In 1967 while the Pentagon was dutifully tallying the growing count of lives and limbs lost on the killing fields of Southeast Asia, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the growing movement of Americans who began to see clearly through the fog of war. King, who since 1965 had been a relatively subtle and oblique critic of the American war in Vietnam, now publicly and dramatically joined the antiwar movement. It was just a year before his tragic assassination.

It wasn’t just the dead that King mourned, but also what he called the war’s “equally disastrous” casualties: principles and values. Today, seventeen years into the “War on Terror,” King’s moral clarity about war can help us face our own set of militaristic confusions.

John Partipilo, from the series War in Iraq
Photograph courtesy of John Partipilo

Morality and the Budget

One of the major casualties of the war in Vietnam, King argued, was the fight against poverty. “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor,” King wrote, “so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic suction tube.” These words amount to what the philosopher Lionel McPherson has recently described as King’s “radical call to reconsider US national priorities.”

King condemned the injustice of vast numbers of Americans “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He was especially concerned with how the misery of ghetto life overburdens African American families with intractable and unjust disadvantages: the isolation of segregated neighborhoods, the physical and psychic wounds of police misconduct, the stresses and strains of joblessness, crime, and pollution. Such enduring and expansive structural arrangements, King insisted, are an assault on dignity and self-respect, and undermine the worth of our freedoms and rights.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.

“What does it profit a man,” he asked, “to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” King’s moral urgency on these questions stemmed in part from his sense that the failure to secure the fair value of our rights in an affluent and ostensibly democratic society expressed a contempt that is “wasting and degrading human life.” In the case of Vietnam, he asked why the vital needs of the poor did not outweigh the profligate pursuit of unjust war.

Today, our volatile mix of protracted war and entrenched poverty shows a tragic similarity to King’s day. While over $600 billion is (publicly) budgeted for military expenditure, over forty million Americans live below the poverty line, with roughly nineteen million living in so-called deep poverty. Well over one million Americans survive on less than two dollars per day. Blacks remain over-represented among the US poor and unemployed, and a number of factors – including the prevalence of casual labor, the erosion of unions, and corporate consolidation in low-wage domains – mean that income has remained stubbornly slow to rise. Worse, all such statistics are underestimates of the reality of US poverty, since they exclude the roughly 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated.

Where poverty coincides with racial segregation and ghettoization, the obstacles to mobility are extraordinary. Take, for example, my hometown of Baltimore. The economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that of the one hundred largest metro areas in the United States, Baltimore has the absolute lowest economic mobility for the poor. A poor boy growing up there, one estimate suggests, will earn about 28 percent less than he would if he had grown up somewhere average in America. That is, of course, if he makes it to adulthood. Baltimore has suffered over 200 homicides every year since 1990, except for one. In the last three years, homicides have reached unprecedented levels: 344 lives lost in 2015, 318 in 2016, 343 in 2017.

Yet despite the president’s rhetoric of American “carnage,” Congress has turned its eyes from this structural unfairness to focus primarily on increasing military funding and lowering tax rates for large corporations and the wealthy. Meanwhile, state legislatures across the country target social services for elimination and privatization by decrying their supposed wastefulness. King identified this tendency in 1967: “While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised, and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war.”

Civil Disobedience

King memorably declared that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” These words are no mere pacifist’s lament, but rather something more unsettling: King is claiming that a society marked by structural injustice and deep inequality can no longer legitimately command the obedience or affirmation of its most disadvantaged members. This recognition, in part, eventually led King to advocate “mass civil disobedience” against poverty and racial injustice as well as noncompliance with the Vietnam draft. Civil disobedience was, for him, about refusing – as a matter of integrity and dignity, self-respect and solidarity, democracy and justice – to cooperate willingly with such evils.

Yuri Kozyrev, from the series Pullout from Afghanistan
Photograph © Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR

King wasn’t merely reacting to abstract concerns. The controversial Moynihan Report of 1965, with its diagnosis blaming ghetto poverty primarily on a “tangle of pathology” in black families, offered among its policy prescriptions a concerted effort to recruit inner-city black males into the military, where they could learn discipline, skills, and self-esteem. This recommendation became policy with Project 100,000, a program instituted by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that dramatically lowered the standards of admission for the military and recruited over 300,000 formerly ineligible, disproportionately poor and minority men. These men, the military later found, were far more likely than other soldiers to be assigned to frontline combat, die in battle, and have poor life outcomes upon discharge. King indicted our reliance on such tactics as “the cruel manipulation of the poor.”

In today’s military, to be sure, poor and minority enlistees are no longer as overrepresented as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. The end of the draft has played a role here, as have changes to the military’s recruiting standards in regards to education, physical fitness, and criminal records. But perhaps this is not the only reason for the increased proportion of white middle-class recruits. Analysts tend to explain this shift as reflecting this group’s patriotism, but fail to consider that this patriotism has a dark mirror: alienation and dissent among minorities and the poor concerning the legitimacy of recent American wars, the persistent failure to redress racial and economic injustice, and the cynical invocation of patriotism in the face of such ills.

War Corrodes Culture

Although King focused primarily on the atrocities of war and its consequences for the poor, these weren’t his only objections to militarism. Warmaking, he believed, corrodes our political culture in several ways.

Firstly, King charged that militarism is the enemy of the principles of free dissent and government accountability. He sought to defend these principles against the “ugly repressive sentiment” that wanted to “silence peace-seekers … as quasi-traitors, fools, or venal enemies of our soldiers and institutions.”

It’s a sadly contemporary warning. In fact, in some ways the Vietnam era now seems a more favorable environment for free speech and transparency than our own. Since September 11, 2001, surveillance practices that were once conducted under the cover of darkness in the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) have become standard tools of police and federal officials. Fears of terrorist attacks and uprisings have allowed police to impose absurd restrictions on public assembly. The categories of “extremist” and “terrorist” have been repurposed to surveil minority activists (“black identity extremists”) and to prosecute drug dealers and gang members. A sitting US president openly exhorted NFL owners to fire players for exercising their right to free speech, and has threatened legal action against news outlets for covering government leaks. Nor is President Trump an isolated case; the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. The chilling effect of this antagonistic atmosphere deters many who might otherwise protest the real costs of war we usually ignore, such as civilian deaths in drone attacks, migration crises, contractor graft, and sexual assault.

Secondly, the militarist mindset tends to make our standing as citizens dependent on the prerogatives of the national security bureaucracy. This is especially pernicious for those whose equal citizenship is already vulnerable because of their race, class, national origin, or religion. Such citizens may feel a powerful temptation to swallow dissent and cast their lot with the ruling powers. A telling example of this comes from World War I, when the scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois called for African Americans to “forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens.” Du Bois would later come to recant this view, recognizing the sadism of this bargain. One could not think so narrowly, he would later write, that one becomes “willing to let the world go to hell, if the black man went free.” As King often put it, our loyalties should become “ecumenical rather than sectional.”

Defining citizenship in terms of national security reinforces the suspicion that those who persist in their dissent against war abroad and injustice at home are disloyal or internal enemies. Indeed, those are the very charges that were leveled at King when he went public with his antiwar dissent. The accusations came not just from his political opponents, but even from civil rights allies who urged him to be strategically silent for the sake of civil rights.

King would have none of it, proclaiming, “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 him, it was a matter of standing, of choosing between integrity and hypocrisy. For all who, like King, refuse to separate the rightness of means from the rightness of ends, hypocrisy is self-undermining. Their universalism is too exacting, the solidarities they generate too fragile, to bear the burdens of Machiavellian manipulation.

Yuri Kozyrev, from the series Pullout from Afghanistan
Photograph © Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR

In our day, the costs of this hypocrisy are all too apparent. Liberal politicians, even while swathing themselves in King’s legacy, wonder why their cries of moral outrage go unheeded. One reason, perhaps, that Democratic politicians get so little traction inveighing against the bigotry of the “Muslim ban” is that for eight years under the Obama administration they countenanced extralegal killings of Muslims overseas, with incinerated innocents explained away as “collateral damage.”

When such mendacity becomes normal, King argues, we tragically add “cynicism to the process of death.” In the Vietnam era, this cynicism took the form of a generational revolt. Our own era of endless war has spawned a less spectacular form of cynicism: widespread anomie and nihilism. We have seen, for example, a surge in heroin addiction enabled by the improbable flourishing of the opium trade in Afghanistan – the worst illicit drug epidemic in American history. Although America has spent over one trillion dollars on a continuous war in Afghanistan, the country remains ruled by an alliance of Taliban militants and drug traffickers who are, by one United Nations estimate, responsible for producing over 90 percent of the world’s illegal heroin supply.

This nihilism has exacerbated racial tensions as well. Like previous movements, the recent wave of white nationalist agitation is fueled, according to the historian Kathleen Belew, by a segment of disillusioned veterans. Meanwhile, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic bigotry have become prime movers in American politics, drawing both from genuine fears of Islamic terrorist retaliation and from right-wing conspiracy theories (for example, the paranoid fear that US courts may implement shari’a law).

Even the policing controversies of the past few years have their roots in war. The story of Ferguson, Missouri, is a case in point. Media images of the 2014 clashes between police and protestors put on display the free flow of war matériel and combat personnel from foreign battlefields to local police departments. And Ferguson showed again what happens when trillions of dollars are spent on war rather than on combating poverty and enforcing fairness. In that town, an underfunded municipal government mutated into a predatory entity reliant on fees and fines forcibly extracted from vulnerable minority citizens by the police.

The American Revolutionary Tradition

For King, one of the great treasures put at risk by militarism was America’s revolutionary egalitarian and democratic tradition. “The greatest irony and tragedy of all,” King lamented, “is that our nation, which initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world, is now cast in the mold of being an arch anti-revolutionary.” White supremacy and imperial acquisitiveness, he argued, had misled Americans from seizing the “moral example” that might come from casting the nation’s lot with “the revolution taking place in the world … against colonialism, reactionary dictatorship, and systems of exploitation.”

In our time, however, we lack a significant antiwar movement. Opposition to war is enervated and fragile, too often satisfied with liberal anti-racism’s self-righteous condemnations and charges of hypocrisy. How did we get here?

Some of the answers are simple, although no less true for being so: we are too myopic, too afraid, too distracted, and too xenophobic. Others go deeper to the rot of American democracy, in which citizenship too often becomes spectatorship and where social life – especially military service – is too often segregated by class and geography. Further, the administration of war now includes a tangled web of corporations exercising real power over our legislative and administrative bodies in search of military contracts.

Technological changes also undermine our political attention and democratic motivation. Today, war is increasingly fought on computer screens and with advanced robotics. Killing is carried out in unprecedented detachment, with too few casualties on the American side to generate sustained political outrage.

It is difficult to know what practical steps could break through the stalemate in the antiwar struggle. Yet if King’s example cannot dictate what we should do tactically, it can teach us the ethos that should guide us. King’s ideal of nonviolence is widely familiar. Less known and more idiosyncratic, but equally central to King’s arguments against militarism, was his ideal of maturity.

The Virtue of Maturity

In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church, King declared that “the world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.” By maturity, King means something akin to what the philosopher Lewis Gordon has described as the ethical stance of blues music toward “the realities of adult ethical life”: that “things are not always neat, that making decisions is complicated … that people often make mistakes,” and, most importantly, that “only a child can never be guilty.”

In the case of Vietnam, King argued, real maturity required that Americans, above all, accept responsibility for wrongdoing and “admit that we have been wrong from the beginning.” Recognizing that our actions were “detrimental,” maturity also required immediate cessation of ongoing harm and hostility, and a long-term commitment to atonement, aid, and reparation. Finally, it called for critical self-inventory and cultural correction of the passions (nationalism), ideologies (anti-Communism or racism), and drives (hypermasculinity) that have led us into a military quagmire in Afghanistan, unjust war in the Middle East, and nuclear brinksmanship in Southeast Asia.

Today the maturity King called for is essential, for “realists” no less than for everyone else. Like Gandhi, he sought to develop forms of politics and international relations that would not leave in their wake an atmosphere of bitterness, enmity, and distrust. King lamented how easily “hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction” – and he appealed to the virtue of maturity to help break the cycle of conflict. Apology and atonement for wrongdoing are necessary as a matter of justice. Undertaken with maturity, however, they can also open the way to forgiveness and new beginnings. In Hannah Arendt’s words, they can begin to “undo the deeds of the past, whose ‘sins’ hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation.”

“If we are mature we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.

Such maturity – especially in the readiness to apologize and atone – should never be mistaken for the leftist tendency to substitute anti-Americanism for analysis. Nor does it seek to insulate victims of injustice from critique for their own wrongdoing: King did not flinch from criticizing revolutionaries or reactionaries abroad for their moral or political errors. All the same, he still called for Americans to “see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” “If we are mature,” King tells us, “we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

We live in a world where nuclear and biological weapons proliferate, where there are war refugees in unprecedented numbers and war profiteering in an unprecedented boom, and where far-flung and unaccountable violence begets insurgency across the globe and cynicism at home. These evils cannot be denied, and can tempt us to apathy or despair rather than humility and justice.

Yet King gives us another way of seeing. “The things that seem most real and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence of death.” Rather than continue to invoke the false idols thrown up by ideology and habit, we need “the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to trans- figure both ourselves and American society.” With maturity, we must once again learn to see the real casualties of war amidst the fog, and then act.