The Parallels Between the Stanford Prison Experiment and Military Tech School

Note: I served in the U.S. Air Force from 2000-2007. My AFSC was 3C0X1 (Communications computer systems operator). My highest rank was E-5 (Staff Sergeant), and I received an honorable discharge.

The Stanford prison experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The experiment was conducted from August 14th to 20th, 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. It was funded by a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and was of interest to both the US Navy and Marine Corps in order to determine the causes of conflict between military guards and prisoners.

Twenty-four students were selected out of 75 to play the prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what even Zimbardo himself expected, leading the “Officers” to display authoritarian measures and ultimately to subject some of the prisoners to torture. In turn, many of the prisoners developed passive attitudes and accepted physical abuse, and, at the request of the guards, readily inflicted punishment on other prisoners who attempted to stop it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his capacity as “Prison Superintendent,” lost sight of his role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue as though it were a real prison. Five of the prisoners were upset enough by the process to quit the experiment early, and the entire experiment was abruptly stopped after only six days. The experimental process and the results remain controversial. The entire experiment was filmed, with excerpts made publicly available.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was shut down because it violated the ethical standards of professional psychology resulting in psychological and physical harm to the subjects in the experiment. However, the exact same scenario has been repeated every day since before the 1970s on every military tech school in America with full immunity from the law and a deliberate disregard for the ethical treatment of humans.

Here’s how tech school works. Once a soldier (aka airman, marine or seaman) graduates basic training they’re sent to a “tech school” to learn the job skill they’ll perform for the rest of their career in the military. While life in tech school isn’t as rigorous as basic training, it is the last chance for the military to conform its troops’ thoughts and behavior to its standards before releasing them into “the real military” to succeed or fail at supporting real world missions.  So the environment is designed to indoctrinate the students to embrace willful obedience and let go of their pre-military identity. Troops live in barracks and are granted small freedoms (such as the right to wear civilian clothing and leave the base) in stages to decompress them from the totalitarian internment they experienced in basic training. In tech school the troops march to and from school in uniform, and are assigned some additional duties after school. Many aspects of life for the students are highly regulated in ways that serve no functional purpose other than to get them used to following rules without question. You can’t walk on the grass. You have to carry a flashlight at night. Your uniform must be immaculate. Your room must be cleaner than Martha Stewart’s dream home, etc.

So far the standard operating procedure of military tech school exactly mirrors (because it’s based on) the standard operating procedures of a cult, which is unethical in itself and would be shut down by the government if any other organization other than the government attempted to use similar methods.

The parallels between the Stanford Prison Experiment are found in the use of student leaders or “ropes.”  The student leaders are responsible for policing their fellow students.  On paper these duties can be made to sound innocuous and clinical to the point of boredom. In reality what happens is the student leaders have a tendency to mimic the intensity and righteous fury of the training instructors and drill sergeant they’ve been getting yelled at by for the past 6-9 weeks. The student leaders tend to feel and express genuine disappointment and anger over the smallest infraction regardless of how arbitrary the rule being violated is. They’ll scream at their subordinates for walking on the grass and accuse them in all seriousness (with no sense of irony) for having no integrity.

This behavior isn’t an anomaly, and it doesn’t happen behind the backs of the senior military leader’s running the school. It’s actively encouraged and built into the tech school’s official operating procedures. In order for a student leader to advance to the highest level of student leadership they must “host” “remedial military training.” When a student has violated enough arbitrary rules they’re assigned a day of remedial military training over the weekend. During that time they’ll be forced to exercise beyond the point of exhaustion and submit themselves to a full day of verbal degradation. Remedial military training is overseen by senior ranking sergeants, but the details are run by the student leaders.

The military justifies this behavior by saying it’s necessary to instill discipline, but that’s just an Orwellian way to say, “brainwashing.” To be fair, it’s not like they’re taping troops’ eyes open, feeding them gunpowder and forcing them to watch snuff films. Having said that, the end result of the brain washing techniques used in tech school is that the followers of the military cult will someday kill another human being without question.

At any rate, the point is that the “training” methods used by the military are literally in direct violation of professional standards of the ethical treatment of human beings. This exact same behavior has already been shut down by the government in the Stanford Prison Experiment. This isn’t an opinion. This isn’t said out of spite or ridicule. This is a cut and dried fact. If a professional civilian psychologist recreated the exact same environment that exists on military tech schools, much less basic training, their simulation would be shut down by the government for ethics violations. Period.

This raises a very serious point that deserves to be considered seriously and objectively. Soldiers, airmen, seaman and marines are human beings. However, the government, which is run by human beings, has written the Uniform Code of Military Justice to provide a loophole around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and exempt military personnel from the same ethical protection guaranteed to everyone else. The only justification for this I have ever heard is that it is necessary to protect our rights and freedoms. That argument is self-defeating. It says we have to strip the rights of one portion of society, legalize their systematic emotional, psychological and physical abuse and literally enslave them in order to prevent the rest of society from suffering the exact same fate. Then, to add insult to injury, we’re then told to “support the troops.”

I don’t support the unethical treatment of the human beings we’ve labeled “troops.” I don’t support the fact that they’ve lost their freedom. I don’t support the military caste system.  I don’t support slaves being led to get slaughtered in wars their leaders can’t give proper justifications for. I don’t support the UCMJ that allows all of this to happen.

I do support ending the UCMJ. I support freeing the human beings we call troops. I support equal rights for all people, even those who have been coerced and misled into signing away their rights “voluntarily.” And I don’t believe the only way we can achieve peace and harmony on earth is to enslave one portion of society, strip them of their identity and reprogram them into unthinking killers. I believe the standard operating procedures of the United States military are in direct conflict with creating a peaceful and harmonious world. I believe that if you truly “support the troops” then you cannot support the UCMJ that allows the unethical treatment of your fellow human beings, especially those you claim to support and call heroes.

However you felt about this blog, you’ll probably feel the same way about these:

4 responses to “The Parallels Between the Stanford Prison Experiment and Military Tech School

  • Joshua Hartnek

    What options could even be taken to combat these methods? This would most essentially require a movement to push such and agenda. Chuckles kind of missed the whole point of this article. This article only states why should such a treatment method that has only been found to be unethical, be even allowed on the US military. Saying that these methods instill discipline is ridiculous, and very uneducated in relation to civil liberties. You would weed out more weak minds in the military getting rid of the shackles, then preserving those who do not want to be in the military anymore. The most sensible soldiers I ever came to mentor all had one thing in common. They wanted to be there. The ones who didn’t, now those are the ones who put lives at risk. Lose the ignorance chuckles, actually that is the exact problem we have in today’s military…we bask in the ignorance of the system. We love it…we yearn for it…


  • chucklesmcfucknut

    I find it hard to believe you spent 7 years active duty USAF. You make good points regarding the simliiatrites with the stanford prison experiment but you ended up going off the deep end. In my years of service in the AF I have never heard such a criticism of tech school, especially from someone with 7 years. In fact, a lot of what you say seems to indicate you were there far more recent than 7 years. The details you mention seem accurate which leads me to believe you were probably kicked out in tech for being a dirtbag. Granted there are moments where I thought shit wasn’t fair but you have to realize it’s all a stress test. If you can’t handle a little bit of humiliation and PT how can you be expected to handle an actually stressful situation where fellow servicemember’s lives are at risk? As for eliminating the UCMJ what would you have us replace it with? Nothing? How would we maintain good order and discipline? Shit, it’s hard enough to do that with it in place! And last I checked we’re an all volunteer force. Yes, recruiters embellish and sometimes outright lie. It’s *YOUR* responsibility to do your own independent research and make up your own damn mind. Nobody put a gun to your head and forced you to sign. Have some accountability.


    • wise sloth

      I was enlisted from 200-2007. I wasn’t kicked out of tech school. In fact, I received a letter or accommodation for being a green rope. The worst paperwork I ever got in my entire military career was a letter or council or two for minor infractions, and my military career ended with an honorable discharge.

      The issue isn’t whether or not a human can or should endure the stresses and mental manipulation in tech school. The issue is whether or not governments should allow any one group of humans to be subjected to mind control techniques that are already popularly and legally deemed unethical to subject other humans to… even when those humans agree to the double standard because of poverty or patriotism.


  • Guest

    This is all true. Been there.


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