Pete Huang

How everything, including Microsoft, became war

Last week, I finished a book titled How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon by Rosa Brooks. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford and Yale Law School, Brooks has spent her career in a variety of roles exploring the role of the military and the nature of war in the last decades.

I recommend the read for any civilian, especially anyone who doesn’t have too much prior exposure to the American military.

To summarize some of the main points that Brooks presents, the delineation between war and peace has become less and less useful as the US has expanded its strategy towards other countries to include prevention of future conflicts instead of just combat against existing enemies.

Think of American military action in Europe during World War II. Soldiers on the ground, planes in the sky, firing at the Axis powers. That’s easy to think of as war. But what about economic and infrastructure development activities to boost local stability and, therefore, stifle the rise of terrorist groups? Is that war?

Add in the role of non-state powers - international businesses (Walmart, Apple), NGOs (Save The Children, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) and military/terrorist groups (Taliban, Boko Haram), who have more than subtantial power all arenas, combat and otherwise - and the 4th domain of combat (cyber, vs. land, air and sea), and we have an increasingly muddled set of relationships of who we consider an ally vs. an enemy, as well as a fundamentally broken definition of what it means to be at war.

Brooks argues that to deal with this expansion from combat to world-shaping, we need a new framework beyond simple war and peace.

There is much at stake. As Brooks argues, certain actions, like killing someone, are impermissible in peacetime, but they are justifiable in wartime. But without clear definitions of whether single-instance drone killings, building bridges in rural areas or collection of telecom metadata implies that we are at war with some party (let alone who we are at war with), we are deeply at a loss for holding our leaders accountable.

Satya Nadella’s wandering into the fog of war

Last week at Mobile World Congress, Satya Nadella rebuffed internal challenges to Microsoft’s decision to strike a near-$500 million deal to supply the US military with augmented reality technology.

He said, “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.”

I suspect that Nadella and his team has thought about this plenty, but I don’t know how rigorously they’ve built the decision-making framework powering this particular deal.

I suspect that Nadella would approve a contract to sell AR technology to the German military. I also suspect that he’d approve one that sells to the Red Cross. And I suspect that he wouldn’t approve one that sells to Russia. But it gets difficult after that.

Red Cross organizations have previously shared confidential information with the US government, even when, in a war situation, humanitarian organizations are largely deemed out-of-bounds.

What if there was a humanitarian organization that shared confidential information with the Russian government? Would Microsoft and Nadella approve such a contract? Would they even know that that particular organization was engaged in that type of activity?

This is a really hard problem to solve. The traditional state-by-state policy doesn’t hold when non-state actors are closely intertwined with states.

And besides, for what other technologies would we have to decide who’s acceptable to work with and who isn’t? Replace HoloLens with Azure, GitHub or even Office. What’s the line?

In her book, Brooks made a call for more flexibility in military recruiting and operating structures to incentivize and allow the likes of Silicon Valley employees to serve in 1- or 2-year stints and introduce fresh perspectives into the US military.

I’d also argue that we need more intentional inclusion of government, policy, military and intelligence perspectives into tech leadership to help think through their stances.