Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Pentagon’s Good Samaritans

Sign on door of our granddaughter’s preschool this morning:  “In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, let us be kind to one another.”
* * * * * *
We were all sitting in the living room.  I was studying the sports page, Patty was reading the front section of the paper, and Kevin was doing his homework.  Patty gets fascinated by something she’s reading and just has to share it with you, so it was no surprise when she looked up and said, “Did you see this?  The general counsel for the Pentagon implied in a speech that Martin Luther King would have supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because ‘we live in a complicated world,’ and King would have recognized that ‘our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.’”
“No, I didn’t see it.  It wasn’t on the sports page,”  I said.  “Who was the speaker?” 
She skimmed down the story.  “His name is Jeh Johnson.  (I don’t know how you pronounce J-E-H.)  He graduated from Martin Luther King’s college, Morehouse.  He was a classmate of Martin Luther King III, and says King’s son was his study partner in college and has been a friend of his for almost thirty-five years.”
“So he has some credentials to speak on the subject,” I said.  “What does he base his claim on?”
Patty said, “That’s the peculiar part.  Actually, he doesn’t make much of a case for it, after making such a big deal about how he’s a King family insider.  He says, ‘Today, at the Defense Department, how do we honor and respect Dr. King’s message and legacy and reconcile it with our mission?‘  Then all he does is talk about Dr. King’s use of the parable of the Good Samaritan to show why he was in Memphis helping striking sanitation workers.”
I didn’t know Kevin had been listening.  “I’m afraid you lost me there, Mom,” he said.  “What does that have to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
She frowned.  “Well, let me read what Johnson said:  
In 2011, I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes.  Those in today’s volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road, and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people.  Every day our servicemen and women practice that “dangerous unselfishness” Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968.”  
I did a double take.  “So he’s saying that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are comparable to the Good Samaritan?  That they’re only there because they’re ‘personally stopping and administering aid’ to the Afghani people?  And therefore King would have approved?”
Patty nodded.  “It’s right near the end of his speech,” she said.  “After all the buildup, that’s what it amounts to.  He doesn’t have any other argument for why King would have approved.  We’re Good Samaritans.”
“‘Personally stopping and administering aid’ somehow doesn’t square with  shooting people and bombing them and torturing them and sending unmanned drones to blow up houses with women and children in them, does it?” I mused.
“That argument is just garbage!” yelled Kevin, red faced.  “It ignores everything Dr. King ever said about nonviolence and loving your enemies and America’s role in the world.  I don’t care if Johnson is black and a Morehouse graduate and a friend of the King family, he still twisted the idea of being a Good Samaritan to justify fighting a war!  Johnson is just trying to attach Dr. King’s good name to a war he would actually have condemned even more strongly than he condemned the Vietnam War!”
“Whoa, calm down there, Kevin,” I said, reluctantly laying the sports section aside.  “You seem to feel pretty strongly about this.”
Kevin took a deep breath.  “Sorry I got so loud, Dad,” he said.  “It just makes me mad.”  He held up the book he’d been reading and a couple of sheets of paper he’d been taking notes on.  “This is my homework assignment,” he said, waving the papers.  “And this is a book of Dr. King’s speeches.  I’m writing a paper for history class on King’s use of nonviolence.  Anybody who spends any time at all reading King’s work can see that nonviolence and Christ’s command to love your enemies meant everything in the world to him.  Given all Mr. Johnson says about his connection with Morehouse and the civil rights movement and the King family, he can’t be that ignorant of King’s writing and thinking.  He deliberately betrayed King’s legacy to propagandize for the Pentagon!  It makes me sick!”
“You disagree with Mr. Johnson.  You don’t think Martin Luther King would have backed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I take it,” Patty said.
Kevin gave her a look.  “That’s what I said, Mom.”
“No,” she said, “that’s what you yelled.  But all you did was give your opinion, which happened to be different from Mr. Johnson’s.  Opinions are cheaper than pennies.  Can you back yours up?”
Kevin hesitated while he thought about it.  “I think so,” he said more quietly.  “I’ve just been taking notes from King’s speeches.  I haven’t laid my notes out for a debate or anything, but Dr. King was always developing an argument in his speeches anyway.  And they’re consistent from speech to speech, from year to year.”
“Let’s hear them then,” Patty said.
“Well, okay, just give me a minute,” said Kevin.  He began shuffling his papers and making checkmarks by some passages, while Patty and I went back to reading our sections of the paper.  
“Okay, I think I’m ready,” said Kevin after a while.  “These two quotes are from a 1957 sermon, Loving Your Enemies.”
Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.  Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe.   And you do that by love.
“It’s pretty clear to me,” said Kevin, glancing up, “that going to war doesn’t ‘cut off the chain of hate and evil in the universe’ through love.  And he uses that idea of violence being a downward spiral over and over again.”  He went on to the second passage.
There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet.  Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it.  For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way.”
“This is from later on in the same sermon,” said Kevin.  “The reference to Gandhi is important, because King learned a lot about dealing with political problems nonviolently from Gandhi.  He wasn’t just talking about person-to-person nonviolence, but about dealing with major conflicts within a society or between nations.  And when it comes to war, he believes that Jesus is telling us ‘This isn’t the way.’”
“You’re doing pretty well so far, Kevin,” said Patty. “Do you have more?”
“Sure,” said Kevin.  “If you weren’t positive that the quotations above were talking about nonviolent action as an alternative to war, these passages are from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964.”
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.
“And this.”
I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.  "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."  

I was impressed.  “Those are really powerful passages,” I said.  And there’s no doubt what he was talking about.  What was that phrase again?  ‘Nonviolent redemptive goodwill’?”
“Right.  I’ll just read two more,” said Kevin, who was getting into it.  “These are from his 1967 speech Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam.” 
The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies.  It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat.  The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
“You see how he contrasts freedom and democracy with violence and militarism there?” asked Kevin. 
Patty and I nodded.
“Listen to this last one,” he said.  “The final sentence is the famous one that gets quoted so often, but it seems to me a lot of its power comes from the sentences before it.”
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.  A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
We were silent.
I finally broke the silence.  “You know, I’ve never heard any of those things,” I said.  “All I remember ever hearing was clips from the I Have a Dream speech, year after year.”
“I see why you got so angry,” Patty said.  “You read them to us in chronological order, and if anything they became more firmly opposed to war and militarism, and more steadfast in calling for love as an essential element of freedom as time went on.  To pretend that he would have supported our current wars is...”  She groped for the right words.  “It’s repulsive.  It’s an abomination.  And it’s a common propaganda technique.  You don’t have to prove your point; you just have to make it look as if there’s a debate about whether something is true.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Kevin, curious.
“Because most people won’t research it,” answered Patty, “and a lot of people end up thinking you could legitimately argue it either way.  Anyone who reads Johnson’s speech carefully, and then reads some of King’s work, as you have, will quickly see that there’s no doubt that the Pentagon’s claim is sheer balderdash.  But how many people will take the time to do that? ”
“It’s just not right!” said Kevin, frustrated.  “What can we do about it?” 
Patty laughed.  “Good for you.  That’s King’s question, isn’t it?  You don’t just take the evil and take it and take it because you’re nonviolent.  You make sure your heart is right, and then you act.”
That sounded like my cue.  “Well, if we’re done,” I said, “I want to finish reading about the Patriots game.”  And I picked up my section of the paper.
© Tony Russell, 2011


Anonymous said...

Coincidentally last night we watched a DVD "In the Valley of Elan" which touches these same themes.

In particular it speaks to the idea of violence begetting violence where one people, us (the US? your choice) goes all out to save them (the Iraqis) over their own dead bodies. So to speak.

But finally who are the real victims? ...the thousands of combat veterans who return home with mostly untreated post-traumatic stresses which insidiously undermine their own country from within. Who needs Al Queda or the Taliban.

This Paul Haggis film could not be more specific and Tommy Lee Jones more efficient in bridging America's two most flagrant examples this century: Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.

Bill Graham
Paris & Champagne, France

wildfire said...

The thing is, Kevin's comments don't really respond to the argument given, which is not "King would have supported violence," but "what we're doing in Afghanistan is not warfare but humanitarian aid"--utter bullshit, but that's what needs to be countered--wildly false assertions of fact, not values issues.

Tony Russell said...

Good point, Mary. I agree that Kevin's focus is on King's nonviolence. I had Ace set the stage for Kevin's response by saying, “‘Personally stopping and administering aid’ somehow doesn’t square with shooting people and bombing them and torturing them and sending unmanned drones to blow up houses with women and children in them, does it?” That gets at your issue. But I should have developed that theme in more detail. Looking back, I think I just made an assumption that we're so obviously fighting a war, not operating a charity effort, that I didn't tackle Johnson's underlying shell game with the depth and clarity I should have.

As always, I appreciate your contribution.

Tony Russell said...

Thanks for the mention of "In the Valley of Elah," Bill. It's hard to imagine any parent watching that film without adding new fears about the damage to a son or daughter's soul if they are heading to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Interesting that you point out how the film bridges the Vietnam and Iraq eras, with the experiences of the father and son. To me, Hank (the father), seems almost like a WWII relic rather than a Vietnam vet. I say that because the kind of things he learns about drug usage and psychological damage in Iraq, things that seem to be unexpected for him, were an inescapable part of the Vietnam war as well. I have friends and relatives who are still struggling with the psychological wounds they suffered there more than thirty-five years ago.