Shocking Obedience: the Milgram Experiment and the Air Force’s Obedience Culture

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 3.21.13 PM

If you’ve never had a chance to take in the excellent documentary Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, I recommend checking it out. The particular subject matter is getting dated now, but the concepts are timeless. There are disturbing parallels between the management culture that led to Enron’s collapse and the culture today gripping Air Force organizations. 

Famously featured in that film is an experiment conducted by Dr. Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the early 1960s. Milgram’s study explored the operation of authoritative pressure and coercion upon ordinarily conscientious people. He found, horrifically, that in about two thirds of cases, ordinary people were willing to follow the orders of an insistent authority figure even when those orders would inflict grievous injury on another person.

You can find a version of Milgram’s published findings online. For a primer, check out the short video below.

Milgram summarized his findings elsewhere thusly:

“Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

In other words, authority is a dangerous thing. It must be carefully distributed and thoughtfully calibrated. When unchained from dearly-held values and principles and simply directed toward unassailable objectives, it can create a most fearsome machine of human malpractice.

I’ve argued for many years now that the Air Force is becoming — and increasingly has become — just such a machine. While the trajectory of the Air Force seems to be guiding it toward institutional collapse rather than violence or malice, the stakes are nonetheless staggering, and the evidence increasingly convincing.

The rise of a culture of obedience explains how an educated and presumably free-thinking group of people can find themselves embracing things like:

  • The fielding of a career development course for NCOs educating them that because of the choice to enlist, they have no free speech rights. Every service official at every level coming into contact with the material should have rejected it, but all assumed it must be right — even if unconstitutional — because it emanated from authority.
  • The clearly unjust punishments of officers for drug use despite the absence of sufficient evidence. Several commanders endorsed unlawful actions by their bosses, assuming those bosses must be right because of their authority.
  • The continuing reprisal against one of those pilots despite the drug charges being found unsubstantiated. Even though his commanders know he wasn’t culpable in the alleged wrongdoing, his flying qualifications remain limited because a 3-star general has ordered that he remain in the doghouse … and no one dare challenge that level of authority even if it runs contrary to the mission.
  • The continuing willingness of commanders at all levels to accept additional orders and mission demands despite lacking the manpower to adequately perform them. Even if this choice can be seen destroying individual lives and jeopardizing the future of the institution, it is not questioned because it comes from authority.
  • The unquestioning enforcement of a doctrine annunciated by the service chief holding that airmen have no expectation of privacy — even on their private cellphones. This is clearly unconstitutional, yet it is endorsed by commanders because it came from a 4-star.
  • The use of bullying and intimidation by a 2-star general to manufacture obedience to Air Force budget imperatives. James Post had to understand that marking his fellow officers with the stain of treason for daring to privately disagree with the service was a violation of federal law, yet he trudged forth undaunted because of his loyalty to a more immediate authority. His subsequent promotion under ordinarily ruinous circumstances presumably served as a reward for his obedience and his attempt to cultivate it in others.
  • The willingness of airmen, NCOs, and officers to stand and recite the Airman’s Creed despite a pervasive sense among all that it a mindless appropriation of fascism inappropriate for their service culture. The very fact this so-called creed was fielded in the first place, and that no one of consequence was willing to publicly challenge it at the time, speaks volumes about the primacy of authority in the contemporary USAF.
  • The willingness of commanders whose job it is to take care of America’s volunteer service members to house them in dilapidated and mold-ridden facilities beneath any reasonable living standard, and to manufacture quiet compliance by refusing to meaningfully address the issue for years on end. 
  • The complicity of lawyers, inspectors general, and commanders in the abusive derailing and professional destruction of officers like Craig Perry, Blair Kaiser, Lance Annicelli, and scores of others. These officers were fired without proper cause and subsequently punished for being fired. These were unlawful acts, but no one inside the system stood against them … because they were endorsed by authority figures high in the chain of command.
  •  The complicity of lawyers, inspectors general, and commanders in warped misapplications of military justice, such as in the cases of Michael Turpiano, Aaron Allmon, and many others. Prosecutors in cases like these moved forward with weak cases, sought punishments disproportionate to alleged conduct, and sometimes failed to disclose exculpatory evidence as required by law. They loosed themselves from ethical moorings because of a need to remain obedient to the chain of command.
  • Development of a policy encouraging supervisors to drop in on employees in their private homes to check up on them. This is clearly a breach of privacy and a total obliteration of acceptable bounds between work life and personal space. Yet it is permitted to thrive as an idea because it came from a headquarters staff. 

This is a non-inclusive sampling of policies and incidents sketching the outlines of an obedience culture. The full picture is much more disturbing but difficult to draw … because airmen are constrained from speaking openly about policies with which they differ, lest they be pursued for insubordination.

But make no mistake, when I wrote last year that the Air Force was creeping toward fascism, it wasn’t hyperbole. For those who happen to agree, find palatable, or are willing to tolerate every Air Force policy, life seems fine. For everyone else, daily life is a constant confrontation of the choice between doing something they feel is unacceptable and perhaps even “wrong” … or challenging authority that takes unkindly to challenge. Most comply, just as Milgram’s experiment would predict … because they’ve not been equipped to push back.

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 3.06.52 PM

The 2016 Air Force is the winged embodiment of the Milgram Experiment. After a long and steady march away from its celebrated origins of free thought, warfighting ingenuity, organizational innovation, and healthy contrarianism … the Air Force has managed to mold itself into a hierarchy too hidebound to accept open discussion and too autocratic to tolerate respectful disagreement. Nonconformity in action, thought, or attitude is taken as a smite upon the chain of command, and bent nails are promptly hammered back into place or extracted and discarded. Airmen of all ranks are socialized and indoctrinated to a culture of obedience rather than a culture of warfighting. They’re willing to figuratively shock one another to the death if the order to do so emanates from a source of recognized authority. The Air Force Personnel Center makes a daily practice of such shocking … when it hands out assignments and deployments with less notice than is required by law … because somebody empowered to say so said so.

As the screws tighten, more are voicing their opinions anonymously to the media and Congress. As this happens, the Air Force increasingly scolds airmen about their private activities and associations, exhorting them to operate within the chain of command. It is argued in such moments that it’s only acceptable to disagree in private. This, so the culture instructs, distinguishes “respectful dissent” from “unprofessional disobedience.” Milgram also took note of this phenomenon:

As a strain-reducing mechanism, dissent is a source of psychological consolation to the subject in regard to the moral conflict at issue. The subject publicly defines himself as opposed to shocking the victim and thus establishes a desirable self-image. At the same time, he maintains his submissive relationship to authority by continuing to obey.

In other words, even dissent – which the USAF’s culture presently discourages – is not enough to obstruct the march of obedience when authority is imbalanced between two agents in a given set of circumstances. Authority knows this, which is why it tolerates private dissent but won’t abide public dispute.

The Air Force’s approach is driving airmen away, starting with those wedded to their American sense of individuality and agency … and committed to balancing it with obedience rather than have it obliterated by a steamroller of conformity and compliance.

As the service gets more and more out of step with its own people, the resulting entropy is collapsing trust and eroding the communication essential to teamwork. But it’s also managing to dissuade the few remaining true believers (viewed as dissidents by the Corporate Air Force) from the view that any positive change or reform of the service is possible from within. They’re walking away, leaving only the conformists behind.

What happens when everyone follows orders from the most immediate or recognized source of authority no matter how immoral, unethical, unfounded, unnecessary, or nonsensical those orders are? What happens when airmen set aside their consciences in favor of obedience?

Of immediate concern, we lose wars. Modern history yields no record of a military force victorious without conscience … without instances of ultimately decisive disobedience … without the consistent exercise of independent judgment up and down the ranks – which cannot occur when independence and will are consistently overborne by official power until they are effectively extinguished.

But more generally, we abdicate freedom by surrendering our wits, as elaborated beautifully in the closing lines of Milgram’s 1973 book “Obedience to Authority: an Experimental View.”

“Our business, if we desire to live a life not utterly devoid of meaning and significance, is to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority. It may well be that we shall be wrong; but our self-expression is thwarted at the root unless the certainties we are asked to accept coincide with the certainties we experience. That is why the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.”

The Air Force desperately needs to rediscover the distinction between warranted and unwarranted authority, to reawaken its healthy skepticism about itself, and to rebalance power as a means of reining in the danger of obedience run amok. To stay healthy, it must provide airmen with the resources to resist authority — including the sense of empowerment and moral courage important to warfighting.

Can it do these things without a change in senior leadership? There is widespread and consistent skepticism about that.

© 2016 Bright Mountain, LLC
All rights reserved. The content of this webpage may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written consent of Bright Mountain, LLC which may be contacted at

Comments are closed.