Bombing More Than Exams | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Bombing More Than Exams

Be mindful of military spending on campus, activists urge

When you decided to ship off to the peaceful confines of college instead of heading for, say, the Navy, you may have thought you were avoiding the conflict of conscience that would've come with joining the war effort. If so, you might want to look beyond the syllabus -- especially if you attend Carnegie Mellon University.

CMU "is among the top 10 university recipients of direct funding from the Department of Defense," explains activist David Meieran, who has worked on the issue with the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, the Thomas Merton Center, and the Web site

University spokeswoman Teresa Thomas says the school received $65 million in funding from the DoD in 2007. Much of that money is funneled through the military's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

"The government is certainly one of the biggest investors in university research nationwide," Thomas wrote in an e-mail. "'Big' science -- the kind that creates major breakthroughs -- can only be sustained for everyone with a government investment."

Even so, the Software Engineering Institute has been a perennial target of protesters since it was created by the federal government in 1984. The CMU-affiliated research lab on Fifth Avenue in Oakland was created with DoD and other federal money. Its main charge is cybersecurity -- stopping hackers from undermining computer networks. But activists contend it has been involved in building laser-guided munitions, and the institute's annual reports show that it has worked with entities like the Aviation and Missile Command. Still, according to SEI spokesperson Kelly Kimberland, SEI "does not develop software," but consults on "software and systems engineering-related problems."

More clear-cut is some of the work being done at CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center, on the banks of the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville. NREC developed the Gladiator, an unmanned tank capable of launching grenades or bullets. Developed for use by the Marines, the device was unveiled at CMU in 2005. Carnegie Mellon also developed the Predator, the drone aircraft used in missile strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.

Much of what's being developed at CMU is aimed at taking the human element out of combat as much as possible; backers say that reduces risk to the lives of American servicepeople. But that doesn't make Meieran feel much better. Military research, he says, leads to more of what he calls a "war economy," in which jobs depend on military spending.

"One of the dangers of a war economy is that increases the likelihood of war," he contends. "All empires eventually fall because of a buildup of military force at the expense of other things. It happened to the Greeks and the Romans, and we see it now."

CMU's Thomas points out that many government contracts -- including those let out by the military -- have benefited civilian life as well. The Internet, for example, was developed partly by defense research. So was much of the computer security that we rely on to avoid identity theft.

Meieran, however, is not convinced. "The problem with that argument is that it confuses a sufficient condition with a necessary condition," he says. "DARPA money did help develop the Internet, but it wasn't necessary to developing it. It would've come together some other way."

While Carnegie Mellon is by far the biggest local academic recipient of defense money, it's not the only one. The University of Pittsburgh hosts bio-defense programs that receive funding from multiple federal sources, including the Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control.

If you're sufficiently incensed and want to do something about the military presence on your campus, David Meieran offers this advice:

"If you're invited to take part in a program that has military ties, don't do it. If you're not sure if a program has military involvement, find out." Military connections may not always be obvious: Meieran cites one CMU psychology study which was designed to improve decision making amongst U.S. Navy officers.

When you discover a military connection to campus activity, "Speak out against it," Meieran urges. Anti-military demonstrations by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group ( have attracted attention -- and controversy. And a whole range of peace activities are conducted through the Thomas Merton Center (412-361-3022 or

Lastly, Meieran says, students need to realize that simply attending a college that receives military spending compels them to know what's going on around them: "Make the connection between the cost of your education and the war economy."

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson