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Comrades at Arms

Friendship isn’t like labor. Withholding it isn’t much of a bargaining move.

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

I have an issue with a longtime friend that’s left me feeling pretty fraudulent on all counts. I’ve been friends with her since high school and we’re both approaching our thirties now. She’s the sole friend from high school that I’ve kept in touch with. During high school we definitely supported each other through our respective trials and tribulations.

The issue is that after college she started working for one the largest U.S. arms manufacturers! 

At this point I consider our relationship more akin to one of family. We provide each other unconditional love and support. The issue is that after college she started working for one of the largest U.S. arms manufacturers! We admittedly had lost regular contact for a bit after high school—I spiraled into my drug years, she went to college and graduated. When the dust settled we reconnected. It was funny, though, when we first met up after years of separation and—not knowing where she worked—I went on a monologue about the grotesqueness of war (I can’t remember the context). I remember her having an uncomfortable look on her face, and later I understood why.

I’ve never given her any direct grief over her job, although I’m pretty sure she knows where I stand. I’ve been a socialist of one sort or another since middle school and so when my friend met me in high school she got the full picture of my politics. But she never gave me any trouble about my politics, even though she purportedly opposed them (her immigrant parents are fervent anti-communists). That’s part of the reason I love her and know she’s a decent person; it would have been easier not to see me as a person she could befriend.

I sort of took my assumption that she knows how I feel about her job as a way out of confronting her. She already knows what I think, and if she cared she would ask me directly. So I haven’t. I felt for a long time that her job didn’t cause her to lose sleep at night in any way, because she never said anything to that effect until she visited me. She was chatting with my roommate who asked her what she did, my friend replied hesitantly, and my fellow lefty roommate replied with an awkward “oh.” That was all it took for my friend to confess that it was just a way to pay the bills, that she doesn’t feel good working there. She was once shown a promotional video of a weapons system that showed  people being blown up through one of those thermal views and she began to cry realizing she had witnessed people dying. The exchange ended with my friend saying the pay was too good to quit but maybe one day she would.

That’s the most I’ve ever heard her talk about her job that way. I sometimes trust that her better angels will guide her to quit without my prodding. Sometimes I wonder if I should push the issue. Sometimes I wonder if I should be friends with a person whose job is literally death-dealing (she’s a contracts negotiator).

I get that capitalism has all of us fucked up. We’re all awash in blood in one way or another, but I’ve always thought there are some lines I prefer not to cross. I don’t want to be buddies with cops, human traffickers, CEOs, loan sharks, mercenaries, etc. These occupations are easy to avoid, though; I’m pretty sure people who work in those jobs don’t want to be my friend anyway. But I’m already friends with a person who facilitates imperialism and war—and by choice (relatively speaking). I try to rationalize it. If she quits it’s not like her position would disappear. There’s a line of people behind her that would replace her. But something feels wrong sometimes about my friendship with her, even though interpersonally we’re fine. Am I being a moral coward by not drawing that line in the sand? Am I a bad friend who would let the way a friend makes money get in the way of our relationship? I’m at a loss.

Would-be hider of friendly Nazis in my attic?


Dear Nazi-Hider,

You are correct that there are no clean hands in a dirty world, but you are also correct to note that some hands are a lot dirtier than others. Arms manufacturing—and contract negotiation to boot—is pretty filthy work. It’s also true that while the field frequently attracts the vicious and vile, not everyone who takes a job in military capitalism has a concrete handle on what’s at play. Nearly every human being  is capable of an astounding degree of both obliviousness and cognitive dissonance, especially when it comes to the ethics of our own bottom line . . . at least, for a little while. People who consider themselves moral and humane can only turn a blind eye or rationalize away their role in the world around them for so long. Your friend appears to have run out of blinders, but she’s either unwilling or unable to leave at the moment.

For better or for worse, friendship is not like labor, and withholding it isn’t much of a bargaining move.

I would never advise you to try to maintain a friendship with someone you resent—contempt has a way of poisoning the best of relationships and intentions. You are not obligated—nor is it advisable—to be friends with someone who disgusts you. But you don’t sound disgusted, you sound ambivalent. As long as you find the friendship mutually beneficial, you should keep her in your life, especially since you are in a unique position to influence her ideas and help her leave if she’s ever ready. (And it’s not like there aren’t other, far less horrifying jobs she could pursue. Arms sales is hardly a dead end career.) If you’re not ready to let your friend go over this, don’t bully yourself into it out of some misguided attempt at political purity.

It would be a very simple world if politics were determined by sociality. Wouldn’t it be easy if building power were just a matter of surrounding yourself with a mutual appreciation society of like-minded lefties? But you don’t get socialism just by hanging out with other socialists. For better or for worse, friendship is not like labor, and withholding it isn’t much of a bargaining move. To suggest otherwise is based on the entirely narcissistic premise that if you aren’t there, everything ceases to function. Ethical friendship is like ethical consumption: it doesn’t really change anything, except maybe you become kind of smug, rigid, and lonely.

Your friend knows exactly how you feel. She may not be sure how she feels, but she is at a crossroads. She may never come around, but she’s more likely to if you’re able to support her.

The appeal here has to be one of self-preservation. If you ask “how can you do this to people?” the obvious response will be, “someone is going to do this to people, whether it’s me or not.” And that is absolutely true; as you’ve noted, your friend’s refusal to participate in the U.S. war machine will not slow it down in the slightest. But, if you say, “how can you do this to yourself?” there’s no real answer besides, “the money is worth a lifetime of guilt.” If she thinks about what she’s actually sacrificing for that paycheck, she’s likely to figure out that it’s a raw deal. Good people are sickened when they take part in bad things, and you need to approach this with concern for her health and well-being.

People are not made of granite, and neither are their beliefs. Your friend might quiet her conscience and settle in, and your friendship might not last because of that. But if you are able to remain her friend, you have an opportunity here to help someone, and you won’t regret not trying.