Weekend Journal — The Doodle and the Truth

Weekend Journal — The Doodle and the Truth

Editors note: I (Chris) gave up my usual weekend slot to Seb because he had an intriguing article about a touchy and recurring subject within the field of engineering. This post will discuss working in the defense industry (possibly on deadly weapons), a topic which we know can set off some emotions. We’d love to hear your opinion in the comments section, but we won’t hesitate to squash any hateful or unduly harsh words. Engineer Blogs has maintained civil discourse and we hope to continue doing so. Enjoy Seb’s article!

One think leads to another, as they say. This particular though journey started whilst I was drafting my post about the SULSA 3D printed aircraft.

The process of writing about the subject gave me pause.

I had to stop staring at the keyboard as I did my usual hunt-and-peck routine; I gazed thoughtfully out the window at the forest hills around Heidelberg. A memory was beginning to stir amongst the sediment of my mind, like a monster of the deep disturbed by James Cameron’s sub. Some strange images rushed to the forefront of my mind:

WWII…

Spitfires

Hawker Hurricanes

Vickers Wellingtons

They buzzed through my conscious brain; I heard their engines roar and the sounds of machine guns.

Eventually what was troubling me became clear. It was a job interview that I had had during my final year at university. The interview was at was Lucas Aerospace, who made actuators for wing flaps, landing gear and the like, before they were subsumed into TRW and then Goodrich.

In the middle of that interview, which was going quite well, one of the interviewers asked me: “Would you be happy working on military projects?” I was flummoxed. I’d never really considered the question and didn’t feel that now was the best time to start doing so.

In one respect, it should have been an easy one to answer – throughout the years of lectures and at school beforehand, my margin doodles were often of indomitable fighter planes in the most far-out configurations imaginable. The drawings were festooned with elevons, canards, thrust vectoring fins and anything else I had just heard of. It was the military engineers who had all the best materials, the most extreme aerodynamics, who got their designs to go supersonic, who needed the structures to be as light as possible yet withstand those 12 g turns. They simply produced the best gear in aerospace engineering.

But when the question was posed? I stopped, for what seemed like an interview-time age, and then answered:

“No.”

The interviewers looked a little taken aback and there was a slightly uneasy silence until one of them shifted in his chair and then told me that he fully understood. He had worked previously on an actuator unit for a helmet-guided gun turret on an attack helicopter, a “look and shoot”. He said it made him a little uneasy when he stopped to think about it. I heard his colleague quietly make a consoling, “Hrrmmm” sounds, as if he may have felt the same at some time in the past. And then we moved on.

The interview proceeded on lighter terms – a few days later they offered me the job.

I didn’t take it in the end, which was also lucky in the sense that they were swiftly “rationalised” (shut down) during the various takeovers that followed my interview. But the experience remains, the lessons for me threefold:

  • Do your research — I had gone into the interview with the brochure images of gleaming white regional airliners flying through clear blue skies dotted with fluffy clouds. It had never entered into my naive head that I might need to apply my skills to help people kill people. I should have known this going in.
  • Stay true – Yes, the phrase that briefly sustains a thousand pop careers is still relevant. In interviews, don’t try to second-guess a “right” answer, as it may very well end up being the wrong answer for you. A key component of staying true to yourself is, of course, knowing yourself. Those margin doodles of mine were simply daydreams and it took me an age to recognise them as such.
  • Know your limits — In the spectrum of engineering jobs, I’m happier at the baby design end than at the bomb design end (I reside in the generally neutral automotive band, which suits me fine). And I know I don’t  want to work in sales.

I realise that I’m dipping my toe into the murky and fathomless pool of engineering ethics here: we of course need highly skilled engineers to ensure that our good guys get the bad guys before they get us (in so many words). But I’m content to remain in my protected bubble working on things that make our lives better overall – working on the things, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, that are worth fighting for.

And that’s challenge enough for me.

Have you ever been confronted with the choice to work on military grade products that could be used to kill someone? Since many products could be 2 or 3 separations from a military product, where do you draw the line? If you have taken a job working on a deadly military product, what was your thought process? What was your thought process if you turned it down? Please let us know in the comments.

 

9 comments

This is extremely relevant to me right now, as I’m contemplating the opportunities that I’ve been offered in grad school, and a very large portion of the exciting engineering projects available are funded by military grants. Even though I know that the main purpose of school is my education, and that the projects might not even work out, it makes me uncomfortable. And I think I couldn’t remain happy and motivated if I were working on such a project, even if it was challenging and fascinating. For me, the same also applies for the oil and gas industry (the second largest source of projects, it seems), although I understand that this is also a touchy subject and others may have different views.

Jacob – thanks so much for your comment. In one sense the decision is harder for you than it was for me; I hardly had any time to think, yet you have the time to agonize about it. It’s a really difficult one, and the same goes for energy supply (I know – I work in one of the biggest ends of the oil chain, autos!). Do you take the Big Oil dollar, or do you try to find something in alternative energy without the guarantee that that company will be around in five years’ time…?

In the end, you have to make a decision based largely on emotion. I’d suggest the best thing you can do is keep talking about it with friends, family and tutors until a view hardens out. But then I’m in the comfortable situation of not having to decide; it’s up to you and I think I can safely say; we wish you all the best!

I’ve worked on many military projects, but none directly involved in actual weapons – more of the defensive side with sonar receivers etc.
I guess it’s a fine line there between actual deadly hardware itself and that which can be simply used to perpetuate war. And as someone who is pretty much anti-war (as much as I like military hardware too), I guess I should have had a broader line in this respect.
And I’ve also worked many years on seismic oil exploration, even though I’m very much a renewable energy greenie.
But once again, it was the fine line. The stuff I worked on was the worlds leading “eco friendly” oil survey system (that at least doesn’t pump oil back *into* the ocean).

It’s almost certain that I wouldn’t do it again, being older, wiser, and more opinionated…

Dave.

I was very interested in autonomous underwater vehicles until I figured out the majority of the usage is either navies or oil exploration. And the companies often make torpedoes, too.
I think the bigger question posed in this post is extremely specific to the person. Different personal ethics and morals will alter someone’s suitable work environment, right?
Some further questions — what if you independently created a new efficient power supply or rugged engine modification that a large military adopted to increase their efficiency? Versus working directly for a defense group and having peaceful spillover from research into some crazy material science or fabrication process.

D:

I’ve worked at a company that made equipment that was sufficiently useful to the product of weapons that we had some annoying export and employment restrictions. Being once removed from the production seemed to make all the difference for most of my coworkers, especially since the military was a relatively minor customer.

It didn’t bother me, either, but then my view has always been that I personally share some responsibility as a citizen for any large scale stupidity committed by the government, even if I voted against the idiots that decided it.

In the interview for my previous job, they asked if I had a problem working on missiles. I said yes. So, they gave me a very rewarding job designing attitude control systems for a weather satellite. I was very fortunate to have that choice. One, to have a job. Two, to have a job with interesting engineering challenges. Three, to have an interesting job that aligned with my values.

I really believe you’re thinking about this way way too simply. It’s damn near impossible to separate out what is military and what is non-military. Ever looked at the dual-use item list? You think automotive technology doesn’t come from and isn’t going to the military?

A comment above mentioned green energy projects as being better when compared to big oil. Know who really wants green energy and solar power to work? The military. It would make it lot easier to have forward bases if you didn’t need to bring power.

I sure think that much of the military research is trying to find a way to quell conflict WITHOUT killing people. Yes, there is weapons work, but much of this work is about doing direct targeting to reduce unnecessary kills.

The nuke, pretty much the worst weapon ever, right? Many historians believe that ending the war with Japan would have been a bloody and horribly deadly disaster, to both sides if we hadn’t dropped the nuke. The cold war with Russia, wonder how ‘hot’ that war would have been if it hadn’t been for the threat of the nuke?

No, I don’t work for the military, just on a few isolated military projects. Most recently, an improved mine detector. I think that’s a valid military project, don’t you?

I am very anti-war and really do question what the US is doing and has done in the past, but I know things aren’t simple, good, bad, yes, no. It’s all a bit more mixed.

I generally agree. It’s one thing to promote war, another to make sure that when we go to war, our troops are safe and are effectively able to kill the bad guys without causing innocent life to be lost. I think too many people confuse the policy decisions with the engineering, but having family in the military certainly makes the choice easier. As you point out, the engineering also plays a large role in preventing ‘bad’ policy decisions -e.g. the Cold War.

just to add something about project .what do you think which kind of project is more really valuable? .between James Cameron and his navette or jarno smeets and his fly dreaming :))

Comments are closed.