A group of activists has occupied the offices of University of Hawai'i System Interim President John McLain for several days now, demanding that the UH system back out of an agreement to establish a military research program and undertake substantial research projects. As much of a throwback as this is, we live in a new age, where protests have websites and live video feeds and, of course, blogs. The symbolic nature of protest actions is greatly amplified by these technologies, though it does raise the question of effectiveness: can anyone think of examples where office-occupation protests produced real results?
The protestors, though they have a variety of positions related to war and research, have backed away from demands that the programs be cancelled, and now are proposing that the approval process be more open and rigorous. In other words, they are making procedural demands which they believe will enhance their push for substantive changes, but which are not, actually, directly related. Sounds a lot like a certain congressional issue, to me.
Then there's the actual substance of the protests. The main components of the protest, as I read it, have to do with secrecy and with environmental degradation, and the conflict between military and educational goals. Military research is not all bad [via The 50th Star] but then it's not all good, either. But statements like
"Research that facilitates military aims is the same as creation of the weapon itself. ... The person who makes the plutonium or pulls the trigger are equally culpable."
bother me because it extends the idea of moral complicity so far that only constant, active resistance to legitimate governments would be acceptable. One could limit the argument specifically to government contracts, but even then, even the military funds some research which has fundamental roots and broad applications: why should a researcher turn down money to do research which they'd do anyway?
You could argue that historians don't have to worry much about this, but we do, for two reasons. First, we are institutional citizens, and both the ethical position and financial status of our universities matters to us. Second, military history.