Last summer a close friend gave me a tour of Google’s X lab in Mountain View, California. I was dumbstruck by the displays of innovation and invention in just the foyer. Here people were designing balloons that provided high-speed internet access, self-driving cars, and drones that took off vertically and flew horizontally. They were solving the same logistical and communication problems we face in the military. But when I signed into the building, he quipped that I should pretend I was a civilian. A joke for sure, but the message was clear. My kind wasn’t welcome there. But why?
Inside these doors were the same bright and idealistic people I had gone to school with only a few years earlier. They probably chose to work for Google for many of the same reasons my peers and I joined the Marines — we were impressed with the organization’s values and we wanted to make the world a better place.
Later that summer I presented at a symposium on innovation sponsored by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. There was an air of excitement among many of the military participants. We were used to a slow and bumbling bureaucracy, but here was a meeting of people that envisioned a future of rapid change and innovation. Marines talked about small projects they had been working on, and leaders from Amazon and IBM came to talk about innovation management and their relationships with the Department of Defense.
But someone was missing from the discussion. There was no representative from Google.
I expected this after its public decision in May to discontinue its work on Project Maven or compete for new Department of Defense contracts. And by no means was there a representative from every Fortune 500 company in attendance, but the absence of one of the nation’s most innovative companies was significant.
Recent comments by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about Google’s cooperation with the Chinese government on a censor-compliant version of the company’s search engine highlighted a sense of rejection in the defense community exacerbated by perceived hypocrisy. The company that Americans, and people all over the world associate with innovation and information technology had spurned the U.S. military, yet continues to work with one of our chief competitors.
To be clear, this is not a case of one out of many tech companies leaving the market — it is the market leader walking away in a symbolic way. Google is synonymous with information technology and ingenuity. I don’t go to the store and “Amazon” something. I don’t “Facebook” anyone. But I “Google” information every day. Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. have changed America and the world in just a few years. They mediate our relationship with information in the digital realm and continue to be at the forefront of technological change, driving advances in cloud computing, LiDAR, self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.
I have read the open letter that many of you signed and sent to your CEO Sundar Pichai. I deeply respect your desire to remain above conflict and to husband the application of your work. But we know now that this is impossible. We live in a world where Facebook’s platform has been corrupted to influence our elections and terrorists use the secure messaging of WhatsApp and Telegram to coordinate their crimes. Neutrality, even well-intentioned, is not possible. In the pleading words of Merry from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy: “You’re part of this world, aren’t you?”
If your mission is truly to “make the world’s information universally accessible,” then you must support those who protect the free exchange of ideas. Many of our adversaries do not.
I also ask you: Who do you think we are? You know us. We are the kids you know from college who wore uniforms to class on Wednesdays because we were there on ROTC scholarship. We are the kids you know from high school who put Semper Fi stickers on our cars. We are the Boy Scouts who put the flags in the cemetery in November. We grew up with you and we share the same values. We, too, want to live in a world where the truth triumphs and the world’s information is freely accessible. We just fight for that world in a more literal sense.
I do not agree with all of our nation’s policies or all of our leadership. Not by a long shot. But I firmly believe we are the good guys, and as long as we have the capability to protect our values and our allies worldwide, we have a responsibility to do so.
I know we are not a perfect partner, but please work with us. I don’t ever want to have to explain to my Marines why our technological edge has eroded. Or that their lives are at greater risk defending our shared values because we have been abandoned by our tech sector. Our military did not become great by the will and sacrifice of our service members alone. We drew from the arsenal of democracy. Our industries and companies have designed and built the world’s finest weapons to equip our young men and women. They’ve also built our communications networks, our logistics platforms and our lifesaving equipment. For most of the 20th century, American military eminence was grounded in the mutually beneficial partnership between private industry and the military. Together we’ve built the modern world — from the rocket to the internet. There are myriad ways to support us, but we need your help.
First Lt. Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer and two-time winner of the commandant of the Marine Corps’ Innovation Challenge. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Marine Corps or the Defense Department.