Should peace activists care about corruption and exploitation in military research?
In May 2015, a new law will take effect in Australia concerning military-related research and development. The law has many critics, including leaders of Australian universities. Among the law’s opponents is Brendan Jones, a high-tech entrepreneur. In a strongly argued article in the December issue of Australasian Science, he lays out the case against the new law. The article begins:
From 17 May 2015, when the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) comes into effect, the federal Department of Defence will gain control over a very large share of high-tech and science research in Australia. Under the Act, publication, discussion or communication of research without a Defence permit will be punishable by up to 10 years jail, a $425,000 fine and forfeiture of research to the government. This includes scientists, academics, librarians, engineers, high-tech workers and companies that have never had a prior relationship with the Department of Defence.
Jones has been passionate in raising the alarm about the DTCA. He claims his business was the victim of depredations by the Australian Department of Defence, which took over his intellectual property without any compensation, causing his business to fail. If it had just been him, he might not have tried to expose it, but after he found out about several other similar cases, he decided he had to act.
It appears the Defence Department has its own favoured business partners. The department seeks out promising research and uses the ideas for its own purposes, without permission or compensation. The DTCA will legalise this sort of extractive process, backing it with punitive penalties for resistance.
Jones quotes several organisations and high-tech entrepreneurs who are critical of the DTCA. And not just critical — some of the entrepreneurs are planning to leave Australia. Jones is one of them, but not without a fight.
For months, Jones has been writing the most amazingly comprehensive treatments of the problems facing whistleblowers in Australia, typically in the form of open letters to politicians. It’s because of his interest in whistleblowing that I have been in touch with him. I’ve commented on drafts of several of his open letters, and posted a couple of them on my website.
Jones wrote a highly informative treatment of how whistleblowers should interact with journalists. In preparing his article, he contacted numerous journalists for feedback and advice. His article, “A whistleblower’s guide to journalists,” is the best available treatment on this topic. One of his recommendations for whistleblowers is to always remain anonymous if possible.
Several of Jones’ open letters are impressive pieces of research, with dozens or even hundreds of footnotes with references, quotes and examples. If you want a compendium of serious cases of corruption in Australia, Jones’ “Royal petition concerning federal government corruption” is the best available. Likewise, for a powerful indictment of the state of free speech in Australia, it is hard to go past his “Debunking Dreyfus on free speech and freedom.”
Corruption in the military
Military expenditures are huge and highly subject to corruption. In many countries, the government runs a monopoly. In others, notably the US, the government buys from favoured suppliers. Because of secrecy and the pretext of national security, shonky operations prosper. In the US, where the processes are best documented, there is a revolving door for top-level military personnel, who join companies and lobby to obtain lucrative contracts.
One of the most famous early whistleblowers in the US was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who in the 1980s exposed a $2 billion cost overrun in a military aircraft project. Taking inflation into account, this would be more like $20 billion in today’s dollars. For his efforts, Fitzgerald was subject to the usual methods of discrediting, harassment and sidelining. He wrote two books exposing corruption in US military contracting: The High Priests of Waste and The Pentagonists.
Over the years I’ve talked with quite a few military whistleblowers. They seldom have an easy time. Corruption is as common in the military as in any other part of society, perhaps more common; speaking out about it is quite a bit riskier, because reprisals can be severe, and sometimes whistleblowers are physically attacked. Few areas pose this level of danger to whistleblowers.
There’s a fascinating connection between military corruption and whistleblower laws. During the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was disgusted by companies cheating the government when providing military supplies, because their shoddy goods were undermining the war effort.
The government passed the False Claims Act, allowing whistleblowers who exposed companies defrauding the government to take legal action on behalf of the government, sometimes with the backing of the Department of Justice. The act provides financial rewards to these whistleblowers when prosecutions of corrupt companies are successful. The False Claims Act was revived in 1986 in response to corruption during a massive expansion in military expenditures, and is now widely seen as one of the most powerful pieces of whistleblower legislation. In Australia, the government has long resisted introduction of a similar law.
A dilemma for peace activists?
I’ve been involved with peace issues since the 1970s, and occasionally pondered the question of military corruption and waste. Should a peace activist care? Perhaps military waste is better than military efficiency!
In 1982, Mary Kaldor, a prominent figure in the European peace movement, authored a book entitled The Baroque Arsenal. She argued that military technology was becoming ever more gigantic in scale, high-cost and elaborate, rather like baroque churches that took decades to build. The result was that many weapons systems were becoming almost irrelevant for actual war-fighting: they were not rational from the point of view of military efficiency.
After I read Kaldor’s book, not long after it was published, I wrote in my notes about it, “But all this has little direct relevance to how to move against war. It seems more useful for those military and civilian planners who would like to truly modernise their armaments towards new industries and simplicity.”
Another thought: perhaps it is better for money to be wasted on inefficient, pointless technological monstrosities, especially if they don’t work. Billions of dollars spent on fighters or bombers that were never deployed might be better than less money spent on lean, efficient tools for killing.
On the other hand, when a military force has more than enough firepower for its purposes, additional expenditures may be pure waste and a drag on society. Furthermore, military corruption and waste may lead to lobbying for more funding: beneficiaries of boondoggles will seek to find ways to continue and increase their income streams. And even if some projects for new fighters or submarines are dropped after the expenditure of billions of dollars, this doesn’t mean other weapons disappear. Whatever the level of waste, rifles keep being produced.
Recently I read Paul Koistinen’s book State of War. His analysis of US military systems supports Kaldor’s analysis. Koistinen writes:
As a form of state capitalism, the defense sector was freed from practically all competitive market pressures. Under those circumstances, the industry became characterized by inefficiency, waste, and corruption; defense contractors too often turned out defective or failed weapons and equipment. Over time, massive expenditures for defense have had a very deleterious effect on the economy. These outlays have led to the hoarding of capital and human resources, especially among scientists and engineers, and to the diverting of public assistance from civilian enterprises. Of crucial significance, according to numerous critics, DOD [Department of Defense] budgets have distorted public priorities and spending, denying adequate attention and resources to infrastructure, education, medical care, and other public services and interests. (p. 235)
Activists have long stated that military spending would be more beneficial if redirected to human needs. However, making the military more efficient does not guarantee that savings will be redeployed for clean water, housing, education or health. Military efficiency might simply mean more money is available for weapons systems.
The DTCA brought back memories of these issues. The DTCA can be thought of as a straitjacket for Australian military-related research. Arguably, it will hinder research and development, with the additional side effect of undermining related civilian research, especially concerning so-called dual-use technologies, which can be adapted for military or civilian purposes.
Another possibility is that military systems that are fair and honest might be more open to switching to nonmilitary production. For decades, there has been a small but dedicated push for what is called “economic conversion” or “peace conversion,” which means switching from military production to production for civilian needs, for example from military vehicles to public transport. After the end of the cold war in 1989, there were great hopes that much such conversion would take place, as it did after the end of World Wars I and II. But these hopes were dashed: the military-industrial complex continued pretty much as before while searching for a new rationale. (Terrorism turned out to be the prime justification.)
It does seem plausible that military research and development that is riddled with corrupt and exploitative practices will be resistant to change, because corrupt operators are less subject to rational argument and planning. On the other hand, corrupt systems are less likely to lead to efficient killing machines. Perhaps the world is a safer place if nuclear weapons contractors cut corners in manufacturing, design and maintenance, so that weapons, if ever used, miss their targets or simply won’t work. In this scenario, the baroque arsenal that Mary Kaldor warned about is not such a bad thing: incredibly wasteful but less deadly than it might otherwise be.
An alternative research agenda
There is an alternative to military defence based on civilian methods of nonviolent action such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and occupations. Many people, because they believe violence always triumphs over nonviolence, see this as totally implausible, but there is good evidence that nonviolent methods can be more effective than armed struggle in challenging repressive regimes, because the goal is to win over the opponent, including the opponent’s troops.
The arguments about nonviolent defence – also called civilian-based defence, social defence and defence by civil resistance – have been canvassed elsewhere. Their relevance here is that if this alternative is taken seriously, it leads to an entirely different agenda for research, development and infrastructure. For example, decentralised renewable energy systems are much more suited for surviving an occupation, a blockade or a terrorist attack than centralised energy systems based on fossil fuels or nuclear power. Analogous considerations apply to communications, transport, agriculture and construction. A nonviolence-driven research agenda would give far more attention to social sciences and would change priorities in nearly every field of study.
From this point of view, the DTCA and problems of corruption in the military seem almost irrelevant. Research continues to be driven by military priorities, whether done efficiently or not.
Back to practicalities
A reorientation of military expenditures towards nonviolent alternatives is almost completely off the agenda. It proceeds only to the extent that developments, for example in energy and communications, increase the capacity of citizens to take action. As seen in the Arab spring and other nonviolent movements, network communication systems help citizens organise and coordinate actions.
For now, I will continue to support two seemingly disparate agendas: one is nonviolent defence and the other is dissent, including those who challenge the DTCA and other such legislation.
I’ve talked to a number of people in the military about nonviolent defence. Although most are sceptical about whether it could work, they recognise a common interest in thinking strategically about defending against aggression. Indeed, many officers would prefer to never have to fire a weapon in anger, seeing deterrence and prevention as superior to fighting.
In the same way, there can be a worthwhile dialogue and sharing of concerns when it comes to supporting integrity and free speech in the military. I will continue to support military whistleblowers and hope others will too.
I thank Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jørgen Johansen, Brendan Jones, Anne Melano, Brian Rappert and Kim Sawyer for valuable comments on drafts.
Jørgen Johansen comments
There are several discussions running in parallel here: one about the waste in military spending, one on the corruption in the military-industrial complex, one on defending a country without violent means, and one on the morality of having an inefficient military system compared to an efficient one. Even if they are related I think these should be held separate. One reason is that addressing topics separately makes it easier to understand, analyse, and act.
More importantly, for anyone who wants to oppose military/violent/corrupt systems, it is strategically important to confront them one at a time. To lump them together makes it almost impossible to “sell the arguments” and/or build alliances with those who are engaged in only one of these topics.
Too many activists are trapped in a fundamentalist attitude; “If you don’t agree with us on veganism, feminism, pacifism, sustainable energy, bi- and trans-sexuality, … we cannot have you in our group.” Almost all successful movements have focused on more limited questions, such as universal voting rights, anti-slavery, civil rights (anti-segregation), anti-personnel mines and anti-whaling.
If you don’t plan to write a huge book, there is no way you can properly describe all the complexities of the issues you mention in a single blog. This is of course not an argument against your topic for the blog, but advice for those who want to take up any of the issues you present and to run a campaign.
A final thought: it should not be on the peace movement’s agenda to discuss what sort of military means we want to see. Leave that to others.