On the nature of pacifism

November 11, 2006

I’ve encountered more than one friend opposed in principle to, say, working for government contractors doing defense contracts. The idea being, that by supporting the military-industrial complex in any way means supporting killing people and unjust wars. Not too long ago, GPU, a distributed client for the GNUtella P2P network, put a clause in their modified GPL intended by the founders to specifically prohibit military use. There are various problems with this specifically, which I’ll return to later.

There is certainly an argument to be made that war and human aggression is a self-perpetuating machine. Or that there are powerful entities who stand to gain from war (such as the military-industrial complex in the United States), and by nature, these organizations are interested in revenue and growth rather than the best interests of their country, or the welfare of their fellow man.
The two most often-cited examples of the effectiveness of nonviolent protest are Gandhi in India’s Independence Movement, and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement. Given their results and extraordinary methods, I’d say most people agree that they were visionary leaders, and used nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals. However, it is disingenuous to use this as a justification for across-the-board pacifism, since these two movements cover a small fraction of possible political and military situations. In both of these instances, the groups involved were aiming to affect the domestic policy of a government that was unwilling to use lethal force, and to sway public opinion to put further political pressure on those in power. These tactics would not have worked, say, against Nazi Germany.

The other group of people I seem to encounter are of the belief that since they don’t agree with or approve of the things our armed forces and intelligence services are currently being ordered to do by the Bush administration, to work for anything related to the defense industry is to give tacit approval to the shift towards totalitarianism that has been in the neoconservative agenda.

I couldn’t disagree more. The executive branch ordering NSA wiretaps without obtaining warrants is a frightening step in the direction of unchecked government surveillance. However, to say that this proves we don’t need an NSA, or that the NSA does not do worthwhile work is naive. Keeping the politicians honest is not the NSA’s job, or the armed forces’ job, it’s our job as involved citizens. To approve or disapprove of a given war is understandable; to pretend that there never be a justifiable military action in our country’s future is shortsighted at best. Furthermore, if intelligent and concerned Americans don’t go into these fields, how will things ever improve? Richard Clarke called for young, fresh minds to go into government, because otherwise things will stagnate, and the old ways will persist as the world changes, leaving us behind. Don’t we need more people who have the country’s best interests at heart, as well as a sense of how important civil liberties are to maintaining a true democracy? A lot of the objectors I refer to in this post are liberal. I think the best way to make the case that “big government” can work is to roll up your sleeves and make it better yourself. I’m honestly very curious to hear any opposing viewpoints on this matter.

Digression: But back to the software with the “no military use” clause, which is really written in such a way to be a self-righteous political badge rather than an actual guideline for use. The problem with this is that the GPL itself prohibits an author from specifying precise conditions under which the software may be used and distributed, assuming the basic open source requirement of the GPL is met. In this way, the GPL is “pure,” in that it simply ensures self-perpetuation of code for the benefit of the community. It doesn’t matter if you’re a for-profit business, left-wing, right-wing, black or white, what matters is that if you play by the GPL’s rules, you have to share any work you want to distribute as your own, and everyone wins. An increasing number of programmers are losing sight of the community-based, nonpolitical goals of the GPL and trying to apply their own beliefs and biases and prejudices to software, and getting angry when things don’t go their way. You can’t donate a book to the library, and then prescribe conditions regarding who may or may not be allowed to borrow it. Perhaps the analogy is simplistic, but open source software is a public good, all the same.