Monday, January 16, 2012

War Is Peace

Today was Martin Luther King Jr. day, and at least here in Bloomington, King's "Beyond Vietnam" speech of April 4, 1967 got its fair share of attention. The community radio station broadcast the entire speech on Alternative Radio this morning, and Bring It On, the African-American affairs program, referred to it. I've often quoted the part where King referred to the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," but I hadn't listened to or read the entire speech before, and I'm glad I finally did.

King presented an accurate account of US involvement in Vietnam, which I suspect would still be news to most Americans. For example:
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by United States' influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
But, as he said, King was just as concerned with American troops as with the Vietnamese:
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called "enemy," 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.
He also addressed this earlier in the speech, in words that are still painfully relevant today.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

I don't know what King would say about our current President and our present wars if he were alive today. Some people online were sure he would be excoriating President Obama; I'm not so sure of that. King privately hated President Kennedy, and he wasn't terribly fond of President Johnson either; but publicly he was diplomatic. I don't know what he'd think of Obama, or what balance he'd find between satisfaction at the US electing a black President on the one hand, and disapproval of Obama's doing exactly what King had spoken against in 1967. (I admit, I'm sure that he would disapprove.)

What I do know is Obama's contempt for King. (Compare his praise of Ronald Reagan.) In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he said:
As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life’s work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing na├»ve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their [King and Gandhi’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.
And you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. Funny thing, though: I don't see King condemning defensive violence in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, though he didn't exactly endorse it either. He recognized that the US was the aggressor, and that the Vietnamese were defending themselves against it. He hoped for a negotiated settlement, but he recognized that the Vietnamese had good reason to distrust the US, and that the US was the principal obstacle to peace in Vietnam.

The real trouble with Obama's remarks here is that his wars are not defending the US: they are wars of aggression. Nor do they protect us: they make the world less safe, giving people some very good reasons to want to attack us. His succeeding account of post-WWII American foreign policy is equally dishonest, though this line is entertaining: "To begin with, I believe that all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force." Except for the United States, of course. If our wars were really "self-defense," I'd expect King to regard them as compassionately as he regarded the resistance of the Vietnamese.

In his Nobel speech Obama continued:
For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
There's more in the speech along the same lines. (Whatever It Is I'm Against It dissected it mercilessly.) So: could a non-violent movement halt American violence around the world? I don't know; nonviolent resistance in Iraq did pressure Bush into permitting elections there, but American forces are still there, though they've mostly been replaced with mercenaries. Obama's lack of awareness that his justification for military violence also justifies defensive violence against his regime is a sign of how out of touch with reality he had already become within a year in office, and he hasn't gotten any better since then.

Roy Edroso has a post at alicublog about rightbloggers who observe MLK Day (a day on ... not a day off!) by trying to prove that King was really a conservative and therefore The Blacks should vote Republican. Judging from his examples, their heart really isn't in it anymore. A commenter, Mr. Wonderful, observed that there's "something so sad and desperate about their endless efforts to 'prove' that X--a show, a star, a song, a movie, a new entree at Outback, a floor wax, a new chewing gum-- 'is really conservative.'" True dat, but is it any sadder than liberals' conviction that King was a liberal, or that Barack Obama is a progressive?