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Doing the devil's work

planting seeds

During the Vietnam War, student protests rocked campuses across the country, including here at Duke, condemning the “military-industrial-academic establishment” and their universities' involvement in the bloody business of war. 

In the intervening decades between the 1970’s and today, many of the criticisms leveled by past student radicals still ring true. However, in some ways the university’s connections to American imperialism and in turn have become somewhat obscured, necessitating a robust analysis of the military-industrial-academic establishment for the 21st century.  

What hasn’t changed? Duke still gets Department of Defense funding—as it has for decades. And the ROTC program, despite facing demands for its abolition in the 1970’s and renewed calls for its removal in the 1990’s in light of homophobic policies, still remains.  

What has changed? I would argue it is the development of a sophisticated ecosystem of students, professors, and campus organizations maintaining American militarism and imperialism. Nowadays, students, out of their own free will and in the absence of coercion (unlike the low-income youth of color disproportionately targeted by military recruiters), function as modern agents of the American empire right from our campuses. At Duke, this manifests in the presence of groups like American Grand Strategy or classes like Hacking for Defense

Why single out AGS and Hacking for Defense in particular? Both AGS and Hacking for Defense stand out as particularly visible and well-supported institutions. They are only two elements in an entire network of students, faculty and staff directly or indirectly invested in maintaining global American predominance, but they are some of the most prominent here at Duke. 

On AGS’ part, the organization has perennially invited CIA directors, military commanders, secretaries of state, and even alleged war criminals onto campus. For reference, the CIA intervenes in and overthrows numerous foreign governments, unified combatant commands like SOUTHCOM and AFRICOM have divvied up the world according to American strategic interests. The State Department backs dictatorships and facilitates regime change across the globe. 

But American neo-imperialism isn’t just about war and military occupations anymore, which is arguably the most important change since the Cold War. Comb through the rest of AGS’ invited speakers and there are plenty of scholars, journalists, businesspeople, and thinktank presidents. Here’s a visit from Lockheed Martin, the biggest defense contractor in the world. There’s a conversation with the Heritage Foundation, which has called for sanctions and regime change in Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea, just to name a few. And so on.

And of course inviting speakers is not the only action that constitutes AGS’ “grand strategy”; they also have educational and research opportunities that train students in the work of “grand strategy.” And what is “grand strategy” anyway, but another term for American neo-imperialism? Grand strategy is about making the world safe for “democracy” and “free trade”—better known as capitalist governments molded by neoliberal austerity regimes and structural adjustment programs

Under neoliberal neo-imperialism, the ideological and material work of maintaining Western/American dominance is subcontracted to intellectuals, researchers, private companies, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, and ordinary civilians. 

This is not to say that AGS is collecting CIA checks or money from the government (as hefty speaker fees make the opposite more plausible). But this is actually the point. In the neoliberal university, private scholars and organizations are doing, at a bare minimum, the ideological work of American imperialism—for free! 

Hacking for Defense (H4D), on the other hand, is literally in cahoots with the military, solving actual national security problems. H4D is a DOD sponsored university course at 33 different schools with a mix of public, private, and military institutions participating. At Duke, H4D is sponsored by AGS, Pratt, Science & Society and the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative. Hacking for Defense Inc., the platform spearheading this initiative, is a non-profit organization, and its website stresses that “no endorsement of H4Di by the US government, Department of Defense, or academic institutions is intended or implied.” 

What’s remarkable is H4D’s language of “entrepreneurship”: figuring out solutions for “investors” and “customers.” For next semester, Hacking for Defense changed its name to “Mission Driven Startups,” which is an extraordinary rebrand. Few names so wonderfully and concisely encapsulate the penetration of neoliberal, entrepreneurial capitalism into the logic of American neo-imperialism. The innocence (or banality) of the name “Mission Driven Startups” is also a testament to how normalized and obscured some of the University’s connections to imperialism have become. 

Some pundits have argued that the American empire is in decline, others have suggested that we didn’t intend to become an empire in the first place. And former President Obama told the United Nations that “the notion of American empire...isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion.” The image of a bumbling, reluctant empire and the United States’ propensity for historical amnesia are especially dangerous in combination with the veneer of plausible deniability offered to universities by programs like AGS and H4D. By not technically being endorsed by the government or the DOD, such initiatives help universities more easily sidestep accusations of complicity with the military-industrial complex. 

But the American empire, even if it is in death throes, still operates with calculated, ruthless intention—and with life or death consequences. And the University still assists “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The minimization of the ongoing violence of American imperialism coupled with the increasing obscuration of the university’s implications in the military-industrial complex demand clear-eyed analysis and bold action from today’s students. 

As students in America at a “prestigious” institution like Duke University, we are perhaps especially positioned to challenge the new agents of imperialism in our own backyard. And perhaps for the sake of peace and justice everywhere, it is our obligation to do so. 

Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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