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Military Research and the Common Good
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
, 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
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
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
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.
How do you balance placing security in God and supporting reasonable security measures?
What do you see as the proper role of the DoD and the military-industrial complex in securing our society?
Thanks for an excellent summary of complex issues around warfare in a culture that is historically and residually Christian. In my view the factor that requires investment in and commitment to defense is the corporate sovereignty that accrues to Christians in democratic government. We are not a powerless, occupied community and sovereignty entails the obligation to use corporate power for the common good.
Thanks for your comment.
I would agree that all citizens within a society such as ours bear a portion of the responsibility to support the legitimate functions of the military in ensuring safety of the political community. Institutions may be corrupt or may manifest worldviews that are antithetical to a fully-formed Christian worldview (as, e.g., Stringfellow or Hauerwas might argue), but that does not remove that obligation we have to support the legitimate function of those institutions in providing for the common good. Willful pietistic withdraw from the world of common grace is the sort of thing only those in a privileged position could imagine because it condemns those outside to a fate of neglect. Stackhouse is correct in diagnosing it as a problem of divorcing realistic and visionary elements of the Christian tradition. But that tension between those elements is a difficult one to resolve.
Thank you for the article. I find it very interesting. I'm a recently graduated aerospace engineer (the cornerstone of said military-industrial complex), and people have questioned my involvement in the industry. I just have a couple thoughts:
1. I think Psalm 127 is a relevant passage for this article. It emphasizes the Christian contention between seeking and receiving. While we build, defend, and work, we are reminded that unless God is "in it", we do it in vain. So, this encourages me that if I build weapons to defend refugees, borders, political ideas, etc., I need to do it with Christ ever before me.
2. There have been a lot of sincere Christians in these industries and in military leadership, and having read about some of them and talked to others, their view of combat seems to generally be a fairly mild, solemn one (not like teenage shoot-em-up videogames). There is the recognition of the seriousness of the situation, including the dangers posed to them, their fellows, and the civilians in "danger-close", coupled with the underlying ideological conflicts that usually exist between the 2 sides. They seem to agree that war sucks, but sometimes needs to be fought. On the contrary, I have seen examples of soldiers giving way to strong emotions of hatred and revenge (I don't want to downplay the hurt that and the trauma that they go through, but I believe it is a good testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit's to be able to soothe men in the harshest physical and emotional environments).
3. History is a giant arms race. I don't know what the guy across the water has in his arsenal. So, to be cocky (or at least overly self-confident) is the most dangerous position. There are 2 categories of those: those that believe we (the United States) are invincible due to our surpassing military technology, and those that loudly assert that disarmament is the "yeast" that will spread pacifism to the globe (this is definitely not biblical - Jesus seems to assert that wars will continue until his return in Matt 24:6-7).
Ultimately, to attempt to measure the just-ness of the military-industrial complex based on technological benefit seems dangerous. Political structures, ideologies, and goals, along with warfare are more enduring and existed long before our current technology. So, I think that these issues should be the focus. Secondly, as Christians, we're called to grapple with the world as it is, in its sinful state. And while war is a product of sin's influence, we are still affected by it. While David was a "man after God's own heart", and honored by God, God still forbade him to build the temple [in part] because he had "blood on his hands" (1 Chron 22:6-10). I think it is fundamentally dangerous to adopt a stark view of war, where we quickly rush into or away from it.
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