De-militarization

Faisal Devji, The New School

If it were merely about creating links between universities and the military that might compromise academic freedom, the Minerva Initiative would be of no particular interest. For there exists a long history of such interactions, whose heroic moments belong to the Cold War and include the establishment of funding bodies for studying languages, cultures and regions around the world. Indeed without such institutions it is difficult to see the social sciences in this country surviving in their present form, itself the product of a global war between the United States and the Soviet Union. So a new set of links between government and scholarly research could at most tighten this long-established relationship by directing it into specific channels. This might be worrying for academics but is hardly something new, requiring only conventional forms of resistance or accommodation by those concerned.

But what if the important issue here has little to do with compromising academic freedom and everything to do with the fragmentation of the army as a Cold War institution? And in fact the new relationship being created between scholars and soldiers is part of a more general realignment by which the military outsources its infrastructure and service requirements, from buildings and equipment to cooks, labourers, interrogators and even security personnel to outside contractors. The army, in other words, is increasingly operating on a civilian model, which former Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld likened to venture capitalism.[1] This de-militarization can even be seen in the army’s own regulations, which according to a recent article tend to converge with the standards of civil and criminal law even as they expand their scope to more and more subjects.[2]

Instead of the militarization of civilian life we might equally see in such occurrences the army’s de-militarization, so that it becomes difficult to draw any clear line between these sectors. In the wake of the Cold War, then, the army’s new civilian role is being crafted in ventures like the Minerva Initiative, which is meant to support open and non-classified research prompted by pre-determined subjects of interest, which is exactly the kind of thing that the great private foundations also do. So apart from its ownership by the government, what’s the difference between this project and that supported by a foundation? What can the military get from scholars without classified access to information, and working on subjects on a temporary and part-time basis, that they cannot obtain from in-house expertise?

Even if the Initiative’s point is to outsource non-essential research, it renders indistinct the line traditionally drawn between civilian and military sectors, thus resulting in the paradox that the state’s institutional withdrawal from a certain arena of research makes its presence all the more pervasive there, if only through outside contractors. Of course universities have for some time now been dealing precisely with this kind of government presence, especially in the fields of science and technology. But it is not clear how this kind of engagement differs from the other, market-based relationships that universities enjoy with private industries like pharmaceuticals. Is not the instrumentality of funding and the setting of research agendas the same in either case?

If the military funding of research works in ways similar to that organized by private companies, which may also result in the development of tests and products that are extremely injurious to the well-being of large numbers of people around the world, then criticizing one without the other makes little sense. In fact blame can equally be laid at the door of universities themselves, which operate according to the same instrumental logic as governments and corporations by turning research and education into products for the purposes of securing funds, fees, students and those all-important ratings. In other words engaging with the military turns out not to be something strange and new after all, so that refusing such engagement will require a great deal of self-criticism first.

There are two reasons why scholars and universities might be leery of working with the army. The first is political: because of the bad things the forces are seen as doing in their operations at home and abroad. Should a situation arise where military action is adjudged beneficial, in other words, there would be no cause to refuse working with the forces. The second reason is constitutional: academic institutions and their employees should not co-operate with military projects on principle, because this compromises their freedom and distorts their research agendas. Not being a principled one, the first of these objections is weak and belied by the kind of bad instrumentality that pervades academic life already. And the second makes little sense in a world in which it is no longer clear where the civilian ends and the military begins.

From the beginning of the War on Terror it was clear that the military strongly resisted the Administration’s attempts to plunge it into an open-ended war, subvert its code of conduct, including its adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and therefore effectively de-professionalize or rather de-institutionalize it. The military has been purged for resisting the encroachments of the executive in its attempts to muddy the legal and other distinctions that defined the armed forces and in doing so bring it closer to civilian norms. In other words it is the government’s civilian rather than military branch that poses a greater danger to the principle of defending academic and other freedoms. This it does by emphasizing civilian forms over military ones. Should the upholders of academic freedom therefore defend military norms against civilian ones?


[1] Donald H. Rumsfeld, “Transforming the military,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 81, no. 3. May/June 2002, p. 24.

[2] Robert M. Chesney and Jack L. Goldsmith, “Terrorism and the Convergence of Criminal and Military Detention Models”, Wake Forest Legal Studies Research Paper Series, no. 1055501, November 2007, pp. 14-15.

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