{ This is My Home, Where We Kill People for a Living }
B. Clifford

herndon, va - the new yinzerWith war pending in Iraq, it's impossible not to notice the increase in traffic, bustle, and just the general hum in the area the past few months. My friends from college toss money around a little freer than they did the year after graduation and find themselves suddenly traveling to locales both exotic—such as San Diego or Miami—and otherwise: Huntsville, Ala., Groton, Conn. There are many more cars on the road, most of the foreign luxury type with vanity plates that read "CNSLTNT" or "SAICMAN", hired hands brought in for the industry equivalent of sweeps week. This is after all Northern Virginia, and our business is making and selling war.
   The economy of Northern Virginia has changed rapidly over the past sixty years. Farms were still prevalent through the Seventies, but as the size of the federal government grew during and following World War II, so too did the economic diversity of the region. Heavy industry never really made its way to Northern Virginia, due to the swampy nature of the land and the environmental restrictions related to the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. As chronicled here and elsewhere, the Nineties saw the rise of the technology industry in Fairfax and Arlington Counties, the two jurisdictions that dominate the region in terms of population, political clout, and economic development. While that sector has also waned, it continues to exist and employ a good number of local residents.
   By far the largest employer in the region predictably is the federal government; the one industry in the area that has outlasted agriculture, mom-and-pop shops, and the dot com boom has been defense contracting. This nebulously titled craft not only drives the local economy, but it also influences foreign policy and pervades nearly ever sector of life in Northern Virginia. Defense contracting companies have managed this through steadily increasing salaries and perks for employees, all while seeking technological advances to make the notion of war and death more palatable to discuss around the company water coolers.
   At its core, the defense contracting industry designs and manufactures anything the Department of Defense hints it may want, from jets to missile defense systems to warships. Naturally, there is a large amount of competition, with contractors vying against each other for bids to build these things. However, there is an even larger amount of collusion among the firms, both in lobbying the foreign policy decision-makers and in working to bring certain concepts to fruition. For example, if industry leader Northrop Grumman wins the contract to build the newest class of destroyer for the Navy, its newly acquired shipyards in Newport News, Va., are responsible for building the boat. However, the contract for design, productions, and installation of the weapons system will be awarded to another company, say SAIC, which will then have to work with Northrop Grumman from that point forward. The president's oft-vaunted missile defense system itself has seventeen contractors currently working to make it a reality.
   The industry exists, essentially, to kill people—in the name of defense, to be sure, or in the name of America, or in the name of whichever cause one may hold to be noble and upright. I'm not so na´ve as to suggest that we don't need defense contractors, or that America isn't in need of the tools to defend itself. I certainly don't agree with the current administration as to what constitutes "defending America," but I took enough foreign affairs classes in college to know that it may take military hardware to do it. However, that doesn't change the fundamental purpose of the industry, nor does it justify or explain the sway this sector of the economy hold over the region where I've lived since age two. My growth from toddlerdom to adulthood here in Northern Virginia has been mirrored by the defense contracting's growth from a cottage industry to a primary economic and social engine. It has made untold billions not only by making newer, better, faster machines used to kill people more effectively, but then also by urging whichever elected officials are sitting in the seats of power to use them, thereby increasing the demand for the equipment they provide. It is no mistake that the defense contracting industry is located so close to the Alexandria, Va., home of Virginia's senior senator, John Warner, who took over the chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee on 3 January 2003.
   I recently took these matters up with some friends of mine who work for different offices of Northrop Grumman. They have backgrounds in finance and spend their days on Microsoft Excel, either figuring out the proposed cost of a bid the company plans to place on a contract, or calculating how much current contracts are costing. Having leftward-leaning political and sociological outlooks, I failed to see the point of working as hard as they did in college so that they could work eleven hours a day for a company that exists to make a profit from war. One, a finance major whose political outlook closely mirrors mine, responded poignantly.
   "I just don't think about it really," she says. "I don't have to point a gun or anything. I just stare at a spreadsheet all day, crunch numbers, really. Besides, they pay me more than any of the Big 5 would, and I get performance appraisals more often."
   The "Big 5" are the largest U.S. investment banking firms with such names as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. The performance appraisals to which she refers occur every six months in her section, which is based in Reston, Va., and exist primarily to hand out raises and bonuses. Since graduation in May of 2000, she has been working on what they call "workstations" for the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, from which those in command can view satellite and composite images and issue orders from their headquarters in Maryland.
   The other, a former roommate who used to work for one of the Big 5 but was enticed by the pay of the defense-contracting sector and is currently working on the Aegis missile system for the newest destroyer class, was well aware of what his work accomplished in the end.
   "Yeah, I know what these numbers translate to," he says. "Sometimes I stare at my spreadsheets and wonder what the relation is between the number on my screen and the amount of casualties this system will inflict, like a cost per casualty analysis. I suppose it will depend on how much this is used in the end, so it's impossible to figure out now. But there is a relation, you can be sure. It doesn't bother me, no. You work for a politician, doesn't that bother you?"
   Quite frankly, sometimes yes, but I believe by and large in her policies, and in the end I know that the County itself isn't harming or seeking to harm its residents, but rather doing its best to help them.
   "Well," he says, "I couldn't make it through boot camp, I'm sure, so I guess this is just my way of using my talents to defend the country, and its not like I designed this missile system. I'm just running cost analyses and digressions. And the paychecks are larger than those in the army, so that helps. But it doesn't bother me that I'm doing this."
   Both of my friends—one who very clearly believes his job is accomplishing a modicum of good in this works, and one who is so opposed to the ends of her means that she's in denial—gave essentially similar responses: I don't kill people everyday, I manipulate numbers in a spreadsheet. War historians, from Thucydides to Herman Wouk, have chronicled mankind's drive to improve the ways it wages war with itself. These military innovations, from gunpowder to atomic weapons, have changed the face of warfare, allowing for the inflicting of more damages from farther away. This makes a large amount of sense with respect to self-preservation; dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki without a doubt saved a substantial amount of lives, most likely on both sides.
   However, there is a deeper, perhaps more subtle impetus behind this drive to push ourselves further and further from our target, namely the desire to remove ourselves physically and emotionally from the actual act of killing our opponent. It's much easier on one's psyche to push a button, run some numbers or calculations, or manage a spreadsheet than it is to stab someone, or to look into his eyes and pull a trigger. Defense contractors aren't shy about their business, and one imagines that the attitudes of their CEOs align more closely with my former roommate than my finance major friend. Given the fervor with which these contractors lobby Congress and the administrations, they clearly believe it is their obligation to defend their country, and to do so proactively. But finding such rampant patriotism in enough people with the correct skills to conduct their trade proves difficult, and so these firms don't brainwash so much as desensitize employees to what their jobs actually accomplish. Instead of discussing casualties and environmental impacts of the weapons their companies produce, at a happy hour my friends will be overheard discussing the digression that's now taken them two weeks to complete. This drive for palatability within the industry allows defense contractors to continue to attract the best and brightest in these fields, increasing their size and economic influence over Northern Virginia.
   The considerable amount of recompense was also mentioned by both of my compatriots. One cannot look around Northern Virginia and fail to notice the enormous amount of wealth garnered by the sector. The campuses are large, the buildings ornate, and the cars in the parking lot expensive. The defense contracting industry in the Washington, D.C., region is concentrated in Northern Virginia—mostly in a part of Arlington County just across the Potomac River from D.C. called Crystal City and along the Dulles-International-Airport-Toll-Road/Route-28 corridor in Fairfax County. Naturally, these areas also happen to be concentrated sectors of wealth. Depending on the index and the criteria used, Fairfax is either the richest county in the nation, or running a close second to a suburb of Denver. Crystal City is in the southern and "poorer" portion of Arlington, yet it's a gleaming haven of tall elaborate buildings and complexes with reflective glass and views of the Capitol. As the industry has grown over the past twenty years, new housing developments in the area have become larger and more expensive, with the demand driven by the influx of defense contracting (and federal) employees and their families. As a kid growing up in Herndon, Va., where another of California-based Northrop Grumman's sections is headquartered, my friends who lived in the nicest houses had a parent who worked for a defense-contracting firm.
   These two factors, the wealth garnered and distributed by the industry and the desensitization to the point of outright denial about what its employees are actually doing, have allowed defense contracting to become Northern Virginia's dominant economic force. With each college graduation ceremony, the ranks of young, impressionable "cost analysts" working for these firms, attracted by the salaries and distracted by the numbers from the reality of their work, grow at an alarming rate. My friends are but a few of the victims. The influence the industry has over the area is wide-reaching and inescapable. Local governments are dependent on its success and expansion for commercial real estate revenue and job growth. The bars of Arlington owe their riches to young people spending large portions of their large paychecks they received for mathematically killing someone thousands of miles away. All because we as citizens of Northern Virginia and as freethinking entities look only to the short-term benefits of landing a huge contract or finishing a deliverable for the Department of Defense, and we choose to turn an unfortunate blind eye to what these contracts and deliverables will ultimately accomplish. We can sell war to anyone, it seems, including ourselves.

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