I once worked with a guy who claimed that he read four or five books every week. 

When I called him out for exaggerating, he quoted an old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon: "Reading goes faster if you don't sweat comprehension."

Life can be like that. Things can seem simple, if you insist on just glossing over nuance. 

Case in point: the Microsoft employees who posted a feel-good petition on Twitter recently, demanding that Microsoft end a contract with the U.S. military.

They think they're the brilliant, white hat-wearing, good guys on this issue. You can't make this up: they literally named their Twitter account: "Microsoft Workers 4 Good."

But they're not the good guys, not by a mile. At best, they're misguided, self-righteous and foolish. At worst -- well, I don't even want to go there. But we've seen this story before.

'Harm and violence'

I'm just going to call this group MSW4G for short, since every time I write "Microsoft Workers 4 Good" my eyes roll violently. But you can read the whole MSW4G tweet here.

Their immediate gripe is that Microsoft has a $479 million contract with the U.S. military for an "Integrated Visual Augmentation System" designed to help soldiers train and fight "to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries."

Let's focus on the summary sentence at the end of their tweet: 

"We believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the U.S. Army to cause harm and violence."

This isn't really a brand new issue. Microsoft employees objected to their company even bidding on another defense contract. At Google, the employees actually convinced their company not to pursue it.

But, those of us who have actually served in the military, or have seen war firsthand and actually had to make hard decisions, know that the ability to "cause harm and violence," is far more complicated than a Tweet would suggest.

'Elected in democracies'

Fortunately, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella quickly rejected the MSW4G petition.

"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," Nadella told CNN Business. "We were very transparent about that decision and we'll continue to have that dialogue."

In other words, if the MSW4G crew doesn't like working on HoloLens and benefiting the IVAS contract, they can find other projects within the company. Or, they can go work for another company.

The soldiers they want to disarm don't really have that option. When you swear an oath and join the U.S. military, you don't get to choose your wars. That means you count on your fellow Americans to keep the government honest.

Now, MSW4G calls itself a "global coalition of Microsoft workers." So, maybe they're not Americans--or not just Americans, anyway.

MSW4G isn't disclosing the names of those involved, as far as I can tell, so we don't know. Not exactly a profile in courage on that note.

But Microsoft itself is an American company. It was founded in the U.S., and its headquarters is still here. Plus, about 80,000 of its roughly 135,000 employees are in the United States, and it's listed on the stock exchange in New York. It benefits big-time from being American.

And that means that Microsoft and its workers--maybe even MSW4G--are supposed to vote, and lobby, and help shape foreign policy. Not throw a tantrum and take things out by the U.S. soldiers who put their lives on the line, by withholding American technology.

'King and country'

Here's what else this whole thing reminds me of: An event from 86 years ago that was huge news at the time, although I don't think most people know about it now.

The Oxford Union at Oxford University voted in February 1933 that its members would "in no circumstances" agree to "fight for its King and Country." 

They were living in the shadow of World War I at the time, which decimated the population of young men in Great Britain. It was as recent to them as the invasion of Iraq is to us now. They were pacifists.

But, the month after the vote, the German legislature gave Adolph Hitler dictatorial powers. A few years later, the United Kingdom was at war with both Germany and Japan.

Some of the very same Oxford students who voted 275 to 153 to remain pacifist at all costs were thrust into war. They quickly realized things were a lot more complex than they'd seemed in a debating society on a secluded campus.

Or else, maybe you'd rather my friends should die

I admit, I have a personal stake in this. My personal military career was pretty calm, but I did serve eight years between active duty and the reserves. And then, I spent several years building a career of reporting on soldiers, including some time in combat.

Many of my friends and family are veterans and active service members, including some real heroes of wounded warriors. I've seen firsthand and reported on what happens when soldiers don't have access to the best equipment and latest technology.

But usually that's the result of human error or incompetence, and it's bad enough. But the idea that employees of an American company would want to actively withhold those advantages from American troops?

That's not working "4 good." At best it's blind, willful ignorance.

And at worst, it's far more self-righteous, foolish--even evil--than anything else the MSW4G crowd claims to oppose.

Published on: Mar 2, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.