Can a war that kills the innocent be just? In March 2017 a U.S.-led air strike killed 200 civilians in a school in Mansoura, Syria, according to a United Nations report. The watchdog group Airwars.org estimates that U.S.-coalition attacks have killed at least 6,259 civilians since anti-ISIS operations began in 2014.
U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have resulted in the direct (bombs and bullets) or indirect (displacement, disease, malnutrition) deaths of more than 1.1 million people, most of them civilians, according to the Costs of War project. These are low estimates. Many and possibly most casualties go uncounted. Did you know that the U.S. is now involved in counter-terror operations in 76 nations?
The U.S., which spends more on its arms and armies than the next seven biggest spenders combined, has been at war non-stop since 2001. Most of us don't even question our nation’s militarism any more. We have come to accept war as inevitable, a kind of permanent background noise.
But in a heartening act of conscience, Google employees are bucking this trend by protesting the tech giant’s pursuit of military contracts. The debate “has fractured Google’s work force, fueled heated staff meetings and internal exchanges, and prompted some employees to resign,” The New York Times reports. [See Update below.]
The debate concerns a Pentagon program called Maven, which seeks to improve the capacity of drones and other systems to identify targets by means of artificial intelligence. After Google signed a contract to work on Maven, thousands of Google employees signed a petition of protest, which was made public in April. The petition states:
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”
The Pentagon has eagerly sought alliances with the tech industry, and Google is hardly the only big firm to respond. In addition to defense contractors like Lockheed-Martin, firms such as IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have also sought contracts. Google executives have defended its Maven program by pointing out that other tech companies are doing defense work, and by claiming that Google technology will not be used for lethal applications.
The employees’ petition rejects these excuses. It states: “The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart. We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties…. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance--and potentially lethal outcomes--is not acceptable.”
A group called the Tech Workers Coalition has released a similar petition, which calls on other tech companies “to stay out of the business of war.” The petition, which 330 workers have signed, states:
“We risk potentially catastrophic outcomes if we continue to deploy global technical systems without care, deliberation, and a clear understanding of our significant responsibility. In signing this petition, we represent a growing network of tech workers who commit to never ‘just follow orders’, but to hold ourselves, each other, and the industry accountable.”
I hope these antiwar sentiments spread from the tech industry to the rest of society. Although some companies will always seek to profit from it, war is bad for business and for our overall economic health. By the end of this year, the U.S. will have spent $5.6 trillion on its post-9/11 wars, money that could have been spent on education, health care and transportation. U.S. wars have exacerbated Muslim militancy, the problem they were supposed to solve. Weapons research, rather than enhancing U.S. security, ultimately imperils it by triggering arms races.
Except for a few sociopaths who profit from war or take pleasure in it, everyone wants peace. As I have argued on this blog and in my book The End of War, ending war should be a moral imperative, akin to ending slavery and giving women equal rights. We should ask not, Can we stop war? but, How can we stop it?
I am not an absolute pacifist. People have the right to defend themselves. There are times when violence is justified to prevent or stop greater violence. But here’s my just-war rule: When we weigh a warlike action, we should consider whether it is absolutely necessary--and whether it will take us closer to a world without war. (See “We Need a New Just-War Theory, Which Aims to End War Forever.”) If the action doesn’t meet this standard, we shouldn’t do it. None of the current U.S. wars, I believe, meets this standard. Nor does inventing “smarter” ways to kill people.
Google’s code of conduct says, “Don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right--speak up!” Since 9/11 the U.S. has killed thousands of children in Syria and elsewhere. If killing kids isn’t evil, what is? Google can turn its current public-relations debacle into a triumph by living up to its own principle. It should renounce military contracts and urge other tech firms to do the same. (Amazon, are you listening?) This act of moral leadership could catalyze a vigorous conversation about U.S. militarism--and about how humanity can move past militarism once and for all. Ending war won’t be easy, so the sooner we start the better.
Update: Gizmodo has reported that Google will not renew its contract for Project Maven when it expires in 2019. Google also “plans to unveil new ethical principles about its use of AI next week.”
Hypocrisy Alert: In 2005 I accepted a consulting fee from a defense contractor seeking ideas for fighting terrorism. I work at an engineering school that does defense-related research. I own stock in Amazon, which to my dismay has become a defense contractor. So I am a war profiteer. Like I said, weaning ourselves from war will be hard, but together we can do it.