“Sleeping through the Revolution”: Martin Luther King on the Evils of War
Here are some excerpts on war from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution. The comments in italics are mine.
‘ I want to say one other challenge that we face is simply that we must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a great revolution. ‘
Dr. King was not saying that war cannot solve military problems, you will note. He was saying that it cannot solve social problems. He would have scoffed at the Neoconservative idea that you can spread democracy by war or can improve peoples’ economy by war. He thought that the mid twentieth century was witnessing a revolution in human affairs that made war increasingly unacceptable. He probably had in mind nuclear weapons, the use of which normal people consider too horrible to contemplate. He may also have been thinking of Gandhi’s attempt to use non-violent non-cooperation in India to expel the British without resorting to guerrilla war.
President Kennedy said on one occasion, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” The world must hear this. I pray to God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war. I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. ‘
Dr. King recognized that all wars involve the commission of war crimes. Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no commitment to principles like the Geneva Conventions survives actual warfare in populated areas. The only way to stop war crimes, he is implying, is to stop war.
Update: An informed reader writes:
‘In this case, Dr. King’s objections were much more specific. The Geneva Accord of 1954 partitioned French Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam, with the Viet Minh gaining immediate control over North Vietnam, and with the status of South Vietnam to be determined two years later in an internationally supervised election. As Dr. King noted, we, as a non-signing party to that accord, failed to enforce the accord’s terms, and effectively tore up the accord. ‘
‘ It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. ‘
The United States is a peculiarly war-like country. In the last a little over a century it has militarily intervened in other countries, it is said, some 100 times. If true (and it depends on what you count as an intervention), that is once a year! It is also the industrialized democracy with the greatest gap between the wealthy and the poor, where enormous corporations that make money off war have disproportionate influence on government through lobbying and campaign donations and graft. Is there a connection between these two statements? Dr. King seems to have thought so.
‘ It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor. It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty. ‘
As the destruction of New Orleans and the failure of the Bush administration to rebuild it while spending $2 billion a week on the war in Iraq demonstrate, some things never change.
And here is the rest of the passage I have excerpted. Try substituting “Iraq” for “Vietnam”:
‘ Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home that can’t hardly live on the same block together. The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done—and something must be done quickly. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world. There is not a single major ally of the United States of America that would dare send a troop to Vietnam, and so the only friends that we have now are a few client-nations like Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and a few others.
This is where we are. “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind,” and the best way to start is to put an end to war in Vietnam, because if it continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine. ‘
While we are busy chasing through the deserts of western Iraq after Sunni Arab Iraqis who don’t want us in their country, the important challenges facing the world are going unadressed. In particular, global warming will require substantial resources, which we won’t have if we borrow $400 billion a year to pay for an Iraq War that seems to mainly produce burned out cars. The Inferno of which Dr. King warned might indeed be hotter than Dante could have imagined.
There are so many revolutions through which we are sleeping.