King: War Cannot Achieve Even a Negative Good

Martin Luther King will be honored today throughout America as a champion of racial justice and racial harmony. That is a pivotal legacy for the United States of America, which for 87 long years was built on the lawful enslavement of one race by another, and for another century practiced the lawful Apartheid of Jim Crow.

But he was not the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize only because of his work on civil rights and integration. He was also a profound thinker in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi on peace. Not peace in the abstract, but peace as a practical political tool. Not only peace as a social movement but peace as a method in international relations.

King critiqued the typical use of “peace” by politicians as a distant ideal toward which they are working, even while they bomb and massacre and slaughter. In his Christmas Sermon, December 24, 1967, King made this point:

‘ And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace.

What is the problem?

They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.

All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.’

The reply to such an assertion from politicians, generals and others is that peace as method (rather than as distant ideal) is impractical. That the enemy is deadly and determined and will slaughter us if we attempt to deal with him through the method of peace.

But King came to this conclusion at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had the US targeted with thousands of nuclear warheads. He came to this conclusion when the Vietnam War was raging. He was not naive. He was not a babe in the woods. He was not an impractical dreamer. He was a seer, and he saw the end of war.

He saw the end of war not because war could never achieve any good. He recognized that it had in recent history accomplished what he called a “negative good,” of, say, keeping us from having to live under the jackboot of a tyrant. But the sheer destructiveness of contemporary warfare began to raise doubts in his mind, even as a young man in the late 1950s, as to whether this instrumental use of war to achieve a negative good was any longer possible.

Let us just review American wars since King began to have those doubts. There was Vietnam, where the US lost 58,000 dead and tens of thousands more wounded, where it spent billions and as a result suffered from an inflationary spiral, and where it lost. It did not lose, as the Right fondly imagines, because of a stab in the back by weak-kneed civilian politicians.

The US lost in Vietnam because it fought on the wrong side of history, because it took up a French colonial project of suppressing Vietnamese Left Nationalism. The US killed perhaps as many as 2 million Vietnamese peasants, which surely counts as a genocide, all to no avail, because the war was poorly chosen. Ironically, Dwight Eisenhower had told the French to give up on a similar fruitless war in Algeria, because he could see that it could not be won and risked pushing the Algerians into the arms of the communists. Three or four years later Kennedy began getting us more deeply involved in precisely the same sort of war, succeeding the French. My guess is that it was because the North Vietnamese had already embraced communism; if they had been bourgeois nationalists like the Algerians, even Washington would have had more sense than to get involved. But what that generation of Cold Warriors could not see was that “communism” could often just be a banner for nationalism.

Then there were Reagan’s covert wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan. Reagan won temporarily in Nicaragua, at the price of running nun-killing death squads. But if you check, you’ll see that Daniel Ortega is president of Nicaragua, and left-leaning regimes of the sort Reagan attempted to destabilize are in power in Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil. Reagan’s covert wars in Latin America caused a lot of trouble, harmed a lot of people, and had no long term success. In part that is because politics wells up from social and economic conditions, and is not just the creation of some individual an imperial power installs in power.

As for Reagan’s Jihad in Afghanistan, it clearly was a world-historical blunder. Had the communists stayed in power in Afghanistan, their regime would probably have just evolved after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 into a Kazakhstan-style state. Not a democracy, but stable enough and with schooling for all and an investment in development.

Instead, Reagan and his Saudi and Pakistani allies funneled the lion’s share of their covert war aid to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the most radical of the Mujahidin leaders. They forced the Soviet Union out, and destroyed the Afghanistan communists, but the ultimate result was a) the rise of al-Qaeda and b) the rise of the Taliban.

Reagan won the Afghanistan war, but it was a Pyrrhic victory that came around to bite the US on the posterior on September 11.

So you have to ask whether any of these wars — Vietnam, Nicaragua, or Afghanistan– should have been fought. Either we lost, or the victory was temporary, or we contributed to a blowback that hit our society on 9/11.

And of course, then there is the Iraq War.

But first, let’s consider what King said about the negative good a war might have accomplished in the past. It is from “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” in Strength to Love, 1958:

‘ More recently I have come to see the need for the method of nonviolence in international relations.

Although I was not yet convinced of its efficacy in conflicts between nations, I felt that while war could never be a positive good, it could serve as a negative good by preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system.

But now I believe that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons totally rules out the possibility of war ever again achieving a negative good.

If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. ‘

And given the dismal record of the failure of US wars since King wrote that in 1958, he may well have been prescient.

The Iraq War failed for many reasons, but one important cause was that contemporary warfare is too destructive to achieve political and nation-building goals. The destructiveness of the US war helped to provoke the various Iraqi insurgencies. The killing of 17 civilians at a protest in Falluja in April of 2003 was the beginning of the end of Falluja. In November and December of 2004, the US military damaged 2/3s of the city’s buildings and emptied it of its population, except for the unknown number it killed (hundreds? thousands?)

And for all the subsequent frantic US military actions, the US has not put humpty dumpty back together again, and almost certainly cannot.

The narrative of the warmongers is that war has become ever more precise, ever more useful in achieving specific diplomatic and political goals.

Need to remove a dictator? Well here is some Shock and Awe.

Need to restore human rights? Here, destroy this city to save it.

Fighting terrorism? You just need a hundred thousand more troops with more M16s!

But actually the nonviolent means of dealing with the Saddam Hussein regime turn out to have been completely effective. The United Nations inspections had actually worked, something that no one in the United States or Britain seems to want to acknowledge, even with all we now know. The inspections really did force Saddam to dismantle his WMD programs and destroy his stockpiles. The economic sanctions were useless for regime change. But as a means of destroying Saddam’s power to menace his neighbors, they were completely effective. Too effective, to the extent that they ended up harming children and civilians.

The 2003 Iraq War was not necessary if its goal was to remove the Saddam regime as a threat to US or regional security. Iraq had been disarmed and contained.

And, the 2003 Iraq War was not effective if the goal had been to restore civil society and bring democracy. Iraq lacked the essential social and political prerequisites for such a transition, and the US military is a military, not a police force.

Let us consider whether King wasn’t right in 1958, and whether contemporary warfare isn’t too destructive, too blunt an instrument to achieve even negative good any longer.

Far more al-Qaeda operatives have been busted through good police work than were ever captured on a battlefield. And, the brutality of the Iraq war has created hundreds of little Bin Ladens, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak predicted it would.

Three main sorts of security challenges face the United States.

There is the rivalry with other nuclear powers, where war cannot be used as a tool of diplomacy because it would be far too destructive.

There is conflict between the US and small weak third world annoyances such as Iran. What the Iraq War should have taught us is that elective war is a horrible policy tool for dealing with such conflicts.

And there is the problem of terrorism, which cannot be fought with big conventional militaries. The attempt to do so just provokes insurgencies that grow potentially even more formidable.

Bush and Cheney keep imagining that they are in 1928 or 1942 or 1947. Their mindset is that of the first half of the twentieth century. They are men of the past.

Martin Luther King was a man of the future. He saw clearly that humankind has a choice. It is the choice between continuing to wage war, and surviving as a species. King was also a man in a hurry. He did not have much time. Neither do we.

It is time to wrap up the Iraq War and to, as carefully and deliberately as possible, end the US military presence in Iraq. It is not a Japan or a Germany after WW II, both of which feared the Soviet Union and so could put up with foreign bases as protection. Iraqis fear no one, such that they would accept permanent bases. The Middle East is a postcolonial region inhospitable to the humiliations of foreign domination, which its peoples struggled hard and long to end.

And it is time to take the elective war option off the table, with regard to Iran, and to the Sudan, and to Somalia, and all the others on the Neoconservative hit list.

War does not work. It is too destructive. It creates too much blowback, as with Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. It leaves too much of the city destroyed, that it meant to save, as with Falluja. It cannot midwife rights or democracy, it is too gross, too indiscriminate, too brutal for that purpose. It produces Abu Ghraib and Falluja, not Monticello.

The US needs a defensive military, insofar as it can contribute to protecting us from asymmetrical or conventional challenges. But launching a war against a country that did not attack us, that is immoral and stupid. Let’s listen to Dr. King and never do that again.

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