I am always amazed at how many people prefer not to think deeply about war and technology. We humans have apparently had wars through all of recorded history, technology and industry have certainly been a large factor during the past few hundred years, and wars are interesting because people act in totally illogical ways— for instance allowing themselves to be brutalized by drill sergeants and volunteering to act in ways in which the probability of being killed is very high. And as president Eisenhower warned many years ago, the U.S. does probably have an industrial-military complex.
As an example of this avoidance, I was once president of a museum start-up intended to celebrate the technological accomplishments of Silicon Valley. The board consisted of a number of high level industry and political people. The industry people were in general from electronics companies, and often founders. To my amazement, the board refused to consider members from businesses such as Lockheed Missiles and Space, F.M.C., Raytheon, and other powerful and successful companies that were primarily working on military products. Even though located in Silicon Valley, apparently they weren’t part of the club. As another example, for most of my tenure at Stanford, over half of the research funding in the Engineering School has come from the Department of Defense—a fact that seldom shows up in PR documents, even though none of the work is directly on weapons. We don’t brag that our research activities are heavily dependent on DOD.
This is very weird, because in my memory, the U.S. is often involved in war. And we are proud of our industrial ability to help us do so (we remember that in the four years we were involved in World War II we manufactured over 300,000 military airplanes). But we are ambivalent. Even though the War Department was re-named the Department of Defense after World War II, we have only been actually attacked by one nation (Japan) in my memory, and have entered conflicts in other countries many times. But I’ll bet we are not going to re-name the Department of Defense the Department of Offense.
We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving people, but are we? The Defense Department budget is unclear at this point because of sequester cuts, but it is certainly above $650 billion dollars, and that does not include development and support of nuclear weapons (in the Department of Energy), the Veteran’s Administration, and other war-related costs. In terms of battle fleet tonnage, the U.S. navy is larger than the next 13 navies combined, and as I remember, 11 of these we consider to be our allies.
Our “civilian” products are certainly influenced —and sometimes originated—by the military. After all, it has brought us the internet —initially the ARPA net. It brought us and maintains the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system. It backed the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, and the Computer (the one at the Institute of Advanced Studies headed by John Von Neuman needed originally to simulate such things as the explosion of the hydrogen bomb}. It was a powerful lobby for space exploration, and brought us the Boeing 707 (evolved from a prototype for the very successful aerial refueling tanker called the KC 135).
At a perhaps lower level, think of such things as clothing (cargo pants, epaulets on overcoats, camouflage), toys (guns, miniature vehicles, models), and entertainment (war movies and books, computer games, paint ball, air-soft weapons). And I find it interesting that now we label well-meaning movements as wars (war on drugs, war on poverty, war on cancer). I clearly remember that when I arrived at Stanford, women active in the feminist movement seemed to prefer fatigues and other military clothing.
For the next few posts I am going to say some things about the influence of war and the military on industrial products and try to talk a bit about what quality means when applied to products intended for war. I am certainly not pro-war, since it is a nasty business. I did serve happily in the U.S. Air Force, but admit partly to avoid being drafted into the army. But I recognize war as something humans have always done.
I became so bothered by the ability that most of us have to avoid thinking deeply about war that in the 1970’s I began teaching a course entitled War and Technology, which among other topics covered the historic eager support of technology by the military, which has resulted in developments such as nuclear weapons, chemical and biological agents, and remote weapons such as drones, which may in turn have lead us to the point where wars may no longer work as an mechanism to settle international, or even internal disputes. Since it was perhaps my favorite course, I will throw in a tiny bit of history as we go. And as I used to tell my students, don't let your political beliefs get in the way. We are what we are.