Saturday, October 28, 2017

Is it ethical to research and develop weapons for the United States military?

I think so.  My current successor at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter Opinions Section disagrees, and she wrote and published this article explaining an example pertaining to our university.  It’s very well written and well researched and you should read it first before proceeding to the discussion below.

I responded with the following, in an online forum visible to many other Hopkins students (past and present).  As you will see, several of them chimed in as well!

Me: I was disappointed to read the entire article and find not a single argument for why conducting weapons research places blood on one's hands. The policymakers responsible for America's endless and illegal military interventions worldwide are certainly deserving of our protest. But the APL are not the ones waging war nor deciding when military force will be used. They're just doing research, and advances in military technology typically REDUCE collateral damage and save lives as opposed to the alternative. Were the APL disbanded tomorrow, America's wars would not stop; but the drones we use would be less accurate (or worse, the military may resort to the 500lb. carpet bombs they used back in Vietnam instead) and more innocent civilians would likely die as a result.

I'm as non-interventionist as anyone, but for so long as our Soldiers must fight, I want their equipment to be top notch.

Student 2: Her main point was a $100 million nuclear weapons contract. When was the last time the United States used one of those without collateral or civilian damage?

Student 3: So these nuclear weapons we are building by 2024 are actually gonna save lives 🤔

Student 4: It's important to note that, yes, to some degree technological improvements have reduced casualties, but the idea of "precision warfare" is a total myth. Innocent civilians are consistently killed by drone strikes (which tends to produce more terrorists than it kills terrorists). Additionally, there are often side effects to more advanced weaponry that we don't know about. For instance: Depleted Uranium weaponry is used a lot by the military (cheap, strong and nominally "safe"). However, once it has been used on an environment, it radiates out into the surrounding area and dramatically effects the local populations by consistently spreading radiation based diseases, meaning people are still suffering from weapons that were used literally decades ago. Also, the US has like, what, 10,000 nuclear arms? we don't need more. That's more than enough to wipe the whole world out several times over.

You know what they say: if you kill a child in a far off land, you're a monster, but if you profit off of that, you're just a good businessman.

Student 5: I think this is pretty ridiculous--the "War on Terror" is in many ways a function of military technology. It would be very difficult to bomb civilians, combatants, or whomever they say they're bombing these days in so many different places and with such ease if the US military didn't have access to cheap, easy-to-operate drones. Contemporary military intervention can really only happen if the military can use tactics like "precision warfare" across vast geographic areas because the "enemy" isn't territorial or conventional. The status quo would be impossible with Vietnam-style technology. Non-cooperation with the military industrial complex wouldn't stop the US military in its tracks, but it would put the present strategy in serious jeopardy. Given that we can all agree that military intervention is bad, I'd say that a world in which the US didn't have access to the high-tech drone guidance systems and whatnot developed by Hopkins would be preferable because the "War on Terror" would be severely constrained.

Student 2: "I don't think my biology department contributes to research on cancer, they aren't actually administering cancer medications and treatments - the doctors are. Ergo, it's foolish to think that the department contributes to curing cancer."

Your argument might even make some sense if the DoD and the federal government weren't giving the APL billions of dollars to explicitly make technology that they will use to kill people.

Why do you say "our Soldiers must fight" if you've said in the previous paragraph that our policymakers are responsible for our wars? Surely, it's not like they are under some inevitable foreign compulsion to fight if it's entirely our own making?

Student 4: also, even from a purely strategic perspective, drone warfare is completely counterproductive. Like, if your brother, who had no link to the Taliban whatsoever, was killed by a drone strike, along with a bunch of other people, you don't think that'd be liable to radicalize a few people? Drone warfare not only kills people, it creates a consistent atmosphere of fear that 1. Nobody should have to live through and 2. produces more terrorism than it cures.

Me: Lots to get to here.  First, the nuclear contract.  Nobody wants nukes to actually be used, and it is admittedly dubious that building even more of them enhances their deterrent effect by much.  But by the same token, it is equally far-fetched to pretend that a marginal increase in our existing arsenal of 6,800 some nuclear warheads places innocent life in any greater danger than it was in before – much less that it places so much blood on Hopkins’ researchers’ hands that all undergraduates have a moral obligation to condemn it.  Matthieu proved my point for me: the nuclear contract may well be a waste of taxpayer money, but it’s not going to kill anybody.

In any case, the nuclear contract was not Emeline Armitage’s “main point” as I understood it, so much as it was her lead from recent events.  She mentioned it briefly, then transitioned from it into the same cause dovish Hopkins students have been pressing for years: sweeping rejection of all DoD weapons’ research at APL.  Decades of protest against APL’s non-nuclear, pre-drone military research were approvingly cited, as was the HRWG’s 2010-2013 anti-drone campaign.  A prior NL article from this same author also lamented the drone research specifically.

I’ll get to drones in a moment, but my main objection is to that overarching idea that conducting physics research on improved military technology morally implicates you in anything the military does with it, including its accidental misuse to kill people other than the intended enemy.  By which moral framework does that hold true?  Deontologically, technology can be used for good or evil, but either way the moral culpability for how it is used lies squarely with the user.  When DoD approaches a Hopkins researcher and basically asks “How can we make these missiles we’re firing at the bad guys more accurate?”, and then turns around and fires that very-accurate missile at a wedding procession by mistake, the blame for those deaths does not lie with the scientist who improved the accuracy.

On utilitarian grounds, I guess reasonable people can disagree about which prospective, future technologies will make war safer for civilians and which will make it more dangerous – but it’s all a moot point when those technologies are already here and being used in combat every day.  Drones are a thing now and they’re not going away.  Nukes are a thing now and they’re not going away.  To stand athwart the incessant tide of technological progress in these fields is as sanctimonious as it is futile – it’s not going to save anybody.  If it is not Hopkins’ APL that researches these fields, it will be some other laboratory (certainly including Chinese and Russian laboratories, who will use them with much less respect for international norms than we).

In summary, my argument is as follows:

1.      Most advances in modern military technology are much likelier to reduce collateral damage or generally save lives than they are to kill more innocent people.

2.      Even if you reject point 1, most advances in military technology are inevitable, and pursued competitively by friend and foe alike. 

3.      Allowing America’s enemies to obtain advanced military technology before we do has adverse consequences – not only for our national security, but also typically for the wellbeing and survival of innocent civilians.

4.      Therefore, it is better that our military know at least as much about these technologies as the rest of the world and stay ahead of the curve with top-of-the-line equipment, without having its Soldiers hamstrung by less effective equipment than would be otherwise possible.

5.      Therefore, there is usually nothing immoral about conducting research to improve America’s military technology.

Selectively slowing the technical capacity to kill is not a promising pathway to peace.  A better strategy is to resign ourselves to the reality that the US government has long since held the capability to kill anyone on earth in a whole host of creative ways, and instead focus our efforts on refining the use of that capability through both political and technological means.  This means holding politicians and Soldiers accountable for abuses of power, reinforcing checks and balances, and pursuing international cooperation to ensure the wrong technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

And to the extent we are asked to lend technical expertise, it means using the cutting edge of science to adapt the clumsy and indiscriminate military technology of yesteryear so that it better comports with modern norms.  An engaged APL can improve aerial imagery to prevent civilian-combatant mix-ups.  It can make our explosions more contained; radar more precise; communications more reliable; body armor more effective; vehicles more resistant to IED blasts; MEDEVAC helicopters capable of flying further on each tank of fuel.  It can lean in and improve our military to make warfare less awful, instead of watching it inflict avoidable pain for the sake of saying “at least WE had not part in it.” 

I join Ms. Armitage in full-throated opposition to our nation’s unfortunate history of warmongering – but to me, blaming the researchers is barking up the wrong tree.

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