Originally Published: Tuesday, 18 May 1999 Author: Illiad
Published to: columnists/Illiad Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

BELLUM LINUXUM - A Historic Parable

I use Linux. I don't pretend to be an expert at it by any means, but I do use it on a daily basis. Although I'm not even a power user, much less a kernel hacker, I can sit at a prompt and do stuff without much danger of destroying anything. In other words, I'm an end-user, and I'm probably the kind of user that Linux needs more of, in large, healthy numbers. And it looks like things are indeed headed that way....

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I use Linux. I don't pretend to be an expert at it by any means, but I do use it on a daily basis. Although I'm not even a power user, much less a kernel hacker, I can sit at a prompt and do stuff without much danger of destroying anything. In other words, I'm an end-user, and I'm probably the kind of user that Linux needs more of, in large, healthy numbers. And it looks like things are indeed headed that way.

When I arrived at Linux World Expo in early March I was greeted with a gratifying sight: the exhibition floor was crammed with geeks, and everyone was excited by the road ahead -- the one with Linux as a major player in the market. Small but ingenious companies stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the larger, more established players on the exhibition floor; I realized with some surprise that commercial support for Linux had grown substantially since I had last checked, six months prior.

But there was another element in the Linux community that had become more prevalent, one that seemed to grow at an exponential rate. It's an element that I suppose was inevitable, but it bothers me greatly nonetheless. I have a fascination and love of military history because I understand that human conflict has brought about some of the greatest changes in our civilization over the centuries. This interest of mine yielded a story that warned of what lies on the road ahead should our community not pay heed to a lesson learned thousands of years ago.

In 58 B.C., the proconsul of Illyricum, Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul had a problem. He needed money to make himself even more powerful in Rome, and the fastest way to generate wealth was through the conquest of other nations. For his reason, he turned his eyes towards what was known as Free Gaul, where much of present-day France exists.

The Free Gauls were a remarkable people; they were spiritual, civilized, and respected the land and rivers that gave them life. They were a proud and powerful race, considered to be among some of the finest warriors in the ancient world. Their cavalry was superlative, and their bravery had little peer. But like so many noble races, they had one terrible flaw.

The Gauls were divided into many hundreds of tribes, some subservient to others. Their tribal mentality created an environment where internecine warfare took place, as each tribe tried to earn glory and honour by raiding and looting their brothers. The Gallic style of combat was to stand alone and fight enemies one-on-one, a practice which displayed the measure of courage and skill that each Gaul possessed. This style extended to much of their personal interactions, and given the world in which young Gauls were raised in, it was an accepted and appreciated aspect of their society. It allowed the individual to find his own reach, and therefore accept his rightful position as druid, king, warrior, craftsmen or worker.

The Romans, however, were a different matter entirely. As conquerors they were only surpassed by their abilities as builders. Surgically, methodically, they took the lands that surrounded them as they saw fit, filling their coffers with foreign gold. Unlike the Gauls, the Romans were professional empire-builders. They accepted war as work, and not as an opportunity to display their martial prowess. They had honed their legions into deadly and efficient fighting machines, instilled not with a purpose to destroy, but to subjugate. After all, there was no profit in wholesale destruction.

So when the proconsul decided it was time to carve himself another piece of wealth out of the pie of the ancient world, he launched his campaign to conquer the Gauls. Like all good generals, he didn't focus on a single aspect of attack; instead of simply concerning himself with military matters, he spent a large portion of his time promoting commerce between Free Gaul and the subjugated Gallic provinces. He sent wine, olives, olive oil, tools, clothing and all manner of trade goods to the various tribes, all with the intent to establish permanent trading posts in each village. Many of the Free Gauls found themselves powerfully drawn to the foreign goods, and began to depend upon the Roman trading posts for their luxuries, and eventually, their daily requirements. Other Gauls, wary of the idea of falling prey to Roman trinkets, expelled the Roman merchants from their lands. Some even began growing their own grapes in their fertile soil to compete with Roman wine, but their enterprise did not last long. Roman military patrols were watchful for Gallic vineyards, and destroyed them wherever they were to be found. This left the tribes who were not impressed with Roman trade seething, but the majority of their fellow tribes were under the thumb of the proconsul's commercial efforts. Wine was a potent reason for the Gauls to continue trade with their eventual conquerors.

The proconsul was also aware of the chaotic politics within Free Gaul, and played them to his advantage. Some of the tribes, such as the Helvetii, were forced to migrate across the lands of other tribes, but wagon trains are difficult to defend against the predations of enemy warriors. Other tribes were threatened by their larger neighbours with either subjugation or decimation. All of these discovered that if they accepted Roman commerce, and offered their support to the proconsul, they could look to the Roman legions for protection. Indeed, many tribes did this very thing, which made the task of conquering Free Gaul much easier. Kings who needed support, and Gallic princes who wanted to depose kings and assume their tribes' leadership all offered their loyalties to the proconsul in exchange for wealth and security. Yet another portion of Free Gaul had fallen to the Romans.

The remaining tribes were either wavering or stood steadfastly against the proconsul and his efforts. The druids, the philosophers and advisers to the tribal kings, were the Romans' greatest enemies, as most of them could see clearly what was happening to the Gallic nation. They were also deeply respected, and the Gauls relied upon them for their wisdom. The proconsul realized this, and ordered his troops to kill the druids on sight. Unlike the rest of the Gauls, the druids could only exist as obstacles to his final goal.

The legions travelled through Gaul, subjugating tribes who had resisted, one at a time. Not only did the Romans often outnumber the Gauls in battle; their tactics were far superior, having been honed by decades of conquest in foreign lands. Even when it was the Romans who were outnumbered, stronger leadership and better organization routed the Gallic warriors. It seemed nothing could stop the Roman juggernaut.

There finally came a time when a Gallic prince by the name of Vercingetorix managed to unite much of Free Gaul beneath his banner to combat the Roman menace. Uniting the tribes under one leader was an enormous task in and of itself; bringing them to field to fight the Roman legions was miraculous. Vercingetorix earned some brilliant victories, but eventually poor Gallic logistics and the still-chaotic Gallic political climate brought Free Gaul to its knees. The proconsul had won.

Although it took some years, the ambitious proconsul was able to conquer the entirety of Free Gaul. He relied on his ability to appeal to human self-interest and the average Gaul's desire for comfort and security. He also heavily relied upon the fact that each Gallic tribe wanted to reign supreme at the expense of the others, and where that failed he brought his substantial military power to bear. This last point was the most critical, as it gave the proconsul a weakness he could concentrate on and exploit. It's a well-known axiom that an enemy who is too busy fighting himself will never have the strength to fight you. This is a lesson that the proconsul, Gaius Julius Caesar, brought with him as he ascended the throne of the Roman Empire.

What does all of this have to do with the Linux community? I think most readers will have figured out the parallels by now. History has very valuable lessons to teach in broad strokes; even the brilliant Caesar paid attention to the lessons learned by generals before him, and this eased his climb to the apex of one of the most powerful empires in human history. I'm not an alarmist; I'm not saying that the Linux community will soon be facing the 'Conquest of Gaul' scenario. I think, however, that is behooves us to remain watchful, and to occasionally step outside of ourselves to examine the playing field objectively. We're the roots of the community, and as long as we're able to avoid getting in each other's way, the community will continue to flourish.

Illiad (illiad@userfriendly.org) is the creator of User Friendly the Comic Strip and the unwitting figurehead of the UFie community.

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