A Critique of Militarized Reason

April 17th, 2019 - by Anwar Omeish / The Harvard Crimson

Over the last four decades, the militarization of universities has increasingly endangered (and rendered impossible) the mission of the University.

(April 5, 2019) — In 2007, I went to a protest against the Iraq War with my family. Unbeknownst to us, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was using the protest to test new technologies: Small, surveilling “insect-drones” disguised as dragonflies flew over our slogans and signs.

Since the Cold War and, more earnestly, since 9/11, the U.S. government has funneled billions into developing such technologies: Defense and security research comprise over 48 percent of the overall U.S. Research and Development budget — the Department of Defense holds the largest share of such funding by a wide margin. The impact of this funding is clear: It underlies the sordid history of the 21st century’s well-documented travesties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and others less-documented across the world.

But all this money — $57.7 billion just this year — was not spent concocting technologies of war in secret government labs. Instead, it was distributed to universities, deputizing them and their researchers to generate much-needed technologies — needed, that is, for military priorities. From scientists funded for artificial intelligence research and weapons development to anthropologists analyzing culture for “better killing,” the 21st century has seen a resurgence of government — and specifically military — control over university research agendas.

This concern is not new; universities’ relationships with institutional power have increasingly deepened since the Cold War. At Harvard, next week marks 50 years since the 1969 University Hall occupation, during which — in protest of the Vietnam War — “liberated documents” highlighted administrative and faculty collaboration on U.S. military and intelligence projects. In fact, this collaboration across American universities was the very reason for the development of many disciplines’ ethical guidelines in the 1970s. But as defense spending has increased in the last 18 years, even these guidelines have been loosened in pursuit of government funds (also symptomatic of increasing corporatization of universities).

Harvard is by no means unique in these collaborations. While our primary culprits are the Harvard Kennedy School’s national security programs and STEM research in collaboration with military research agencies (placing us in the top 100 most militarized schools in the country), schools nationwide participate in research funded by programs like DARPA pursuing U.S. military interests. Consider the Pat Robertson Intelligence Scholars Program, for example, which (like others) funds graduate and undergraduate study in return for undisclosed funding and mandatory military or intelligence conscription. Or Intelligence Community Centers for Academic Excellence, funding university recruitment of minority students for intelligence careers beginning in middle school, and aiming, as its proponents describe, to recruit “spies that look like their targets.” These programs belie a national security infrastructure that defines academic priorities across disciplines and across the country, regardless of their transparency, moral-ethical value, or alignment with the pursuit of justice.

This power, of course, is not only monetary. We all watched as Chelsea Manning’s Institute Of Politics fellowship was revoked at then-CIA director Mike Pompeo’s behest. Meanwhile, this school and others grant platforms to not only orchestrators of 21st-century U.S. military operations, but also war criminals and architects of destructive policies. We continue hosting ROTC programs — not an affinity group but the military itself — on campus despite the U.S. military’s devastating and often illegal combat operations (and despite its predatory and discriminatory practices). In turn, these phenomena feed the revolving doors between government and the private sector and between the private sector and educational institutions, leading to what Henry A. Giroux calls the “military-industrial-academic complex” consuming modern universities.


In my first column, I identified how the modern university’s imbrication in power often renders it incompatible with the creative, transgressive projects needed to construct better worlds. The militarization of universities is central to this problem: When research goals are defined by pursuit of military domination (or, analogously, corporate power) rather than honest engagement with questions of justice, we preclude the realization of even the most modest university goals.

Globally, this is a common concern. While some contend that the military is flawed but perfectible, the fact is that modern states depend on the ability to suspend laws in national crises — that is, to dismiss legal, moral, or ethical guidelines to preserve their power. In the U.S., this has meant erosion of judicial oversight over executive power; post-9/11, U.S. courts have given the executive branch (and military) almost-free rein on the very issues government-funded university research advances today. Universities cannot — and should not — trust that government projects are in pursuit of justice or liberation. To do so is to turn a blind eye to history, to undermine the values we claim to stand for, and to impede rather than facilitate the transformation we need.

This, of course, requires a radical re-evaluation of university politics. It requires considering alternative endowment practices that prioritize academic independence. It demands analysis that moves beyond liberal lip-service into recognition and refusal of complicity in global domination, even in the purportedly leftist academy. And it requires courageous engagement — through scholarship and direct action — with deeply rooted structures of racism, militarism, colonialism, and capitalism that make possible the militarization of universities and the entrenchment of power it sustains.

From National Mall to Boylston Hall, we must find the courage to challenge the state even when most unpopular, and pursue both scholarship and politics of justice independent of state agendas. That may not mean total disengagement, but it does mean terms of engagement that truly subordinate research to moral-ethical values of justice.

Universities are not the state, and they are not the military. That is for good reason. The military-industrial-academic complex blurs these lines, embedding the university in the very logics of domination that its scholarship claims to address. Far from expanding political possibilities, this leaves us with a destructive status quo — and with universities that preclude, rather than generate, the resources we need to change it.

Anwar Omeish ’19 is a Social Studies Concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.