The Situationist

Archive for May 10th, 2007

The Situation of a “Volunteer” Army

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on May 10, 2007


In March, Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo posted (as part of a larger series on the situational sources of evil) on some of the basic lessons of the human-behavior studies, including Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. According to Zimbardo,

Milgram crafted his research paradigm to find out what strategies can seduce ordinary citizens to engage in apparently harmful behavior. Many of these methods have parallels to compliance strategies used by “influence professionals” in real-world settings, such as salespeople, cult and military recruiters, media advertisers, and others.

Zimbardo then included the following list of ten strategies:


Prearranging some form of contractual obligation, verbal or written, to control the individual’s behavior in pseudo-legal fashion. In Milgram’s obedience study, subjects publicly agreed to accept the tasks and the procedures.


Giving participants meaningful roles to play — “teacher,” “learner” — that carry with them previously learned positive values and automatically activate response scripts.


Presenting basic rules to be followed that seem to make sense before their actual use but can then be used arbitrarily and impersonally to justify mindless compliance. The authorities will change the rules as necessary but will insist that rules are rules and must be followed (as the researcher in the lab coat did in Milgram’s experiment).


Altering the semantics of the act, the actor, and the action — replacing unpleasant reality with desirable rhetoric, gilding the frame so that the real picture is disguised: from “hurting victims” to “helping the experimenter.” We can see the same semantic framing at work in advertising, where, for example, bad-tasting mouthwash is framed as good for you because it kills germs and tastes like medicine.


Creating opportunities for the diffusion of responsibility or abdication of responsibility for negative outcomes, such that the one who acts won’t be held liable. In Milgram’s experiment, the authority figure, when questioned by a teacher, said he would take responsibility for anything that happened to the learner.


Starting the path toward the ultimate evil act with a small, seemingly insignificant first step, the easy “foot in the door” that swings open subsequent greater compliance pressures. In the obedience study, the initial shock was only a mild 15 volts. This is also the operative principle in turning good kids into drug addicts with that first little hit or sniff.


Having successively increasing steps on the pathway that are gradual, so that they are hardly noticeably different from one’s most recent prior action. “Just a little bit more.”


Gradually changing the nature of the authority figure from initially “just” and reasonable to “unjust” and demanding, even irrational. This tactic elicits initial compliance and later confusion, since we expect consistency from authorities and friends. Not acknowledging that this transformation has occurred leads to mindless obedience. And it is part of many date rape scenarios and a reason why abused women stay with their abusing spouses.


Making the exit costs high and making the process of exiting difficult; allowing verbal dissent, which makes people feel better about themselves, while insisting on behavioral compliance.


Offering a “big lie” to justify the use of any means to achieve the seemingly desirable, essential goal. (In Milgram’s research the justification was that science will help people improve their memory by judicious use of reward and punishment.) In social psychology experiments, this is known as the “cover story”; it is a cover-up for the procedures that follow, which do not make sense on their own. The real-world equivalent is an ideology. Most nations rely on an ideology, typically “threats to national security,” before going to war or suppressing political opposition. When citizens fear that their national security is being threatened, they become willing to surrender their basic freedoms in exchange. Erich Fromm’s classic analysis in Escape from Freedom made us aware of this trade-off, which Hitler and other dictators have long used to gain and maintain power.

The June issue of The Atlantic contains a terrific article, “The Army We Have,” by Brian Mockenhaupt. It opens with this teaser: “To fight today’s wars with an all-volunteer force,The Atlantic June 2007 Issue the U.S. Army needs more quick-thinking, strong, highly disciplined soldiers. But creating warriors out of the softest, least-willing populace in generations has required sweeping changes in basic training.”

In effect, Mockenhaupt’s article is quite similar to the human-behavior experiments. It is a study on how the American military transforms “soft” civilians who have “volunteered” for duty into killing machines provides and therefore provides an implicit test of Zimbardo’s thesis. Reading Mockenhaupt’s piece, we were struck by the extent to which that thesis is confirmed: the volunteer army experiment is a yet another real-world rendition of Milgram’s obedience studies.

Mockenhaupt writes:

Turning civilians into soldiers and teaching them to kill has always been difficult work, but these new challenges and demands have made it harder still, so the Army has made sweeping changes in the basic combat training that every recruit must go through. “

The first trick, of course, is to enlist “volunteers.” The word “volunteer,” itself invokes images of individuals stepping forward to offer themselves toward the cause. One might even imagine a line of would-be soldiers hoping to get in — trying to serve their country — while military officials select only those who are healthy, strong, tough, smart, and otherwise possessing the right stuff or having what it takes.

No doubt the wagon-circling wake of 9/11, the true volunteer was not uncommon. Today, with wagons on fire, the mission in flux and in doubt, the dangers evident, and patriotic fervor dimmed, lower standards and increased recruitment efforts is now the norm.Military Recruiter According to Mockenhaupt,

“the Army has in recent years added thousands of recruiters, more than doubled certain elistment bonuses to $40,000 and granted more enlistment waivers for medical problems, past drug and alcohol abuse, and criminal records. . . . The Army has doubled its admittance of recruits who score between the 15th and 30th percentiles on the Army aptitude test . . . .

* * *

For every potential soldier a recruiter sends to training, he’ll talk to 150 to 250 people. He’ll find them by making hundreds of cold calls, visiting high schools, and walking through malls. Of these contacts, the recruiter will conduct 20 face-to-face interviews. Four of those applicants will take the Army aptitude test and physical exam. Just over half will score in the top half on the aptitude test. Fewer than half will pass the physical. So by the time recruits make it to training, the Army is keen to keep them there.

So, how to keep them? The “overwhelming need for more solders puts limits on how tough its training can be. . . . The Army’s answer . . . for now . . . is to offer its recruits a less hostile environment that won’t scare off as many people or make them quit: less shouting, less running, more encouragement, more understanding.”

That’s all fine. Need to keep the trainees “volunteering” and staying, but the main problem remains: how does the military turn a bunch of kids who, as Colonel Keven Shwedo, the director of operations for the Army’s Accessions Command puts it, have grown up in a world of soccer ethics in which you “get a trophy, whether or not you everwent to practice or ever won a game” — how to turn that bunch into “THE FINEST SOLDIERS THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN.”

That’s where the situation comes in. No more individualistic, dispositionist, me-first egoism so common in our culture. Joining the military transforms one’s schemas. Or, as Mockenhaupt makes the point:

Joining the military shocks the system. And the further society drifts from the ideals of the Army—shared hardship, individual sacrifice for the collective good, institutionalized adherence to notions of integrity, loyalty, and duty—the more alien the world of military training becomes. Recruits on their first day shuffle through a line—everything from now on will involve lines—and into the barber shop, where they sit in a chair for about two minutes and rise without hair. It’s the quintessential shedding of civilian identity: Now they look like everyone else. Soon they’ll be dressed alike. And once they learn the jargon and lingo, they’ll sound alike, too. There are no more choices, only following. They’ll live so close together—showering, eating, and sleeping next to each other—that they’ll soon forget what privacy means. They’ll be given a weapon, and they’ll marvel at the power they hold. They’ll stab dummies with bayonets and subdue each other in hand-to-hand combat. They’ll slowly unlearn one of society’s cherished mantras: Sometimes, they’ll come to understand, violence is the answer.

The rituals of deindividuation and disconnection to social and cultural norms are ubiquitous. Mockenhaupt describes, for instance, a rite of passage for young recruits (“frowned upon at higher levels,” but still practiced at lower levels) known as the the “shark attack.” The rite, according to many, is “a key step in snapping bonds to the civilian world. “If we go easy on them here, it would be catastrophic over there,” explains one basic-training commander. “They expect these guys to be hard on them, and we owe it to them.”

At the battalion barracks, where the recruits will live for the next three and a half months, a dozen drill sergeants station themselves at intervals along the wide walkway that runs from the road to the company area. They pace and wait. Three trucks pull up and disgorge the recruits. The chaos starts at once. “Let’s go! Let’s go! Get off the bus! Get your butt over there, private! Hurry up, you!” The 220 recruits scramble, frantic, knocking into each other,Marine Boot Camp reaching for bags from a pile dumped beside the road. They sprint up the walkway, some with bags, others without. Then they form up in three rows, facing a long cement stairway that leads up to the company formation area. They stand at attention, chests heaving, sucking down air in ragged gasps. Some tremble. Their eyes dart. Many faces show terror. The drill sergeants stalk up and down the lines, their faces fixed in hard masks. They stop behind recruits, inches from their ears, and yell. Every command given today will be many decibels too loud. “What is wrong with you? Why are you moving? Answer me! Why? Don’t think, private! Why are you moving? Is it because you can’t stand still?” “No, Drill Sergeant,” the recruit says, his voice soft and breaking. “Then why are you moving? Don’t frigging move!”

Most of the recruits clutch duffel bags to their chests, straining from the effort. Inch by inch, the bags drop lower. “Hold the bag up! Hold it up! Get it up, you turd!”

And so it goes. Once the recruits broken into platoons, the drill sergeant steps forward to offer an initial lesson in thunderous voice: “Discipline is the key to success here! Discipline is doing what you are told, when you are told, no questions! Do you understand?”

But how does the military lead its recruits to “volunteer” to be good soldiers. According to Mockenhaupt, the “core methods are simple”:

You must look like everyone else. You must act like everyone else. You must perform like everyone else. If you don’t, you will be punished. Or worse, the group will suffer for your mistakes. To instill this obedience, the Army taps into young people’s basic desire for acceptance, and their abhorrence at being singled out for punishment or critique.

The threat of collective punishment for individual infractions is one of the most powerful motivators in military training. I learned this lesson early, and repeatedly, in my own basic training. One night as we slept, just a few days into our training, two recruits left the barracks and walked toward town, looking for a convenience store. A drill sergeant driving home picked them up a short distance from the barracks. We were awakened, told what had happened, and told we would be dealt with later. We fell back asleep knowing the morning would bring pain.

* * *

“So you want to play games?” one of our drill sergeants said. “OK, we will play games.” He ordered us to squat and hold out our arms. The two recruits stood in front of the formation, watching us and looking sheepish. “Don’t be mad at me; be mad at your friends standing up here,” the drill sergeant said. He spoke in quick, clipped sentences, through a heavy Puerto Rican accent. “I am not doing this to you—they are doing this to you. Are you tired? Do your legs hurt? You can look toward the sky and say, ‘God, why is this happening to me?’”

* * *

The other platoons filed past, stealing glances, on their way to breakfast. We groaned and gritted our teeth. Sweat soaked our clothes. “I want you to be pissed at your friends. They did this to you. They don’t want to be part of the team,” the drill sergeant barked. “Now you are in Afghanistan. Twenty of you are dead inside your security perimeter. Another 20 of you are prisoners of Osama bin Laden, because two soldiers who were supposed to be on guard duty decided they wanted to go get something to eat.” The morning dragged on like that, for what seemed a very long time.

To maintain a volunteer army, then, attributions must be carefully framed, ideologies must be taught, and consent must be manufactured. As the Army is proud of pointing General John Schofieldout, it was Army Major General John Schofield (1831-1906) who said (in a speech to West Point cadets), that “the discipline which makes the Soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. . . . It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice as to inspire in the Soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and desire to disobey.”

Milgram, Zimbardo and others have shown us that whether or not we are inclined to obey is not a good measure of whether or not we should. Similarly, whether or not we perceived ourselves to have moved freely is not a good measure of whether or not we did. Whatever one thinks about this war and the “volunteers” who bravely risk their lives to fight in it, no one should assume that because some of our best and brightest have “chosen” to serve that the cause is necessarily a good one. And our harsh judgments toward those seeming bad-apple soldiers linked to Abu Ghraib and the like should be tempered by an understanding of the situation — including the situational forces and systems that led to their being transformed from civilians into soldiers.

Posted in Choice Myth, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | 1 Comment »

%d bloggers like this: