When conscience and defense jobs collide

Bob E. helps design control systems for the Trident nuclear submarine. He says he is deeply worried that what he is doing may not fit with his understanding of a Christian as a peacemaker.

He doesn't characterize himself as a pacifist. But as the nuclear freeze movement has gained momentum, he says he's begun to wonder if what he is doing contributes to world peace. ''I believe in speaking softly, and long - and carrying a stick,'' he says. ''But how big a stick do we need?''

Mike C. is an unemployed computer systems engineer. After many years working on government-sponsored defense projects, including antiballistic missiles, he says he's decided not to take another job in a military-related field.

''It's very hard to think about the social implications'' when you're working on a project, he says. ''I felt very uncomfortable mentioning my concerns in the work environment - even though I think many of the others would have been receptive.''

These two high-technology professionals were among more than 100 clergy, social workers, and past and present defense workers who met recently at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., the oldest Protestant graduate school of theology in the United States. The topic: how to counsel the growing number of workers unhappy with their jobs in defense-related industries.

''The concern [about working on military projects] is very widespread,'' says Dr. Warren Davis, president of High Technology Professionals for Peace, which cosponsored the workshop. ''Since we formed our organization (in April 1981) there has been incredible response. . . . People write letters and say they're so glad that there's somebody out there to talk to.''

Dr. Davis, who spent about 10 years of his career working on military projects, says his friends used to justify their involvement by saying, ''I'll just take the money and run - after all, (the weapon) will never be used.

''What's happening now, especially because of the political climate and the Reagan administration, is that it's less and less clear that these weapons systems are not going to be used. And consequently people who previously rationalized are finding it harder and harder to do.''

Some of these people, he says, now are coming to his group. The Boston chapter meets twice-monthly and has about 50 members, of which nearly half either used to or still work in military research. The group has a mailing list of 1,500 across the US and some in Europe. The largest number, he says, are in Seattle and St. Louis, two cities with large defense-related industries.

In addition to counseling its members, the group has started a nonprofit employment agency for people who want to leave military-related jobs and for students who are being recruited by the defense industry. The first placements were made this month. Companies that hire employees through the agency must promise never to place them in divisions that work on military contracts.

The conference here came just days before this week's meeting of nearly 300 Roman Catholic bishops in Washington, D.C., to discuss a controversial pastoral letter that condemns the first use of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons against civilian populations. It also endorses a bilateral, verifiable freeze on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons.

''The whole issue of war is one the church has struggled with forever,'' says the Rev. Keith Man, pastor of the South Acton, Mass., Congregational Church and an organizer of the conference. ''But nuclear war is something relatively new.

''We've been in the denial phase. People in the congregation say, 'Please, I've got enough problems already!'. . .

''But the biblical mandate calls for us to be peacemakers and stewards of the creation. We have to take peacemaking today much more seriously.''

Despite growing concern in his congregation, says a minister from Groton, Conn., ''very few people are willing to talk'' about their work. Many members of his congregation work on the Trident nuclear submarines at the General Dynamics shipyard. Although he is counseling some members, ''part of the fear of talking about it is the reality that down deep there's conflict in them to be resolved, '' he says. If the minister brings up the subject, he says, ''we just see less and less of them.''

Obviously, not everyone sees a conflict between their religious or moral principles and their work on military projects, pointed out Tom F., an executive in a high-technology company with contracts for such work.

''Some are very conscientious,'' he says. ''I have a friend in (another) church who sincerely feels what he's doing is right.'' Many participants agreed that a key issue was each person's right to think through his beliefs and then act on them.

That often happens ''once the technology involved has lost its kick,'' says a counselor for the Boston Industrial Mission. ''Then the moral questions begin to come forward. If he decides to get out, he may need to make a covenant with his family. He may have to tell them, 'I won't be at the same level (of pay or prestige) as when I was in it.' ''

Even high-technology professionals who have decided not to work on military projects may find the line hard to draw. ''Say a device you're working on can look inside the human body or check granules of fuel in a (military) rocket engine,'' says Charles Carpenter, an electronic engineer. ''Should the engineer worry about which use it will be put to?''

''We need to be aware when working (on a project) of what will come of it,'' adds Steve Heims, a physicist and college professor. ''You never know for sure. But you can conjecture.''

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