Military Research and the Common Good by Jason E. Summers

This October marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history and the first in a series of ongoing foreign military engagements that now include Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen. As we confront the burgeoning costs of U.S. military operations in the face of our current debt crisis, serious conversations are beginning about not just the extent of foreign military engagement, but also the size and scope of the Department of Defense (DoD) as a whole. Christians, as citizens, must participate in these conversations. In doing so, they face the challenge of assessing in terms of their biblical worldview not only their stance on these specific wars, but, more significantly, their view of the DoD and the defense industry in general.

By supporting funding for the DoD, Christians may fear they are merely propping up merchants of war, as some have suggested. At the same time, the military is at pains to point out notable contributions to the common good through the diffusion of technologies developed under military funding: radar, sonar, GPS, and the internet. Yet, in putting these forward as a primary justification for military research and development, the military weakens its own case. Citizens should question whether diffusion of these technologies alone justifies military expenditures on them and whether military funding is the most efficient approach to development for civilian use. Ultimately, no such ad hoc argument for or against support of the DoD and defense industry is satisfactory. All such arguments rely on a reductive framework of economic cost-benefit analysis. Rather, a robust framework for evaluating the DoD and defense industry must consider the role that societal institutions like the DoD serve while recognizing that all institutions embody values and that these values may not be in full accord with their normative function. In the following, I will sketch out the application of such a framework and will conclude that the military-industrial complex is both a direct contributor to the common good and a rival worldview that must be understood and held in check.

In addition to the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, 2011 also marks forty years since theologian Max Stackhouse published The Ethics of Necropolis, his social-political analysis of the origin and ethos of the military-industrial complex — the web of public- and private-sector institutions supported by DoD funding. Unlike prior scholars or popular social critics like Gil Scott-Heron, Stackhouse’s comprehensive assessment found that the military-industrial complex is neither reducible to nor solely attributable to a cabal of power elite comprising “the military and the monetary.” Rather, it came about through values established in American urban industrial society: the Protestant ethic that drives capitalism and the urban ethos in which people and institutions depend on mastery of their environment through planning and technological transformation. In the distinct historical circumstances surrounding the buildup to the Cold War, the military-industrial complex emerged from these values as a social matrix of institutions. But it is more than this. The complex, which Stackhouse described as a necropolis — a city of death — embodies within a uniquely well-organized structure a stable logic and culture having goals, purposes and assumptions so developed as to almost constitute a worldview. This nascent worldview sees conflict as the inevitable and perpetual state of humankind to which technology and planning present the solution through deterrence and defense.

Thus, for Stackhouse, the chief problem of the military-industrial complex is theological because it “attempts to find an ultimate security through totalization of human power to defend the present and secure the future.” Biblically, we know that for individuals there is moral and theological danger in seeking complete assurance of eternally guaranteed existence when, instead, life must be lived toward the eschatological consummation of the world’s redemption. But states are not individuals. Noting this, James Skillen has more fully articulated Stackhouse’s concern, suggesting that, while moral norms differ between individuals and states, a similar moral risk exists for states. Assurance of dominance is both an idol and impossible goal — the quest for “sufficiency” in the realm of defense cannot entail complete security. No measure of technological superiority can ensure total security and no level of spending can guarantee total technological superiority. Making such false assumptions disregards other aspects of foreign policy and diverts resources from other legitimate functions of the state.

Yet, while such values can lead to an overemphasis on pursuing security through technological means, the military does have a legitimate function to protect the political community of a nation by responding to acts of aggression that endanger life and property. Indeed, an anemic military does not lead to public justice through the minimization of conflict or harm, but rather sacrifices the legitimate duty of the state to protect citizens on the altar of a utopianism that divorces realistic and visionary elements of the Christian tradition. And, while technological superiority cannot be assured, scientific research and development of new technologies that address needs specific to military operations are necessary to provide reasonable assurance that the military can fulfill its legitimate role. This is achieved through three primary means.

First, DoD funded research and development is necessary for maintaining the armed forces at levels of technological sophistication commensurate with the need to deter and respond to the armed forces of other nations that pose threats. A military that does not evolve technologically cannot fulfill its mandate given that other militaries will continue to develop and use new technology. As Stackhouse writes, “so long as such [military-industrial] complexes exist elsewhere, and are not subject to international regulation, some sort of limited complex will be required here to keep the patterns of international mutual restraint alive.” Moreover, the DoD must now lay the groundwork necessary to maintain this capability for future generations, which I have argued is achieved largely through funding basic and applied research that supports innovation and maintains national expertise in academic fields of significance to military ends.

Second, DoD funded research and development can provide means for the armed forces to conduct warfare more ethically, by better meeting the requirements developed in Christian just-war doctrine. New technologies may enable less risk of accidental harm to noncombatants and may enable armed forces to achieve military ends with smaller uses of force. Though they bring some new ethical concerns, technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles can achieve military goals with less force and greater discrimination than traditional weapons. Military action always risks lives; ethically conducted wars seek to minimize total harm and attempt to ensure that the likely loss of life is justified by the military end. Warfare in the 21st century is increasingly less deadly, in large part through use of new technology.

Finally, DoD funded research and development can enable governments to better meet competing demands by offering new solutions to ethical dilemmas. For example, in the case of naval patrol of costal waters, I have argued that new computer-based training technologies better enable governments to meet the competing demands of ensuring military readiness through training and stewarding those human, natural and fiscal resources entrusted to it by citizens. Readiness and proficiency achieved through training are necessary for the military to fulfill its normative function. However traditional in situ military-training operations risk harming natural resources shared by the political community, for which the government is responsible to care. Training also uses fiscal resources for which government has fiduciary responsibility. Virtual-training technologies resolve the ethical tension between these demands by providing adequate training while minimizing costs.

These three means by which research and development enable the armed forces to better meet their normative obligations challenge the notion that military-funded research must have private-sector applications in order to contribute to the common good. While there are many technologies now in civilian use that were developed under military funding, such examples are not the primary justification for military research and development. Indeed, a just society recognizes the legitimate ends of the military and supports the military-industrial complex in conducting the research, development, and manufacturing through which it provides the material provisions necessary to achieve those ends. While the military-industrial complex has developed to embody a set of beliefs about the world that partially conflict with a biblical worldview, its rightly ordered functioning supports the common good by enabling government to fulfill its mandate to protect the political community from foreign aggression.

All unattributed views expressed here are those of the author alone.