Military Contractors Make Excuses about Complicity

A couple of bits of news to report today. First off, in a very timely article, my local paper featured an article about the company I’m quitting. Some excerpts:

Ethical quandry

Ex-activists confront issues of tech and war

As young men in , D— and J— opposed the war in Vietnam and embraced their generation’s critical view of the U.S. military.

But today, the technology they helped develop in has been embraced by the U.S. armed forces and is being used in the military campaign in Iraq.

W—, the company they co-founded in a Berkeley garage in , has provided technology that helps detect chemical weapons, makes communications systems more reliable and even guides U.S. bombs to specific enemy targets.

The journey of these two businessmen underscores the quandary faced by other veterans of anti-war movement who later became Silicon Valley technologists and entrepreneurs and who found themselves having the U.S. military as a key customer.

Their story also points to the Bay Area’s split personality over the war in Iraq: The region is both a center of anti-war protest and the technology mecca that is helping U.S. forces to become a more powerful fighting machine.

That ambivalence over the war is apparent in D— and J—’s views on the current conflict.

D— left W— about four years ago and declined to comment on the company’s current policies and customers, which include U.S. military and space agencies.

But he opposes the invasion of Iraq and has even joined one of the marches to protest the campaign.

“I hope to God this is over very soon,” he said. “Of course, I’m opposed to a senseless war in which people are going to die. We’re alienating the whole world. I think that’s completely wrong.”

J—, now the company’s chairman, declined to state his position on the war, but he offered a more positive view of the U.S. armed forces.

“This war is a catalyst that is shining light on a military that is always strong and present and here for one reason — to keep us safe,” he said in an e-mail.

“The world today is a safer place because of American military capabilities. We’ve seen those capabilities used to end conflict recently in Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. We owe a debt to our soldiers.”

About 30 years ago, the Vietnam War “colored the perception of a whole generation toward what the military was and what it was doing at that time,” J— said.…

J— and D— were also highly critical of the military as well as passionate about technology.

Like other technology pioneers, they formed W— hoping to make a difference — and they succeeded.

Today, computer systems that he and D— developed — called embedded technology — have helped create safer and more efficient medical equipment, transportation systems, and communication networks.…

But having the military for a customer made many W— executives and employees, particularly former anti-Vietnam War activists, uncomfortable, D— said.

He recalled one employee who took a call from a defense contractor who had a question. The employee said, “I’m sorry. I don’t believe in what you do, and I can’t answer your question,” then hung up.

“All of a sudden, we found ourselves getting orders from these people we had just been protesting,” D— said. “We were always torn between the economic realities and the moral issues. I always wished we were a Ben & Jerry kind of company in an innocuous industry where you can take a moral stand.”

The financial pressures of the tech industry eventually prevailed, and the company did do more business with the defense establishment, D— said.

“To some extent, I won’t deny that there might have been some hypocrisy,” he said. “We had investors and stockholders, and there would be this huge crushing pressure to make the numbers. If part of this was a big sale to a military customer it was almost a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, which was clearly hypocritical.”

The debate over the use of technology in warfare went away temporarily when the Cold War ended and defense spending declined, he said. But it has reemerged since the attacks and the new focus on homeland security and building a stronger military.

Most of W—’s contracts involve nonmilitary projects in automotive, consumer, industrial manufacturing, and other markets, the company said. But J— stressed that with the help of W— technology, the U.S. military can wage war that’s less bloody.

“The fact that the battles of today are about information more than about bigger bombs will make war less destructive to most people,” he said. “It certainly makes it possible and likely that there’s less harm to innocent bystanders. As much as everyone hates war, I think the world is better because our technology exists.”

In his e-mail, J— added: “My father’s generation fought a huge war with massive casualties and disruption. My generation fought a war with carpet bombing, napalm, land mines, and booby traps. Today, we’re able to fight a war with drone aircraft, communications, sensors, and other protective equipment, and precise munitions that damage as small an area as possible.”…

This is a good example of bad justification. I had to justify working for W— too, but I never did it by claiming that by helping the military make technologically more sophisticated weapons, I would “make war less destructive to most people [with] less harm to innocent bystanders.” That’s just nonsense.

People who possess a great technological and firepower advantage over their foes will just be that much more likely to see war as a path to success for their side of the argument. That’s what’s happened in Iraq. If Iraq was on a similar footing to the U.S. in the size and sophistication of its armaments, there would certainly have been much less of a rush to go to war than in the current scenario, in which many in the U.S. government anticipated a cakewalk.

And the idea that these “smart” bombs mean that nowadays we can throw a war without risking civilian casualties is a myth. See this Christian Science Monitor article from :

…In the [] Gulf War, just 3 percent of bombs were precision-guided. That figure jumped to 30 percent in the bombing of Yugoslavia, and to nearly 70 percent during the Afghan air campaign last year. Yet in each case, the ratio of civilian casualties to bombs dropped has grown.…

I always justified my work at W— by saying that the software I was helping to make is a neutral tool, like a hammer. A hammer can be used to build a house, or to bash a kitten’s head. But you don’t expect the person who made the hammer to take responsibility for either the kitten or the house.

The hammer W— makes is used to hammer together internet-capable picture frames, laser printers, car navigation systems, internet infrastructure devices, and home wireless hubs, but also Boeing’s AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, Raytheon’s Tomahawk Cruise Missile, and the Loral Vought Multiple Launch Rocket System, among others.

So I don’t know how good my justification is. It worked for me. But I’ve read some good (and bad) criticisms of arguments for ethically “neutral” technology. Also, during the telecommunications boom of , the government was only one of our customers, and a pretty minor one. Now that the boom has gone bust and war fever has kicked off in the tech sector, the government, and particularly the military, is a bigger part of W—’s business — so much so that W— is spending more effort crafting its products specifically for military use.

My second bit of news is that there’s a National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee conference being held in Santa Rosa . I’m hoping to attend, and I’ll report here on what I learn there.