Is Our Empowerment Zero-Sum?

Four SCOPE projects this year (Lincoln Labs, Raytheon, Draper Labs, Parietal Systems) are directly related to the military. Another project (Adsys Controls) is the creation of an advertising tool for a company that sells some of its products to the military. Not to mention the October press release on Olin’s website declaring that our College has been named a subcontractor in two “government-funded defense contracts,” one for the Navy and one for the Air Force (which is now a SCOPE project, as well).

You know that cool robotic tuna? That’s a different project for the Navy. You don’t have to look far to find more examples. And a few small notes: we will use the terms “defense,” “defense contract,” and “defense industry,” because they are commonly used to describe what we are talking about. It is important to realize that these terms are euphemistic, as American foreign policy is not one of national defense, but of aggression. Finally, it is unfair to separate weapons systems from the broader defense industry, as even non-lethal projects support the military-industrial complex.

Our problem with this scenario is the inherent contradiction, the hypocrisy, of military projects on a college campus. Schools are institutions of empowerment, providing students with knowledge and understanding of the world around them and the skills to make positive changes in their own and other’s lives. The military is the ultimate institution of disempowerment, of aggression, domination, and death.

Our empowerment through education is zero-sum; it results from working on a defense-related project that ultimately disempowers enemy combatants or civilians at the hands of our armed forces.

Not only do these defense contracts result in the disempowerment of whomever the United States finds in its best interests to disempower, but they pull resources from valuable parts of our society. In the years after World War II, General and President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the rise of the military-industrial complex. He understood that a constant state of militarization, weapons development, and stockpiling would pull resources away from areas like education, healthcare, and social programs that have positive effects on the whole of our society. His warnings went unheeded by those who had the power to act by them and flatly ignored by those who knew there was immense profit to be made. If you are unfamiliar with the size of the US defense budget, by the way, the 2011 DoD budget request and “mandatory spending” (for the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan) are expected to amount to 720 billion dollars.

The extent to which the military-industrial complex has pervaded our economy makes challenging its presence difficult. Contractors ensure that the components of a weapons system are produced in as many states as possible, so Senators and Representatives will receive accusations of job loss in their districts with the cancellation of a program. Defense contractors are paid in taxpayer money, some of which is spent to lobby Congress for further contracts. Democracy at work, right? And because the military has such an enormous budget to fund research and development, projects that have potential positive, civilian applications alongside their proposed military application are included.

The breadth, depth, and nebulousness of the military-industrial complex lead to some appealing arguments against fighting it. “If we don’t do this project, someone else will.”

“I want to work on a cool project, and the Navy offers cool projects.” “Defense is where all the money is.”

“This project might be used in civilian life.” All of these reactionary arguments refuse to acknowledge that a better system could exist, a system that chooses to invest taxpayer money in projects that benefit all of our society.

We say this not to place blame, but to challenge all of us to thoughtfully criticize the status quo. We believe that we must put an end to the presence of the military in our school. What can we do? We can demand that the administration adopt a policy of non-affiliation with the defense industry.

We can demand student representation in the selection of project sponsors. We can demand the creation of a committee whose sole purpose is to decide whether a project violates a set of ethics that we, as a college, can decide upon. But most importantly, we can discuss. And we can challenge ourselves and each other to more deeply understand the causes and consequences of our actions.

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