February 26, 2003

Should Open Source developers help the U.S. prepare for war with Iraq?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

This article is based on an IRC interview with Anthony L. Awtrey, vice president of I.D.E.A.L. Technology, who has worked on some of the (Open Source-based) simulation software used to train Blackhawk helicopter pilots, along with other projects that help the U.S. military prepare for Iraq and future combat missions. Some Linux and Free/Open Source developers may not support current U.S. military goals in the Middle East, but Awtrey does -- and for very personal reasons, as you'll see from his words, which NewsForge has edited (very lightly) only for grammar and clarity, not for content.

Please note that Mr. Awtrey is speaking personally here rather than on behalf of I.D.E.A.L. Technologies. For more about what he and others have done with Open Source for the U.S. Department of Defense, please see this link: LinuxWorld Conference & Expo Presentation.

NewsForge: Some Free Software and GPL supporters (and many coders) are virulently anti-war, and many are specifically against the U.S. invading Iraq. One well-regarded project, Bluefish, has a link on its site to an anti-war page. Could the use of popular GPL and Free Software packages in what many people overseas view as the "U.S. War Machine" cause strife and dissension among Free Software developers?

Awtrey: I think the debate has caused strife and dissension in groups with less cohesion than Free Software / Open Source groups have. The chance of us avoiding some level of public debate on the issue seems unavoidable.

The war issue has an amazing ability to polarize opinion. There are people with good hearts and good intentions on both sides. My wife was born in Iraq and her family moved here to escape Saddam and the Baath party 30 years ago.

This makes the issue especially touchy around here.

She and her family hate Saddam. They have stories that would curl your toes about him and his psychopathic offspring Uday. It is not uncommon for people who make a quiet joke at a party on Friday to disappear with all their family, including cousins, before the weekend is over. They have no due process, they have no court to appeal to, the people are simply gone and never come back.

NewsForge: I take it, then, that you and your wife have no problem with the U.S. invading Iraq?

Awtrey: When people tell me that civilians will die in a war, I tell them that Saddam has already spilled more Iraqi blood than any aggressor. He is not a polite, reasonable man. He kills without thought. His son Uday rapes little girls and chops off the heads of prostitutes on the street.

War or no war, this man needs killing like a rabid dog. And Iraq needs to be free.

My wife, Hala, doesn't like George Bush Sr. or Jr. She remembers a time when George Bush Sr. was at the CIA and paid Saddam during the war with Iran. That war would be like a war between Florida and Georgia. Most of the actual people of the countries are related in some way. Politics aside, if there were a button she could push and kill just Saddam, she or any member of her family would push it. It's a hard decision when you know "the Iraqi people" as cousins, aunts, uncles, and have to risk them to save the country in the long term. She doesn't want her family hurt any more by anyone. Saddam is a little hurt every day, the war is a larger hurt, but likely a shorter period of time. The devil you know? The devil you don't? It's a hard choice.

NewsForge:The problem -- to some -- with GPL-licensed software is the fact that anyone can use it. How would you feel seeing some of your code used by Saddam Hussein's people. Or Osama bin Laden's? Or by the Chinese government to help prevent full Internet access?

Awtrey: No clear opinions yet.

I know there have been reports of them using PGP / GPG to encrypt messages. That has to give Phil Zimmermann the shivers sometimes. One of the things life in America has taught me is that the words spoken by a racist skinhead are just as important as the words I speak. It doesn't mean I agree with them, it means that the right to speak is important, not what is said. If Free Software is about Free Speech, then we have to suck up the fact that people will use our code for things we don't agree with. I don't agree with drug use, but that doesn't stop drug dealers from using Apache or Mozilla or GPG. I can only state what I am for; peace, goodness, truth.

I am with a crowd of people making statements. I hope that the sounds we make together are mostly peace, goodness, truth when heard by others, but all I can control is my own voice.

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