The Vietnam controversy made many people feel at distress. It was never considered a “war,” although that is exactly what it was. The My Lai Massacre in Vietnam was one of the many atrocities of that war. There is an unquestionable connection between Milgram’s “Obedience to Authority” and the My Lai Massacre.
According to Kelman & Hamilton, “Unquestioning obedience has been the cause of such disasters as the My Lai massacre and the Holocaust. People need to resist the dangerous web of influence from strong personalities in fields such as politics, religion and the mass media who become the objects of their idolatry. To become less susceptible to the irrational persuasive power of such personalities, individuals should develop a sense of self-respect and practice critical thinking” (Kelman & Hamilton). In cases such as the My Lai Massacre, the soldiers were not just following the thoughts of a politician or religious figure. They followed their military leader, the same person they counted on for leadership and survival.
“Soldiers are trained to always follow orders, never question orders (When I say jump, u you say how high). But that belief is somewhat erroneous, the charge to the soldier is to obey any lawful order given (Schwalbe). “Absolute obedience, although not wholeheartedly embraced in official military pronouncements, is nevertheless unanimously praised in combat context (Peppers). Some military scholars call the modern version of military discipline “enlightened obedience.”
springs from a belief on the part of the subordinate that his superior’s orders are authoritative and valid (Peppers).”
A classic example of the power of authoritative factors is provided by Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority. College students from Yale University were asked to participate in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning. They were willing to continue administering what they thought were increasingly higher levels of shocks to another subject (actually an actor) simply because the experimenter (Milgram) said to do so. The results, in fact, were so unbelieveable that they made Milgram one of the most famous social psychologist. About 65 percent of the subjects continued to obey the experimenter to the end of the experiment even when they thought the victim was getting dangerous levels of electric shock, and even when he asked them to stop
So what exactly does the My Lai Massacre have to do with Milgram’s experiment? The My Lai Massacre of 1968, in which a company of American soldiers poured automatic rifle fire into groups of unarmed villagers, killing perhaps 500 people, many of them women and children” (Hammer). Those soldiers were obeying orders from a superior officer.
“It passed without notice when it occurred in mid-March 1968. Yet the brief blood bath at My Lai, a hamlet in Viet Cong-infested territory 335 miles northeast of Saigon, may yet have an impact on the war. According to accounts that suddenly appeared on TV and in the world press last week, a company of 60 or 70 U.S.
Infantrymen had entered My Lai early one morning and destroyed houses, livestock and all the inhabitants that they could find in a brutal operation that took less than 20 minutes. When it was over, the Vietnamese dead totaled at least 100 men, women and children, and perhaps many more, only 25 or so escaped, because they lay hidden under the fallen bodies of others. (Schawlbe) Military men said that stories of what happened at My Lai are correct. If so, the incident ranks as the most serious atrocity yet attributed to American troops” (Hammer).
Isard said, “I see men who obeyed the leaders of their country, then lost themselves”. The My Lai Massacre was planned. “Planned, how could it have been planned? A recon patrol, perhaps, was planned, maybe even a search and destroy mission: Burn the villages; interrogate the villagers, and all that. But a massacre? Strategies are planned. Brutalities just happen” (Isard).
“Obedience to Authority” Stanley Milgram described the “agentic shift in which an individual attributes responsibility for his or her actions to a person in the position of authority.” In the My Lai Massacre the men felt it was their duty to open fire on the village. They were given orders to do just that. There was no questioning of orders from Cally, their superiour. The soldiers must have done as they were told, or incur sever consequences. Soldiers are taught from their first moments in Boot Camp that orders must be obeyed.
The way in which the My Lai Massacre was particularly a case of over obedience to the military, is that the men that committed the massacre were ordered to do so.
They did not decide on their own to destroy a bunch of people. They were following orders from military authoritative figures to destroy My Lai. What does this mean? Its clearly a case of over obedience to military authority. The men had two choices. They could obey a command and kill hundreds of innocent people, or they could disobey a command and face a possible consequences from the courts. In actuality they didn’t have a choice. many of the soldiers in Vietnam were there because of the draft, they however in their eyes, served their country to their best of their knowledge.
They went bravely into battle and they did what had to be done. In the case of the My Lai Massacre, they were following orders just as they had done in many other times in the war. Only this time, the orders were to kill hundreds of villagers, not the Viet Cong, not the enemy. There were women and children in that village. They were gunned down mercilessly. For what reason? They were ordered to do so.
The soldiers had an obligation, a duty to obey their superiors. That is what makes the military so successful. Soldiers not ask questions; they merely obey orders. In this instance the orders went too far. Hundreds of innocent people were killed in the name of following orders. Is this any less an atrocious because the men were ordered to fire on the village of My Lai? No. Were the men doing this for personal gain? No. Were they doing it out of hatred or in defense? No. Many of the people in the village were women and children. The soldiers had nothing against those people In this instance the village of My Lai was a case of death by over obedience of the American army. Was what they did right or wrong? In the eyes of most people, including the participants, the action was wrong, but they could not be faulted because they were simply following orders.
Hammer, Richard One Morning in the War: The tragedy at Son My. Coward-McCann NY 1970
Isard, Walter., ed. Vietnam: Issues and Alternatives. Schenkman . Cambridge MA: 1969
Kelman, Herbert C.; Hamilton, Lee V. Crimes of Obedience. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1989
Milgram, Stanley. “The Perils of Obedience.” Writing and Reading Across the
Curriculum. 7th ed. By Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Longman, 2000. 343-355
Miller, Heather. “Stanley Milgram”
Peppers, Donald A. “War Crimes and Induction: A Case for Selective Nonconscientious
Objection.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 2. (Winter, 1974),
pp.129-166. JSTOR Middlesex County College Library, Edison. 29 Nov. 2000 http://www.jstor.org
Schwalbe, David. “The My Lai Massacre.” American History. 1998 http://americanhistory.about.com/homework/americanhistory/library/weekly/aa031798.htm