The Milgram Parable

The only really interactive part of this story is the opening simulation, in which we're asked consider a man whose job is to administer electrical shocks to people he does not know. That's a bit of propaganda for the military setting of the main story, however: it emerges that the "electrical shocks" are through cardiac defibrillators which are keeping a bunch of hospital patients alive, something the simulation omits to mention in order to impress upon us the importance of blindly following orders. Indeed, the sort of people our employers want is the sort that does or dies without asking why. Whereas the original Milgram experiment depended on it being clear to the subjects that they are causing harm on someone else's orders, this simulation insists on the reverse and thus becomes enough of a subversion that I do not think it actually has anything to do with the Milgram experiment or its findings at all.

(It later emerges that we're in a corporate militia, not a nation's armed forces as might have been assumed -- something else the game conveniently omits mentioning until too late. The ending quotes Horace at us, perhaps banking on the closer association with Wilfred Owen's denunciation of war -- but none of this is actually "pro patria", is it?)

As I said, that's the only really interactive part. The rest is basically a short story interspersed with "choices" that come down to a matter of "do you do it willingly or does someone else make the choice for you?" These are actually pretty hard choices to make, and I would have liked to have seen them explored more deeply. One would have thought that answering differently in the simulation would have had some effect on this part of the story, but apparently not.

Rather than a take on general moral culpability, this piece seems to really be about the plight of soldiers and the loss of free will that a military career entails. Perhaps it's actually intentional that our choices make no difference through the main story, but if so ... well, I must confess that I am not fond of these meta-commentaries. I don't believe that any message should go to the length of subverting a medium's purpose -- a book about the illiterate should not be 300 pages of unintelligibly jumbled letters, and a song about the deaf should not be five minutes of silence. And in any case, I'm not convinced that this really was the author's intention.

I wonder if the author has ever actually been in the military. My own experience tells me that the emotional bond between soldiers is highly valued as something that promotes the cohesion of a unit. The bit where our commander comes down on us for daring to attempt conversation during the transport therefore strikes me as being something born more from a romantic Hollywood image of how supersoldiers conduct themselves than from reality.

There is a bit of timed delivery here, but it happens right at the end of the story, when such things cease to matter.

As a breakfast, this might be hardtack biscuits with three kinds of jam that, after processing and packaging for military rations, all taste and look exactly the same. Interestingly, it's accompanied by a fine Earl Grey tea, strong on the oil of bergamot, the fragrance suggesting certain pretensions of civilisation.