when the participant merely passed on the instruction to shock to another person (also an actor) who pressed the lever to apply the shock. Less than 8% of those tested stopped before 450 volts. (After the experiment was over, participants were told that the shocks had been fake, and met the unharmed “victim”.)

Milgram wrote later of experiment 18, in his book, Obedience to Authority (1974): “it is typical of modern bureaucracy, even when it is designed for destructive purposes, that most people involved in its organization do not directly carry out any destructive actions… Any competent manager of destructive bureaucratic systems can arrange his personnel so that only the most callous and obtuse are directly involved in violence. The greater part of the personnel can consist of men and women who, by virtue of their distance from the actual acts of brutality, will feel little strain in their performance of supportive functions. They will feel doubly absolved from responsibility. First, legitimate authority has given full warrant for their actions. Second, they have not themselves committed brutal physical acts.”

A problem with authority

Wars happen not because as a species we have a tendency towards physical aggression, but because we have a tendency towards obedience to authority. We obey too much and resist too little.

If this is right, then the focus for our abolition work should not primarily be on manifestations of aggression (such as violent video games or violent language), but on manifestations of obedience. In other words, the violation of conscience through conformism.

This violation of conscience may occur as much in the pacifist society as in the munitions factory or the research laboratory.

Having said this, different institutions and different social frameworks make different kinds of behaviour more or less likely. In professor Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, college students were randomly allocated the roles of guard or prisoner in a mock prison. Zimbardo wrote later: “We selected only those judged to be emotionally stable, physically healthy, mature, law-abiding citizens.” The two-week experiment was terminated after six days and nights because of the escalating abuse of the prisoners, and the evidence of unbearable psychological distress. Zimbardo wrote in his book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (2007) that the Stanford Prison Experiment was “a powerful illustration of the potentially toxic impact of bad systems and bad situations in making good people behave in pathological ways that are contrary to their nature.”

Modern phenomenon

An extremely important study into war was carried out by anthropologist Douglas P Fry, in his book Beyond War: The Human Potential For Peace (2007). Fry investigated the historical evidence for war, finding that though anatomically modern humans have existed for 200,000 years or so, the earliest possible evidence for war came only 14,000 years ago. (Evidence could consist of unambiguous fortifications, specialized weapons such as clubs and daggers not used in hunting, depictions of martial scenes in art work, substantial number of burials with projectile points either embedded in bones or lying within the frames of skeletons, massive fires followed by change in cultural artefacts, reduced number of male remains in cemeteries, suggesting significant male death elsewhere.)

By examining the scholarly record, Fry discovered that the majority of simple hunter-gatherer societies (less than 50 members) studied in modern times (13 out of 21) do not practice war. In the next most complex form of human society, tribes, war is not typical, though feuding is. A tribe is defined as a group of 100 or more members, with weak leadership and a lifestyle based on horticulture or herding.

Fry distinguishes “feuding” from “war”. A feud is a blood revenge attack after a murder. It is directed at the murderer or their family. It is not directed at all members of a group or tribe. A war, on the other hand, is “relatively impersonal lethal aggression between communities”. Fry quotes approvingly this definition of war by Roy Prosterman:

“A group activity, carried on by members of one community against members of another community, in which it is the primary purpose to inflict serious injury or death on multiple nonspecified members of that other community, or in which the primary purpose makes it highly likely that serious injury or death will be inflicted on multiple nonspecified members of that community in the accomplishment of that primary purpose.”

War is a group activity against another group, not a family activity against another family. It is also indiscriminate, so that all members of the enemy community may be subject to lethal force. War only becomes a typical activity when we reach more complex societies, such as chiefdoms (hierarchies where chiefs enjoy special privileges, and a lifestyle often based on farming or fishing) and complex hunter-gather societies (forms of chiefdom with rulers, commoners, sometimes slaves also, based on exploiting rich natural resources such as salmon runs on the North American northwest coast).

The next most complex society is the state. In a state, rulers enjoy considerable coercive power, based on centralised political and military institutions and bureaucracy; there is urbanisation, economic specialisation and social class distinction, and the large-scale irrigation of crops with a lifestyle based on agriculture (and later industry). With these societies, war is a typical form of group activity.

Fry quotes anthropologist Jonathan Haas, drawing the obvious conclusion: “The level, intensity and impact of warfare tend to increase as cultural systems become more complex.”

The critical factor, I suggest, is not the increasing complexity of cultural systems, but the increasing authoritarianism and inequality of the systems. As class stratification increases, and as power and wealth are concentrated, so indiscriminate, anonymous group violence becomes more and more prevalent.

Peaceful societies

Fry found evidence of 70 non-warring societies; societies which deliberately avoided group-on-group violence. The Semai of Malaysia neither war nor feud. Even when confronted by slave-traders, “the Semai response was always a disorganized and headlong flight into the forest.”

Fry notes that “the social organization of simple nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, the only form of social organization for the vast majority of human prehistory, is simply not conducive to making war.” In these “bands” of people, individuals easily move from one band to another, there are few if any family/kinship or other subgroupings, and there is little if any clear leadership of bands. This links to Zimbardo’s point about different social structures evoking different behaviours from the same people.

Zimbardo suggests that just as the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann demonstrated the “banality of evil”, so a survey of known good actions demonstrated the “banality of heroism”. He suggests that most people seem to be capable of heroism, which includes a willingness to risk social sacrifices (in terms of ridicule or ostracism or harm to one’s career) as well as physical danger, and long-term, enduring, considered action as well as spontaneous responses to unforeseen events.

What people committed to the abolition of war need to do, as well as dismantling military policies and institutions, is to increase the capacity of people both inside and outside the military to stand up for their values even in the face of ridicule, disapproval, ostracism, and damage to one’s career. What many of us find most difficult is that taking a stand on serious matters can involve status and economic losses not only for ourselves, but for our families and loved ones.

If we focus on the avoidance of physical harm, on negotiation and conflict resolution, and a reduction in aggressive language and images, this clearly addresses the issue of violence within society. On the analysis presented so far, however, it does not address the issue of war.

Abolishing war

War today requires a huge army of people carrying out tasks that involve no physical harm to human beings, that can most efficiently be carried out through sophisticated psychological management rather than the threat of violence, and that minimise if they do not eliminate aggressive language and images.

If we think of the chain of actions that could lead to the firing of a nuclear missile from a British Trident submarine, we can see a huge line of calm, professional people raising and allocating finances; turning raw materials into some of the most sophisticated technology ever devised; training and managing sailors, technicians and commanders; and relaying orders through a well-drilled, highly-responsive, fine-tuned chain of command. It would be irrelevant, and generally counter-productive, during almost all of this process, to stir people to a murderous rage, or to practice using physical force against individual human beings. (The exception may be in a small part of the training of the sailors who are tasked with protecting the submarine.) What is required is rather the bureaucratic ideal of dispassionate excellence.

Even if we think of frontline troops in Afghanistan, it is clear that modern war is based mainly on training, on drill, on logistics, on communications, on the cool use of massively destructive technologies (perhaps while under fire oneself), on the rapid and precise execution of orders amidst the death and injury of one’s friends and colleagues. This has nothing to do with uncontrolled, spontaneous rage. It has everything to do with the careful and effective containing and channelling of one’s emotions.

It is obvious that the abolition of war will involve eliminating the institutions of war, including compulsory taxation for war. It is also obvious that the abolition of war will also require the elimination of the culture of war. It should be just as obvious that the culture of war is primarily the culture of obedience.

Stanley Milgram wrote of experiment 18: “The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organised evil in modern society.” Milgram recorded the effect of bearing partial responsibility: most of those who applied the electric shocks showed nervous tension, and later described great internal anguish as they complied with the sadistic instructions of the experimenter.

Our goal must be to increase the amount of tension we feel between what we know to be right, and what we say and do, and to increase the chances that people will resolve this tension by standing up for themselves. Our goal must be to break down immoral conformism, which is undoubtedly inculcated from early childhood by both parents and schools.

In the world of business education, a new strand has emerged in corporate social responsibility. Called “Giving Voice to Values”, this new initiative does not focus on abstract ethical analysis, but on practical ethical implementation. The priority is not the academic questioning of business decisions and policies, but the personal challenge of asking: “What would I say and do if I were going to act on my values?”

Giving Voice to Values aims to help students “identify the many ways that individuals can – and do – voice their values in the workplace”, and “provides the opportunity to script and practice this voice in front of peers”. (See Mary C Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, 2010)

If the abolition of war requires the abolition of immoral obedience, it will mean reorienting education institutions (and peace movement campaigning) to embed this kind of personal development throughout society, at every level. It is undoubtedly true that a lot of peace movement campaigning involves exactly this kind of self-reflection and self-development – perhaps most obviously in the case of nonviolent civil disobedience.

However, “immoral conformism” can occur just as easily in a civil disobedience affinity group or a pacifist society.

When people say that war can never be abolished because humans are inherently violent, they are advancing a non sequitur. Our possible biological propensity to violence has nothing to do with our habit of making war. What we need to abolish war is not only a society made up of people who prefer peace to war, but a society made up of people who are willing to risk social sacrifices to stand up for what they believe in.

What we need to abolish war is to somehow combine enormous social complexity with the egalitarianism of the majority of simple hunter-gatherer societies, who avoid war (but who experience murder and revenge). What we need is to somehow recreate the equality and anti-authoritarianism and inherent pacifism of the prehistoric band in modern industrial society. Only then will war truly be abolished.