This is a copy of an e-mail I sent to Professional Engineering, the magazine of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.
I find it alarming that of all the many articles about military hardware that this journal carries, I can not recall a single one that has questioned the need for producing such hardware. Surely as engineers we should be questioning the need for the more and "better" weapons many of us are asked to design and build. After all, contrary to what they and a supine media would have us believe, our government has a long history of putting them to ill use. For instance the Iraqis are now far worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein and our wars and sanctions against Iraq have killed far more of its citizens than he ever did. Before we waded in they at least had a modern infrastructure, education and health care, now all that has been destroyed. Afghanistan too is, incredibly, worse off even than it was under the Taliban, apart possibly from Kabul. In the first few days of bombing Afghanistan more civilians were killed than died in the Twin Towers, thousands more have died since; the opium business has grown by at least 20 times; women who were oppressed before now set fire to themselves in a bid to escape their lives; the list goes on. In Yugoslavia too our role was not as our government would have us believe. For instance it is reckoned that NATO bombing in 1999 may have killed more civilians than Serb forces did and certainly led to more people fleeing as refugees. Even US and UK generals didn’t recommend that bombing, but they were overruled.
Looking back through our history you can see a stream of military interventions, none of which were unavoidable and none of which did the countries concerned any good; combined with an ongoing policy of supplying arms to chosen dictators. And yet when the government says we need more weapons, more ships, more aircraft, we the engineers simply say "yes boss" and bury ourselves in the technical challenge.
The Nuremberg trials established that it was no defence for a soldier to plead that he was only following orders when he committed crimes and hence that it is a soldier’s right and duty to question and refuse such orders. Should we not also be questioning and refusing instructions to build more military hardware, given such a history of destruction and suffering? And shouldn’t this institution be taking the lead in asking such questions? Oppenheimer was horrified by what he unleashed and worked hard to try and put that genie back in the bottle, but to no avail. How many of us are repeating his mistakes in our own ways, great or small?
Jonathan Le Vallois