The Demands of Authority

Monday, December 29th, 2014

The powerful resistance to killing fellow human beings, David Grossman (On Killing) argues, can be overcome through the demands of authority:

The mass needs, and we give it, leaders who have the firmness and decision of command proceeding from habit and an entire faith in their unquestionable right to command as established by tradition, law and society.
— Ardant du Picq

In Milgram’s study the demands of authority were represented by an individual with a clipboard and a white lab coat. This authority figure stood immediately behind the individual inflicting shocks and directed that he increase the voltage each time the victim answered a series of (fake) questions incorrectly. When the authority figure was not personally present but called over a phone, the number of subjects who were willing to inflict the maximum shock dropped sharply. This process can be generalized to combat circumstances and operationalized into the following sub-factors:

Proximity of the authority figure to the subject. Marshall noted many specific World War II incidents in which almost all soldiers would fire their weapons while their leaders observed and encouraged them in a combat situation; when the leaders left, however, the firing rate immediately dropped to 15 to 20 percent.

Killer’s subjective respect for authority figure. To be truly effective, soldiers must bond to their leader just as they must bond to their group. Compared to an established and respected leader, an unknown or discredited leader has much less chance of gaining compliance from soldiers in combat.

Intensity of the authority figure’s demands for killing behavior. The leader’s mere presence is not always sufficient to ensure killing activity. The leader must also communicate a clear expectancy of killing behavior.

Legitimacy of the authority figure’s authority and demands. Leaders with legitimate, societally sanctioned authority have greater influence on their soldiers; and legitimate, lawful demands are more likely to be obeyed than illegal or unanticipated demands. Gang leaders and mercenary commanders have to work carefully around their shortcomings in this area, but military officers (with their trappings of power and the legitimate authority of their nation behind them) have tremendous potential to cause their soldiers to overcome individual resistance and reluctance in combat.


  1. Steve Johnson says:

    Either Grossman is in the news lately or you’ve got a secret reader.

  2. Isegoria says:

    My comment at his site awaits moderation:

    I’ve been reading Grossman’s work — not On Killing, but Defeating the Enemy’s Will and other essays — and excerpting it on my own blog recently.

    As for S.L.A. Marshall, I get the impression that he thought he was “telling it like it is” in his Men Against Fire, but he presented his “findings” from talks over a few beers as systematic data collection via after-action interviews, so it would be scientific.

    I don’t know how accurate his impressions were, but many other sources have come to similar conclusions — but with a very different tone and no scientific pretenses.

    I can say the same of Grossman, who gains credibility with some audiences by referring to a reluctance to kill, while losing it with others. If you read what he writes, he’s describing when and how soldiers will kill, as well as when they won’t. They will kill if they’re on display — firing a crew-served machine-gun, for instance, or when the sergeant’s at their shoulder — and they will kill if the enemy is sufficiently foreign, or running away, etc.

    I find his emphasis on posturing credible, because we know soldiers — and wannabe soldiers — have always emphasized looking badass and making a lot of noise.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Greg Cochran of course bristles at such silliness and asks, Who came to similar conclusions, from careful observations? I reply:

    Grossman cites many, many sources other than S.L.A. Marshall — although many don’t discuss a reluctance to kill, but rather something that Grossman (not unreasonably) interprets that way.

    For instance, Grossman cites Swank and Marchand’s World War II study, which noted the existence of 2 percent of combat soldiers who are predisposed to be “aggressive psychopaths” and apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing or the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.

    To his credit, Grossman dislikes the term psychopath for such men and suggests a very different term.

    (My own post on this should appear in a couple days.)

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    Where do those machete-wielding African soldiers going from village to village, door to door fit into all this? They seem to have the time of their life and only miss targets due to a lack of training, not some moral reluctance, same as in the Middle East, they can’t wait to tear shit up.

  5. Isegoria says:

    Grossman makes it quite clear that soldiers — especially cavalry — will happily cut down fleeing enemies. What’s rare is true hand-to-hand combat.

  6. Gary Foster says:

    I would highly recommend (if you can find a copy) J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors. This used to be a highly influential book concerning killing and war and the soldiers that did it. I found this most interesting, and it holds up over time.

  7. Space Nookie says:

    Yeah, I was a big fan of Marshall in the late 1980s, and I was upset enough about this string of posts and the comments to do a little digging, but, yeah, it’s undeniable that (a) he faked the ratio of fire, (b) IMO, staked his entire credibility on ratio of fire by swearing up and down that it had been part of his wartime historical surveys, (c) never admitted to the fraud over the remaining 30 years of his life, and (d) everything else he wrote is supported only by his credibility as an author, i.e. none once you know the full story about the ratio of fire. As a former fan, I am completely disappointed.

    Definitely not somebody you should be abstracting and reinterpreting as the main source of a new controversial theory.

  8. Bruce says:

    J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors isn’t a bad book, but Paul Fussell’s comments in Thank God for the Atom Bomb should be read with it.

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