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An Individual Responsibility


By William E. Mckibben

NAPALM IS ONE of those things that has very few defenders; it may have turned more Americans against the war in Vietnam than anything else, this burning jelly that did in people. Somehow it's appropriate that the University that brought you Indochina also produced the most controversial weapon of the war, albiet 20 years ealier. In a shallow lake on Soldiers Field, dug by Buildings and Grounds workers, Louis Feiser, professor of Chemistry, developed the stuff, tested it mid great flashes, and probably crowed with satisfaction when at worked.

When one calls Faculty members doing work for the Penagor, they have all sorts of answers ready, answers they've bought about over the years, excuses maybe. "It's basic research." "I don't have anything to do with the applications." It's peacetime." "I am not convinced I desire a weak Air Force." "No one else has the money." In one way or another, all the answers make sense. But in a fundamental sense, they're all to much blather.

The facts are these: any advanced war technology is angerous, for it holds the possibility of triggering Armageddon, not only by its physical presence, but also through the psychology it creates. Advanced weaponry is designed for war between the superpowers, and such war ought to be unsinkable. Or it is designed for wars like Vietnam--wars designed to extend our economic stranglehold on the world--nd hence immoral. Think about a proper war for us to fight; it not an easy task.

So, that in mind, all the answers turn to dust. "It is basic research." Basic research paid for by the Department of Derense under the terms of a decade-old law that demands such work be related to the production of defense technology. Doing basic work on computer displays means doing basic work on computer displays that might well be used in the cockpits of fancy planes. "Very powerful lasers" for weapon purposes. And "I don't have anything to do with applications." Just provide the brainpower. Just plot the lines, design the programs, and let another push the button. And "it's peacetime." When it's wartime, the military will use the peacetime hardware.

Defense-related research is a boom business on American campuses in these days of wine and silos. At Harvard, men and women work on all kinds of assignments. They are all brilliant, and most of them are moral, or so they think. But they muck around their labs with Air Force dollars or send their proposals to the Air Force. Yes, they have plenty of debater's points--all the research is openly published, so anyone can get their hands on it. No classified work is allowed. But doing defense-related work implies that the professor has accepted the basic premises of such work: that more war technology is necessary, desirable and useful.

Exceptions exist--at the School of Public Health, for instance, Andrew Spielman, associate professor of Tropical Public Health, studies mosquito-borne diseases for the Army. What he learns about malaria will be as applicable to natives as to soldiers shooting natives.

And justifications abound: The current administration believes (and, indeed, the last administration believed, though to a lesser extent) in funding for defense research and not for mass transit research, not for nutrition research, not for housing research, and not for pure science. There is little but lasers and graphic displays and the like that they will find; it is no wonder that scientists structure grant proposals to appeal to generals.

No wonder, that is, if one accepts as natural, and therefore correct, the tendency of people to do what is in their interest, not in the interest of others. Scientists want to study lasers (or study something and lasers is what they can get funded to study); therefore they should. Pursuit of knowledge. I wash my hands of it. Responsibility means nothing in discussions like this, except in reference to someone else It's someone else's responsibility how this stuff gets used. I'm just a researcher.

OPPONENTS OF defense-related research do not have too many good ideas for persuading researchers to give up such work. They talk about national coalitions; about legislation; about sit-ins in front of laboratories. The problem, though, is not blocking research, for that is impossible. Somewhere, some way, it will always be done. Instead, the solution lies in forcing the men with brains to make individual moral decisions. Will they perhaps sacrifice their careers--will they perhaps not pursue some avenue of scientific inquiry--or will they participate in the same myths that produced the atom bomb, that produced napalm, that produced defoliants and guidance systems and all the rest? That is the question that each professor must consider--not in a confrontation with others, but in a confrontation with himself.

Sam Day, who has been campaigning against defense-related research on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, says some professors have "quit and gotten jobs driving buses" rather than work for the Pentagon. Driving buses--even in Massachusetts, where the Carmen's union makes comfortable men of busdrivers--is no occupation to choose. After the last run, you've got to break out the broom and sweep the bus; all you do all day is drive back and forth, up and down Cambridge Street or Mass Ave. It doesn't require a lot of brains, which is why few professors will ever take it up. But there are other jobs, and there is this thought--better not to use any brains than to use them to some inhuman end.

When the first atom bomb exploded at a New Mexico test site, Kenneth T. Bainbridge, a Harvard Physics professor, turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Better bus drivers than sons of bitches?

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