This week I saw journalist Eyal Press speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Press discussed his recent book, “Beautiful Souls,” about why some courageous individuals decide to stand up to powerful governments, militaries and companies. A lot of research has been done on why people do evil things, particularly in groups (see the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments). Yet, there haven’t been many studies on why individuals stand up to evil or wrongdoing. Press argues that the choice between obedience and disobedience is often more proactive than we think.
In his lecture, Press gave the example of Nazi SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Eichmann claimed that he was not guilty of any crime, because he was simply doing his job and following the law in Nazi Germany. Press reveals, however, that Eichmann made a series of choices in which he actively endorsed the Nazi regime. Eichmann chose to join the Nazi Party, when it wasn’t required. He chose to climb the ranks of the Nazi party, while others didn’t. And most damning of all, he made every effort to get the maximum amount of people into the Nazi death camps, even when fewer people would have satisfied the regime’s orders. Press argues that instead of illustrating the “banality of evil,” Eichmann demonstrates that everyone has a choice when it comes to immoral actions.
Press’ lecture reminded me of some of the conversations I’ve had with veterans in Vietnam about their decision to follow orders once they arrived in country. Some men told me about underground newspapers they wrote which protested the war and were distributed under the cover of darkness. One man told me about a small rally he participated in where he and some other soldiers shouted anti-war slogans inside a base. The soldiers who openly protested the war faced imprisonment in Vietnam and dishonorable discharge.
Certainly many veterans who served in Vietnam would call the men who protested Communist-lovers or worse. Yet, this is to be expected. Individuals who stand up to power make people uncomfortable, Press asserts, and rarely are they seen as anything but traitors. In order to see who is a traitor and who is a hero, we must make a moral decision that does not rely on authority for verification.
For more on the anti-war soldiers who served in Vietnam, I recommend John Pilger’s documentary below.