Forty years ago, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King was 39 years old, and was already a towering figure on the American and global landscape. He was best known as a civil rights leader, but he was also an activist for the alleviation of poverty and a strong critic of the US war in Vietnam. King, following in the footsteps of Gandhi, stood firmly for nonviolence and peace, and against the advice of many of his supporters spoke out powerfully against the war.
In the forty years that have passed since King’s assassination, his commitment to peace and strong statements against the US war in Vietnam have often been omitted in recalling his legacy. But today, as the US fights another illegal and immoral war in a distant land, again killing young Americans and hundreds of thousands of civilians, his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War should be remembered for the lessons he left us.
Just three weeks after the assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King, gave a speech in New York City that Dr. King had been scheduled to give. In that speech, she read from some notes that Dr. King had scribbled in preparation for the speech, “Ten Commandments on Vietnam.” With small changes, these could be called, “Ten Commandments on Iraq.” They go to the very roots of our culture of militarism.
These are Dr. King’s “Ten Commandments on Vietnam,” written shortly before his untimely death:
1. Thou shalt not believe in a military victory. 2. Thou shalt not believe in a political victory. 3. Thou shalt not believe that the Vietnamese people love us. 4. Thou shalt not believe that the Saigon government has the support of the people. 5. Thou shalt not believe that the majority of the South Vietnamese look upon the Viet Cong as terrorists. 6. Thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans. 7. Thou shalt not believe that the generals know best. 8. Thou shalt not believe that the enemies’ victory means communism. 9. Thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States. 10. Thou shalt not kill.
Dr. King knew how to speak truth to power, and in his courage and commitment lay his own power. Had he lived, he would have been an imposing force for peace in America and the world. His commandments confront the comfortable lies our leaders tell about war, which are so widely accepted without questioning.
In Iraq, there will be no military victory, nor political victory. Victory is a dangerous illusion, and we have already lost the war. The Iraqi people do not love us. We have destroyed their lives and their country. The Iraqi government does not have the support of the Iraqi people and is only held up by our military power. We don’t know how the Iraqi people view the Iraqi fighters, but we do know that they want the US to leave their country.
In the Iraq War, the US does not even bother to count the numbers of Iraqis that have been killed, and it hides the body bags of Americans killed in the war from the American people. The generals do not know best. They know only how to wage war and even at that they are failing. The enemies’ victory no longer means communism, but neither does it mean victory for terrorism. The world does not support the United States in this war. It never has. The war was never sanctioned by the United Nations and, like the war in Vietnam, is an illegal and immoral war.
And finally, Dr. King, a Baptist minister, reminds us, of this age-old wisdom: “Thou shalt not kill.” He challenges us to rise above our leaders, our culture and our history. He challenges us to be something we have never been, a nation that is peaceful and just.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a councilor of the World Future Council.