In a lecture in late 1967 over the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the subject of “Conscience and the Vietnam War.” His conscience was clearly telling him that this was a war that made no sense and must be stopped.
“Somehow this madness must cease,” King said. “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 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 an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative of this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”
King went on to say in his speech, “The war is Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” Within a few months, that malady would result in King’s assassination, and over the years since King’s death that malady would lead America into other wars in other places.
Today, King’s words could be transposed from Vietnam to Iraq: “I speak as a child of God and a brother to the suffering poor of Iraq….” And it is still the “poor of America” who are paying the greatest price, the ultimate price on the battlefield and the loss of hope at home, while corporations such as Halliburton reap obscene profits.
Over the decades the “malady within the American spirit” that King named persists. It is a malady of power, arrogance and greed, a malady that takes our high ideals and smashes them in the dust, along with human life, by bombs dropped from 30,000 feet. With the power to wage war, our leaders have again thumbed their noses at the international community and sent our young soldiers to fight and die in an illegal war, authorized neither constitutionally nor under international law.
King concluded his speech by saying, “We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
The world warned the US against going to war in Iraq. The UN Security Council refused to be forced into war or to authorize it, and the US president called the UN irrelevant. Millions of people throughout the world took to the streets, and the US Administration dismissed them as irrelevant.
Today, the US Administration has had its way, and the terrible scourge of war has again been unleashed. Thousands have died, including more than 500 American soldiers. Tens of thousands have been injured and maimed, including thousands of American soldiers. Saddam Hussein has been pulled from power and his statues toppled, but Iraq is in chaos as a result of the US invasion and occupation, and experts are predicting that a terrible civil war lies ahead. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, although the US president assured us they were there, and American soldiers are being confronted daily by bullets, bombs and scorn.
What would King say to us today? Would he be resilient, or would he be broken by the “shameful corridors” through which our leaders have dragged us? Surely, he would be resilient. He knew the pain of struggle and he knew that war and violence only breed more war and violence. But how his heart would ache for the lost promise of those destroyed by this war and for the poor who bear the burden most. How his heart would ache if he could see how little we have progressed in overcoming the maladies of power, arrogance and greed. Surely, King’s message would be constant, and he would be leading a nonviolent struggle today to find the way to peace and respect for human dignity in America, Iraq and throughout the world.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is the co-author of Choose Hope: Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age and Peace: 100 Ideas.