The Meaning of Empowerment

Reading the front-page article in the most recent issue of Frankly Speaking, this reader became very perplexed. The article used phrases like “military-industrial complex” and “ultimate institution of disempowerment, of aggression, domination, and death” to describe the U.S. Armed Forces. The article included radical implications – that a nonlethal defense-sponsored project, or even a project sponsored by a company whose customers include the U.S. Department of Defense, is undeserving of Olin students’ time and effort and just plain immoral.

This viewpoint seems to be based on the flawed characterization of the American military as a tyrannical institution, existing solely to put money into the pockets of crooked politicians and oil barons. This description, while thrilling and literary (“let us nobly stand up to the evil empire, like Winston Smith or Guy Montag or Luke Skywalker”), could not be more wrong.

There exist people in the world who, due to greed or hateful religious beliefs, would cause harm to innocents. I feel like this should be obvious, but doesn’t the U.S. Military protect us from these people? In what way is the “disempowerment” of enemy combatants and terrorists a bad thing?

“Defense” is not a euphemism at all; UN Security Councilman Richard Barrett published a 2008 report on the status of Al Qaeda, saying the terrorist organization was “unable to follow through with their threats”, its leadership driven into hiding by the American military. A 2006 article in Foreign Affairs Magazine stated that “there has been neither a successful strike nor a close call in the United States” since American troops invaded the Middle East. Thanks to the so-called “military-industrial complex”, our nation is that much safer from those who would harm or kill its people.

So is it “disempowering” for an engineer to work on a nonlethal project if it is military-sponsored or helps the U.S. Armed Forces in any way? Of course not – Dwight Eisenhower’s warning against excessive military development may have been relevant in the 1950’s, but that was before the U.S. was under attack by religious fanatics whose arsenal includes car bombs and 747’s. The U.S. military must adapt in the face of new foes, and such adaptation requires innovation. Why wouldn’t we want United States soldiers to be as safe and prepared and empowered as we can make them? Why wouldn’t we seize the opportunity to prevent U.S. soldiers from getting killed, or from returning home to their loved ones with missing limbs?

Besides, even if a project has military applications, why shouldn’t it be developed if it will also help civilians? Many technologies that we use today started out as military-funded projects. The early development of computers was almost entirely defense-sponsored; jet aircraft and microwaves are also examples.

It also seems strange to say that a company which empowers civilians by offering innovative and useful products is evil because one of its customers is the American military. That’s a lot like saying that a company that makes cooking knives is evil because knives can be used for violence.

This reader argues that Olin should not adopt a policy of non-affiliation with the defense industry. Demanding that the administration shun all defense-sponsored projects would be crippling. The article mentions the “breadth, depth, and nebulousness” of the defense industry – Olin would be hard-pressed to find a project that didn’t have any defense applications (especially so indirect as a company that happens to also service the military). As for an “ethics committee” that helps to select SCOPE sponsors, I doubt one could find a single set of ethics regarding defense contracts that the entire college could agree upon.

Colleges are institutions of empowerment – arming students with the knowledge they need to make positive changes in the world. Positive changes in the areas of medicine and transportation and green energy are all worthy pursuits. Who could disagree on that point? However, there are those who would argue that military-affiliated projects, even nonlethal ones, are not such worthy endeavors – that if the result of a project is that even one U.S. soldier is better prepared to face an attacker or one submarine crewman is safer from the dangers of underwater travel, it shouldn’t be done. These people seem to neglect the fact that the military is a collection of people – men and women whose lives can be bettered by the efforts of “empowered” engineers such as ourselves.

The fact is, the U.S. military defends our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – even our right to criticize the U.S. military. That, if you ask me, is the very meaning of empowerment.