I saw the movie "The Blind Side" for the first time over the weekend. There are many things I could write about it, but following on the heels of Memorial Day, I was most struck by a particular part of the movie.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!" Was there a man dismay'd? Not tho' the soldier knew Some one had blunder'd. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
Personally, I think Michael's piece is pretty "salty stuff." Courage and honor are values at the heart of the military. But Michael's question is an important one: when faced with an order we don't believe in, what do our actions say about us?
Now, I know I would have been a terrible soldier, precisely because I spend too much time asking "why," and respond to most "orders" with skeptical resistance. In contrast, soldiers are expected to follow orders, with the complementary expectations that officers give orders responsibly. They "try for courage, and hope for honor." Various scandals have made it plain, however, that neither condition is always met.
It's not as simple as Michael would like it to be, however. Social psychology research like the Milgrim experiment and Stanford prison study demonstrate how even "normal" participants can be convinced to respond cruelly to others, out of obedience (Milgrim) or group mentality (Stanford). In fact, these studies are frightening because of how easy it was to get participants to engage in inhumane behavior.
The take-home message, I think, is that we all have to work together to be vigilant against dynamics of group identity, power, and authority that may not be...honorable. Checks and balances is one safeguard, as is education focused on moral development. For example, Kohlberg's stages of moral development suggest that, as people progress in moral development, they move away from just following the rules, to look at the intent, and ultimately a commitment to the principle of justice over and above law (which can be unjust). Even when it would be easier to just follow rules or orders, honor and courage demand that we follow our conscience. Character counts.