Professor Parnas Strikes Back at the Star-Warriors

In May of 1985 Dr. David Parnas, a world-renowned computer scientist, was asked to sit on a panel to examine Star Wars computing. A few months later he resigned from that panel because "it would not be possible to build a system that we could trust." He felt that the public was being misled and he did not want to participate in that fraud. His resignation received extensive media coverage in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Our interview with him was conducted from January 5 to 13, 1987 via computer network.

By David Parnas (interviewee) | 1987-04-01 12:00:00

Peace Magazine: Tell us about your involvement in the U.S. military over the past fourteen years.

DAVID PARNAS: My first professional involvement came in 1971 when I was asked to review a new computer design for the Navy. I found the design incredibly inept and teamed up with scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to help defeat the program. The program was entrenched because it had built up a structure of contractors and civil servants who felt that the computer would advance their careers. It took several years to convince the senior officers that this project was actually a waste of money. As a part of this effort I became a part-time employee of NRL. In 1978 I began a project to rewrite the navigation and weapon delivery software for a fighter jet. This led to my deepest involvement in weapon delivery systems, of which SDI is an extreme example. The development of SDI technology is dangerous because it will stimulate counter-developments and more nuclear weapons. Deployment would be more dangerous. Canadians must be especially concerned because some of the plans would call for deployment on Canadian territory.

The only legitimate use of force is to counter those who use or threaten force to impose their will on others. This must be done in the least damaging way possible. Thus I would recognize as a "good" weapons development, the development of weapons that are more precise and accurate and limited in their effects so that they can be used against armed forces without damage to others.

However, the most important developments are the political mechanisms that restrict the way that weapons are used. Weapons are used properly by good police forces, improperly by criminals and, often, by those who think they are defending themselves. I believe that the weapons should be controlled by a kind of international police force rather than individual countries. I don't think we'll ever live in a world without weapons but I live in a house without weapons because I trust the police to protect me. I would be in more danger if I had a gun in my house. The analogy for the international community is clear. Limited loss of individual sovereignty is the only way to share the roads with our cars and the only way to share a world, given today's technology. It is for such a force that my earlier remarks about developing more precise weapons make sense. I am pleased that some Canadian troops are already acting in that role. Canada is also contributing by supporting such international bodies as the U.N. and the World Court.

PM: Your criticisms of the defence establishment have been publicized widely. Rave your chances for contracts with the military have been hurt in this process?

PARNAS: When I spoke out against SOT, I expected to lose all my military contracts immediately. Surprisingly, I did not. However, I do not want any more contracts with the U.S. military, as they are not a force for security in the world. Even perfectly reasonable weapons are likely to be misused by them. I would consider contracts that would increase the security of smaller countries such as the one I've chosen to live in -- Canada. Unfortunately, in the technical area, they follow U.S. developments almost slavishly, making the same errors a few years after the U.S. does.

PM: Would you work on weapons development?

PARNAS: I would not work on nuclear weapons for any country. However, I admire countries (such as Switzerland) with a democratic political system and a force that threatens nobody except invaders. I believe, with Einstein, that in

some circumstances a refusal to work on weapons may put the world in the hands of its worst enemies, and I would not rule out working on weapons in the future. I realize that this point seems inconsistent. But what would you do if the U.S. or the USSR (it doesn't matter which) were about to "nuke" Japanese cities to end the economic competition? If you develop a weapon that didn't hurt innocent people, would you? I could not refuse and I don't think most people could.

PM: Should Canada test the Cruise missile?

PARNAS: Canada should not do anything that will not increase its security. Cruise missiles are not going to make Canada, or anyone else, more secure. They can only create problems. Testing U.S. weapons and allowing them to be stationed in Canada sends a message to other states that inhibits their treating Canada as an independent country. On a tour through Germany in November, I repeatedly corrected people who implied that I had just come from the United States. I pointed out that I am at a Canadian University [Queen's]. The most common response was: same thing". If Canada wants to deal with other countries in such things as mutual defence treaties, it must be recognized as something other than a U.S. satellite.

By defending Germany, Canada becomes more dependent on the U.S. for its own defence. My sense of the Canadians I met when working in Europe (I had access to the base there), was that many wondered what they were doing there. However, my experience giving a talk at the Military College in Victoria was a positive one. I was impressed by the intellectual level of the cadets, officers, and faculty. The questions I was asked showed that they had listened attentively and related it to their own experiences. If Canada's future depended on those people, it would be in good hands.

P.M.: How can Canada apply pressure to our giant southern neighbour (the U.S.)?

PARNAS: I don't think it can or should try to. Canada should develop its own policy. For example, Canada should strengthen its mechanisms for international conflict resolution and enforcement of judicial decisions, even though the U.S. shows contempt for such institutions.

PM: France has proposed the creation of an International Satellite Monitoring Agency (SMA) operated through the United Nations. Information from such a system would be available to any country requesting it, and could monitor arms control treaties and military developments (such as troop and arms deployments). Both superpowers have opposed this and it has been deadlocked for years. Should Canada and other middle-powers work on such a project?

PARNAS: I like the idea. It is consistent with the advice that Einstein and Freud gave the world in their letter exchange in 1932. Freud predicted that the superpowers, then not named, would oppose such efforts but he believed that they were essential to the abandonment of war as a mechanism for resolving disputes. By the way, I amended a conference on science and peace in Hamburg in November and am not certain that the Eastern countries would continue to oppose such a plan if given a chance to participate. They seemed to be proposing similar ideas.

Recent news stories about new submarines made me also wonder if it would not be cheaper, less threatening to others, and more effective to use some of Canada's experience in remote sensing to install electronic surveillance rather than submarines in Arctic oceans.

PM: How can we strengthen our alliances with countries other than the U.S.?

PARNAS: I travelled in New Zealand and Australia last summer and was struck by the similarity in problems to those in Canada. Even there, they are worried about becoming part of an "American Empire". This was true for those working both for the military and in the peace movement.

It's hard to tell the difference between an alliance in which one partner is much much stronger than the others, and an empire. Canada can retain its sovereignty only if it allies itself, in real and not just symbolic ways, with a large number of countries of roughly Canada's strength. Members of such an alliance need not agree on governmental systems, economic strategies, or other issues, but must oppose the use of force to resolve disputes. They must agree to use other means of conflict resolution. I see nothing wrong with mutual defence alliances but there is something dangerous when the alliance is dominated by a country that is much larger and stronger than the others. For Canada, this is especially questionable because the dominant country in NATO is the country that has the strongest reasons (economic and military) to impose its will on Canada. Canada has trade disputes with the U.S., not Russia. It has border disputes with the U.S., not Russia. Fear of Russia was not why Canada had to build the Rideau Canal. It is odd and dangerous to be so dependent on the only nation to have ever invaded you. I don't want a lot of anti-U.S. rhetoric. I do want positive moves ties with other countries with similar problems. I'd like to see steps taken to shift trade to other countries.

PM: Do you expect rapprochement between the U.S. and the USSR?

PARNAS: I'm not optimistic. Any progress in that direction will be made by the world's people, not politicians. The peace movement is wrong to focus on swaying U.S. and USSR politicians. Those nations will only come to their senses when other countries establish better for international relations. There's so much anti-Soviet propaganda in the USA that nothing one of them can do will be interpreted by the other in a positive light. Any progress (and there may not be) will come from smaller countries such as Canada. New Zealand made progress by banning nuclear warships and would make more if other countries joined them.

PM: Should Canada declare itself a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ)?

PARNAS: It has never been clear to me what this would mean. It does no one any good to have nuclear weapons; they are immoral because they inevitably damage innocents, even if used against armed aggressors. However, it would be foolish to believe that the U.S. would refrain from bringing such weapons to Canada if they felt it was useful for their defence. The country that regards Central America as its "backyard" also sees Canada as its "front porch".

I have recently observed discussions in the U.S. about SDI and older ABM Systems that clearly ignored the border or the existence of a separate nation north of the U.S. Remember SAFEGUARD, which was prepared to launch nuclear tipped missiles against attacking ICBMs? The designers couldn't say when the interception would take place over Canada because the software ignored the border. If it had been used, nuclear explosions over Canadian territory would have been used to prevent nuclear explosions over U.S. territory. With such a situation, would declaring Canada a NWFZ be an empty gesture? Especially if Canada acted alone!

Symbolic gestures may seem attractive but I prefer to take positive real steps. When you make a symbolic gesture a lot of people think you have accomplished something and relax. I liked the New Zealand action but, because it was alone in what it did, I am not sure that it did any good. The next such action should be coordinated with other nations.

P.M.: The Defence establishment and the peace movement pursue the same goal (security) in very different, contradictory, ways. You have a foot in both camps. How can these two groups be brought to pursue common goals?

PARNAS: Most people working in the Defence establishment have made it a "way of life" and no longer think about official goals of peace and security. Young people often enter the military establishment with the ideal of keeping their country safe but in the U.S. something has gone seriously wrong. The Canadian and Australian military, however, are different and that my observations don't apply to them as much as to the U.S. establishment.

However idealistic the people who enter the U.S. military may be, they are surrounded by career-oriented people. In that culture, you work to advance your organization in order to advance your career. Civil servants try to increase their organizations or to move to more powerful ones. Scientists at government laboratories always try to get more work and responsibility transferred to their labs. Those in companies devote as much of their energy to getting more contracts for their company as to actual research. Many top rate people are continually assigned to writing project proposals but don't get to work on the resulting contract. At NRL (U.S. Naval Research Laboratory), one of the best parts of the Defense establishment, we never discuss broader issues; we either talk about narrow technical questions or how to get control over funds given to other organizations.

The officers assigned to SDIO (the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) Organization) see their job as getting more funds for SDI. They believe that the job of determining what is best for peace and security belongs to some higher authority. Time and again when I have discussed SDI with scientists who know that the SDI described by President Reagan isn't real, they have said to me "but it is good for my laboratory (company, organization, etc.)". I have letters from old friends suggesting that any way of getting more money for their research is legitimate. Otherwise thoughtful people say such things without embarrassment because they are part of a culture that takes it for granted. They will even weaken their country to keep the Defense establishment strong. SDI has exposed the sickness of the establishment; it makes no sense, but it brings funds to the DoD that might have been cut. Even people who think it is wasteful and dangerous play along. Military establishment people profit from an imminent but never happening war. Those who work in this structure work against security without even realizing it.

I see some of this institutional viewpoint in the peace movement too. It's not as strong because few make a career of peace, but one does see organizations that compete and overlap. One sees people measure progress by the size of their group, meeting, or demonstration. The real measure would be changes in election results or government policies, but it is easier to count the number of people who show up for a march. When 60,000 people march in Vancouver you start with 60,000 people and end up with 60,000 people. If each of the 60,000 used that to talk to people who do not go to a Peace March, you might end the day with 120,000 people who will vote for disarmament.

The only hope for getting the two groups together is to get the discussion back to basics. No topic is more important than an end to the arms race, but people vote on other issues. We have to reach them to change anything, but the peace movement just talks to and congratulates itself. Recently, I corresponded with the scientist who organized a peace conference for scientists in Hamburg, Germany. Re considered it a success because 3000 scientists and students attended. I considered it of little value because press coverage outside Germany was limited, few new ideas came out, and no new converts were made.

PM: What should the peace movement be talking about?

PARNAS: I believe in representative democracy and in changing defence policy by changing our representatives. We must convince voters that the most important issue of our time is the nuclear arms race and have them vote on that issue alone. We need to support candidates who will push for a change in defence policy. If there are two candidates in a riding who would do that, we need to support both. That way, the movement wouldn't always support the same party.

The peace movement also should be talking more about the real reason for Canada to be concerned about SDI. It is not participation in the research that worries me. It is the possibility that Canada will be involved in the deployment whether it wants it or not. In Washington, I've heard influential people discuss deployment of SDI weapons on Canadian soil and waters as if Canada weren't even here. If Canada couldn't say "no" when asked to impose a tax on its softwood producers, how could it say "no" if the U.S. considered the use of Canada's territory essential to U.S. "defence". Deployment of such weapons is probably over ten years away, but getting Canada into a position where it could say "no" if it wanted to would probably take that long. Some may want SDI weapons placed here but surely they want Canadians, not Americans, to be the ones who make the choice.

PM: Is the peace movement making progress?

PARNAS: Not much. They are getting better organized but not influencing elections yet. Only then when they influence policy. In a way, SDI is progress for the peace movement. It is so ridiculous in its claims, that it has opened the eyes of even the voluntarily blind like myself.

PM.: The peace movement often focusses on specific weapons systems to oppose, and seldom presents alternative defence policies. Rather than leading the public debate in security, it tends to react to government pronouncements.

PARNAS: Most important, it does not offer other ways of solving the real problems and it presents a false alternative. Listening to peace people, I often get the impression that Canada has a choice between its present alliance and going it alone. The fact is that Canada has a choice between its present alliance and a different kind of alliance.

Last summer, I talked with New Zealand and Australian Navy people who lamented that their countries lacked the capacity to make a submarine alone, and so must work with and become dependent on the U.S. I have heard identical laments here. The Australian and Canadian engineers are every bit as good as the U.S. ones, but there are not as many. They must work together. The smaller countries in the Soviet camp are probably in similar positions. if Freud was right, the small countries need alliances against the large ones more than the West needs allies against the East.

PM: Do you think the peace movement would be more effective if it promoted positive contributions to security rather than, as now, opposing individual weapons systems?

PARNAS: The peace movement has to make the positive choices clear. Those who opt for continuing armaments do so because they think the choice is between a continual preparation for war and submission. We need to promote other practical possibilities rather than just oppose the dangerous things now being done. We must counter the "peace through strength" forces by rejecting their implication that we believe in peace through submission. We must show that the arms race has not strengthened us relative to other groups. We gain strength by alliances as well as by arms. We gain even more strength by supporting international organizations. The argument is not between security and weakness but between alternate methods of achieving security. The movement does not get that idea across.

With my foot in both camps, I can also say that the peace movement could learn something about organization from the other side. Meetings that I attended within the DoD could discuss new ideas, reach decisions, and begin to act. The peace meetings that I attend spend a lot of time on old ideas and seem to reach few action decisions.

PM: How should peace activists approach the media?

PARNAS: The open expression we now have lets off steam, giving us the feeling that we have done something, but does not really reach the unconverted. Two-way conversations are the only way to break the barrier to new ideas in people's minds. The powerful stay in power by allowing us to demonstrate openly. I cooperate with the media, but I don't think they're the main path to change. The peace movement has willing grass roots supporters, many of them unemployed. Let them play a more. direct role. let's have many one-to-one conversations rather than a few one-too-many broadcasts.

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1987, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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