10 Things Martin Luther King Would have Done about Iraq
Every year we honor Martin, and we hear again his stirring speech, “I have a Dream.” But in many ways, that speech is among the least challenging of his charges to us, however hard and unfulfilled it remains. He dreamed other dreams, of the end of exploitative materialism and relentless militarism, of an America devoted to social justice and creative non-violence, which our mainstream media do not dare repeat over and over again.
We do not have Martin among us to guide us with his wisdom. But it is not hard to extrapolate from his “Beyond Vietnam” address of 1967 to what he would think about the Iraq morass.
He would say we have to treat with the Sunni Arabs and the Shiite Sadrists. We have to treat with the enemy. Not only for their sakes, for the sake of ruined cities like Fallujah and Tal Afar, and those to come– but for our own sakes.
1. Martin urged the end of the offensive bombing raids.
‘ Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam. ‘
The US has increased the number of its bombing raids in Iraq from 25 a month last summer to 150 in December. Bombing raids are very bad counter-insurgency tactics and should be rethought.
2. Martin suggested that the US begin, on its own account, a cease fire.
‘ Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation. ‘
3. He urged that the widening of the war be stopped:
‘ Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos. ‘
If we applied that to Iraq, I think it implies that the US should seek better relations with Syria and Iran and cease menacing the latter with an air attack.
4. He insisted that the US recognize the widespread political support for the NLF:
‘ Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government. ‘
With regard to Iraq, this principle would imply that the US should recognize that the Neo-Baath Arab nationalist leaders, the Salafi Sunni revivalists, and local guerrilla chiefs have genuine popular support among Sunni Arabs, and cannot be shut out of the new order. (Note that some 150 candidates who ran in the Dec. 15 elections were excluded after the fact by the debaathification committee controlled by Ahmad Chalabi.) The Cairo Conference held last fall was a step toward this recognition, and acknowledged the right to mount a resistance to foreign military occupation. The work of the conference must be continued.
5. Martin supported a timetable for withdrawing US troops.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]
Iraqi Sunni parties, as well as the Shiite fundamentalist bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, have demanded that the US set a timetable for withdrawal. Some 120 Iraqi parliamentarians out of 275 called for it last year. The new parliament may well have a majority that supports it.
These five principles are not the only ones that can be extrapolated from Martin’s sermon. They concern more tactics than over-arching strategy. Here are some principles of strategy that he mentioned:
6. It is necessary to understand the common people among the “enemy” if anything is to be accomplished:
‘ And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. ‘
7. Concern to save US troops from creeping cynicism must be paramount:
‘ I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor. ‘
In Iraq, too, virtually “none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.” Not weapons of mass destruction, not international terrorism, not Swedish style democracy, not social justice, are actually on the agenda of the present administration.
8. The initiative belongs to the US:
‘ Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours. ‘
Likewise, in the Sunni Arab heartland, homes are being destroyed and culture subverted.
9. A revolution in American values away from consumer materialism and militarism is needed if we are not to go on having one Vietnam after another:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy . . .
Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered . . .
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just . . .”
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]
10. Love and justice, not aggression and exploitation, hold the real hope for a peaceful and prosperous future:
‘ This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. ‘
Note that Martin recognized love as the principle that all the great religions saw as the “supreme unifying principle of life,” including Islam. His religious universalism might be a starting point for Americans to rethink the Islamophobia that has become so widespread.
We cannot in any simplistic way extract a template from Martin’s sermon that we can apply to Iraq today. We can, however, explore his wisdom for inspiration in how to go foward, end the quagmire, and make amends for the horrors of the way we have waged this illegal war of choice.