Obedience to Authority: The Relevance of the Milgram Experiments in the Drone Age


I recently watched Experimenter (2015), a film directed by Michael Almereyda, which relays the story of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his quest to understand how human beings could be brought to do things which they would never have thought to do, left to their own devices. Being Jewish, Milgram was keen to comprehend what happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. What was it that made possible the establishment of concentration camps under the Third Reich, and the slaughter of millions of human beings?

The rationalization that “I did as I was told” was given all along the chain of command, or what would be called the “kill chain” in the Drone Age. Even high-level Nazi officials such as Adolf Eichmann claimed that they were doing their duty in facilitating the extermination of millions of people. Ordinary Germans from all walks of life helped to build the camps, and also staffed them, participating directly in the mass murder of unarmed persons.

The Milgram experiments, conducted in 1961 on the East Coast of the United States, involved subjects lured into participating in studies ostensibly about furthering scientific knowledge of learning theory. The subjects were paired with one of the study staff persons, who was said to be the “learner”, to whom the “teacher”, the person actually being studied, would apply electric shocks when the “learner” gave wrong answers in a quiz about paired words.


The “teacher” had no idea that he was the true object of the study and that the “learner” was not being shocked at all. The two people were separated by a wall, and the “teacher” sat before a switchboard with levers to flip each time he heard a wrong answer given by the “learner”. After each wrong answer, the level of shock was to be increased a notch, by moving up to the next lever.

As the “learner” began to express discomfort or even pain at the shocks, the “teacher” sometimes questioned what he (or she) was doing, but in most cases continued on, having been told by the man in the lab coat that the experiment needed to be completed. The “teacher” was instructed by the authority figure that, if the “learner” did not respond, then that should be regarded as an incorrect answer, necessitating the application of the next level of shock.


Milgram was quite troubled to discover that his subjects, the “teachers”, were for the most part willing to administer painful electric shocks to the “learner” even when the latter begged them to stop, and even when the “learner” went silent, suggesting that he may have fallen unconscious or had a heart attack, or perhaps even died. This was not the outcome which Milgram had hoped for, but it did shed a great deal of light on what happened under the Third Reich.

Some critics protested that Milgram was a hypocrite for exacting a form of psychological torture on his subjects, many of whom expressed regret and shame at what they had done. The experiments conducted by Milgram were considered controversial because he was placing ordinary people in the position of doing what they would not ordinarily do: they were asked and agreed to harm a fellow human being.

The subjects were told by the man in the lab coat that the shocks would not cause tissue damage, but during the experiment, the “learner” would beg the “teacher” to stop, claiming that he was in unbearable pain—and strongly suggesting that he was in fact being harmed. The question became: why did the “teacher” believe the man in the lab coat, rather than the “learner”, who was protesting the application of shock?


While watching this reenactment of what people will do in their endeavor to comply with the orders of a person designated an authority, it occurred to me that the current US drone program is a real-life variation of the Milgram “obedience to authority” experiment. Young operators are being asked not to harm human beings through applying electric shocks to them, but to annihilate them. What is the basis for their willingness to kill people whom they never met, and who certainly never threatened them with death?

The operators have been told that they must protect the United States by executing these people. They are told that they have no choice, that they must act to prevent another 9/11. In the process of annihilating named targets, the operators also eliminate unnamed targets, who are then written into history as “Enemy Killed in Action” or EKIA. The understanding is that men of military age in territories deemed “hostile” are guilty until proven innocent.

What grounds does an operator have for believing that unnamed targets deserved to die because of their proximity to an intended target? Again, it’s the voice of authority decreeing that the intelligence is good and that anyone who consorts with the named target is obviously up to no good. While killing named targets and unnamed “associates”, drone operators also kill civilians: women and children and infants and old men who are not in cahoots with any terrorist group. Some of the victims may be family members of suspects, but they themselves are not deemed dangerous. Operators are told that this is the “collateral damage” of war.

Let us imagine that the drone program is but an elaborate experiment. We could interview a drone operator who just dispatched someone by remote control, asking a few questions and considering his answers:


Question 1: Why did you fire the missile?

Answer: Because I was ordered to.


Question 2: Why did you feel the need to follow the order?

Answer: Because I made a solemn oath to defend the United States of America.


Question 3: Did the person you killed pose a threat to the United States?

Answer: Yes, of course.


Question 4: How do you know that the person you killed posed a threat to the United States?

Answer: Because my commanding officer said that he did.


Question 5: Would you kill anyone your commanding officer told you to kill? In any country?

Answer: Yes.


Question 6: Why is your commanding officer telling you to kill these people?

Answer: Because the intelligence has determined that they are dangerous.


Question 7: Have you seen the intelligence?

Answer: No, but that’s not my job. My job is to fire when ordered to fire.