Letter to the Editor: CMU SDS misses the point with their TOC protest

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The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) demonstration at the Technical Opportunities Conference (TOC) misses the point.

Shortly after the TOC (which I couldn't attend), I read a Tartan article reporting on this action. I felt the Carnegie Mellon SDS's actions were debatable, and their reasons as reported by The Tartan simplistic. On the action themselves, this action is unlikely to have any effect on the four companies targeted (why those four and not include Boeing, for instance?). At best, they may decide to go recruit elsewhere, but this is not going to impact their behavior and profits in any way. This is not going to have the sort of impact as the Stanford April 3rd movement.

On the other side, it may have some negative consequences on the image of Carnegie Mellon and its alumni, as this protest will be associated with Carnegie Mellon's image. Student outreach and fostering a debate on other opportunities could have been as appropriate without publicly involving the school. But regardless of the actual action, I have been unable to get any further information on the reason and the objective of Carnegie Mellon's new SDS movement apart from The Tartan reporting and the previous SDS article. Saying that corporations that work for the U.S. military (usually with close cooperation with the federal government) are "bad for humanity" is quite naïve and imprecise, and Lockheed Martin profits come basically from the federal government (either federal contract or exportation obtained by the US diplomacy). Those profits from selling weapons are, and the use of said weapons are, as much the federal government responsibility as from the company. Also, like Ukraine, the South China Sea, South Ossetia, and many others can testify, some geopolitics actors are keen to use force and military might in order to achieve their end, meaning that democracies cannot get rid of their armed forces, and consequently there will be an industrial base to produce the said weapon. That said there are indeed several actual problems with the military-industrial complex in the United States, which require precision.

The term "military-industrial complex" was coined by President Eisenhower in his final address, where the WWII general warned the USA to guard against its military-industrial complex. His point was not that there should be no industry dedicated to fulfilling the need of the armed forces, but that the people and its representative should not let the military industrial unchecked and exert oversight and control over the military. And today, sadly, the representatives of the United States citizens has failed to keep this complex in check. The modern United States tends to have a big respect for its soldiers and veterans but fails to make the criticism it badly needs. The Vietnam war was followed by actual criticism of the decision taken and changes. The last military operation that was a strategic victory is 91 the First Gulf War. Several unsuccessful military operations later, no criticism of them is in sight. While all the other budget is reduced and federal investment in infrastructure, healthcare is usually opposed by part of the public opinion. It is worth mentioning that the biggest federal infrastructure investment since the end of the war — with the interstate network built by the same Eisenhower — managed to pass it on the defense budget. This issue will not be solved by protesting the companies but by getting involved in politics and holding your representative accountable.

The selling of weapons to dictators and their use against civilians is the responsibility of the government that approved this exportation (of which the U.S. is far from being the only one guilty). This is also the point where I’d like to remind people that a lot of military technologies have dual purposes and that without the military industrial complex a lot of technologies would simply not exist. The internet was made possible by the involvement of DARPA. GPS was a military network, and even more so, satellites are still launched over derivative of ICBMs. (Who would have bet that Nazi V2 would lead to such a vital technology?). Less well known, the Silicon Valley ecosystem emerged because of the military industrial complex research on radars during the cold war.

Military research has its ethical issues, but precise cases need to be invoked. Who denigrates Einstein, Oppenheimer, Fermi for their involvement in the Manhattan project and in the two atomic detonations over Japan? They served their country in a time of war, and the decision was made by the president of the United States. Today, the ethical issue over armed drones, the use of neural networks for target acquisition are actual real things that deserve to be debated. For instance, my home country has decided against having armed drones, and drone pilots are projected to the theatre and instead of operating from the metropole and going back home after a day job of shooting people like U.S. drones operator do. Autonomous vehicles, targeting without humans in the loop, are subject that need to be debated and on which we may decide on the red-lines that we refuse to cross (similar to the ones making obvious that no one at Carnegie Mellon is ever going to work on offensive chemical or biological weapons).

And yet, as the latest issue of The Tartan mentions, the DARPA Urban challenge is one of the things that made possible the self-driving vehicle ecosystem that has hired many from Carnegie Mellon (Uber, Waymo and others).

To sum up, military industrial complex involvement at Carnegie Mellon is not a "bad" thing, by itself, but individual research project ethical issue should not be overlooked. The SDS should strive to tackle specific issues along with participating in a broader movement to hold accountable the government. And as the issues of the military complex are mainly political, for you readers that are U.S. citizen, it is also precisely time to express yourself in the coming midterms (the elections, but good luck everyone for the midterm exams too).

The author is a current Masters student who wishes to be anonymous but consents to be directly contacted with SDS if requested.