When the Pentagon Looked to Chomsky’s Linguistics for their Weapons Systems

by Chris Knight

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Students protesting against military research at MIT in 1969.

Noam Chomsky is the world's most prominent anti-militarist campaigner and, wearing a different hat, the acknowledged founder of modern scientific linguistics. Any attempt to understand Chomsky's huge influence on modern thought must appreciate the connection between these two roles. And to do this we must begin with a paradoxical fact: Chomsky has spent his career in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working in what was originally a military lab. As he himself says about MIT in the 1960s:

[It] was about 90 per cent Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab. If you take a look at my early publications, they all say something about Air Force, Navy, and so on, because I was in a military lab, the Research Lab for Electronics [RLE].

The Pentagon showed a keen interested in linguistics during this period. Colonel Gaines of the US Air Force recalled why during an interview in 1971. Having referred to the military's computerised systems of command and control, both for defense against nuclear missiles and for use in Vietnam, he complained about the difficulties of teaching computer languages to military personnel. "We sponsored linguistic research", he explained, "in order to learn how to build command and control systems that could understand English queries directly."

If Chomsky's linguistics was being funded for this purpose, it seems all the more remarkable that Chomsky ended up publicly opposing the Vietnam War and denouncing the very military institutions that were sponsoring his research.

Modestly, Chomsky has always downplayed any moral dilemmas, suggesting that the military had no interest in his work. But I have recently come across restricted-access documents which refer to Chomsky as a "consultant" to a project funded by the Air Force in order "to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control."

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