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Martin Luther King Jr. Warned That the Poor Pay for War With Their Lives

King warned us that the real enemy is war itself.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a packed crowd at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 3, 1964.

Sheyda Shadkhoo called her husband from Flight 752 and said she was scared. The U.S. had killed a top Iranian general. Iran vowed revenge. Hassan told her, “Not to worry. Nothing’s going to happen.” As the plane took off from Tehran, two surface-to-air missiles were fired from a nearby military base. Sheyda, along with 175 others, were killed.

We have “guided missiles and misguided men,” Martin Luther King Jr. said 53 years ago in his speech, “The Three Evils of Society.” King had begun to use principles of nonviolence to analyze not just racism but poverty and militarism. War, he said, robs society of the funds to uplift the poor. War kills the working-class people who fight it. It employs the rhetoric of freedom to conceal mass death.

The Trump administration is in a deadly military tit-for-tat with Iran. The U.S. has 200,000 troops deployed across the world, particularly in the Persian Gulf, Asia and Africa. It brushes close to Chinese islands and navy ships in the South China Sea. U.S. drone missiles rain on peasants. War is one accident or one bad decision away. We need to recognize that the “patriotism” of the post-9/11 era is complicity in global carnage — and revisit King’s vision of peace.

Seven Days in January

Are we going to war? A nervous energy filled New York. On the subways and at bodegas, one could hear the fear of a terrorist attack. In the seven days between Trump greenlighting the drone assassination of Iran’s Major General Qassim Suleimani and Iran retaliating by firing 22 missiles at two U.S. bases in Iraq, the world held its breath, terrified of a full-on conflict. When the smoke cleared, no American military personnel had been killed. War was narrowly avoided, but for how long?

Fifty-eight years ago, King watched an eerily similar high-stakes crisis when, for 13 days in 1962, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. edged close to nuclear war. Back-channel deals between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Khrushchev made a face-saving détente possible. Afterward, King wrote in a letter to Kennedy, “…you have utilized some of the elements of non-violent creativity in international conflict, despite the presence of latent force… it recognizes that every opponent somewhere has a receptive syndrome which may lead to reconciliation.” The praise may be misplaced since it was Kennedy’s hawkish foreign policy that sparked the crisis. Nevertheless, peace, specifically Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha or “appeal to truth,” was the core of King’s theology since 1950, and deepened during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and his trip to India in 1959.

King’s critique of U.S. militarism culminated in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam” at Riverside Church. He had three main points. The first was that militarism robs the nation of resources it could use to alleviate poverty. Second, the burden of fighting war falls on the poor and working class, who are betrayed by the very nation whose uniforms they wear. Finally, the promises to safeguard freedom, trumpeted by our presidents, are veils thrown over the narrow American interests that leave vast destruction and death in its wake.

The War Machine

King was assassinated in 1968. The Vietnam War that he criticized finally ended in 1975, but in the intervening decades, the U.S. military has invaded numerous nations and left a mountain range of dead. It costs one-sixth of the federal budget. To that, we must add the price of war itself, as well as the carbon footprint and land poisoning generated by military exploits. U.S. armed forces have wrought immeasurable pain in the world, and are economically and environmentally unsustainable.

The U.S. military is a giant, pyramid command structure from the president, its commander in chief, to the 1.3 million active-duty troops, 200,000 of which are at the nearly 800 bases in over 170 countries. Overall it has 2,200 fighter jets. The Air Force around 1,400 combat aircraft. The Navy has 275 surface ships and submarines, and 11 active aircraft carriers. More than 6,000 U.S. nuclear warheads are ready to kill all life on Earth. And now, we have a Space Force. (I can’t believe, I just wrote that.) The 2020 budget is $738 billion. The recent release of the “Afghanistan Papers” showed the Pentagon lied about progress in the war, even as it burned through more than $2 trillion.

The $2 trillion spent on war was stolen from the poor. A 2018 study counted 552,830 homeless Americans, among them 40,000 veterans. $2 trillion. Wasted. Even as 38 million people live in poverty. $2 trillion. Wasted. Even as more than 42 million citizens go hungry, among them 13 million children. How much money does it take to build homes? Or feed the poor? Or provide health care or free college? Well, we have answers. For just $350 billion, the National Priorities Project reports that we can cover the gap between the health care we have now and Medicare for All. For $22 billion, we could feed all the hungry people in the country. And for $1.6 trillion, we could erase all student debt and free a generation of youth from 21st century peonage.

In “Beyond Vietnam,” King talked of the “brutal solidarity” of poor white and Black soldiers in war. Since his speech, the military has increasingly reflected the gender, race and class hierarchy of the U.S. Its recruiters target poor and working-class neighborhoods. A Pew report showed that by 2017, women were 16 percent of active duty personnel, 57 percent were white, 16 percent Black, 16 percent Latino/a, 4 percent Asian and 6 percent “other.” The Armed Forces draws from poor, working- and lower-middle class people even as patriotism inspires some upper-class youth to join.

A 2019 essay in Teen Vogue showed the desperate measures the Army undergoes to fill quotas. Roughly, 184,000 new recruits a year are reportedly needed to replenish its ranks to sustain current operations, but according to one poll, only 14 percent of American youth think the military is an option. Recruiters prowl neighborhoods and even put on video game tournaments. In one California high school, recruiters brought along a truck that had inside a virtual reality helicopter ride. Today, roughly 19 percent of the military comes from ZIP codes where the average income is, according to a government report, at or below $40,115, which itself is under the 2019 “twice the poverty” rate line of $42,660. The recruits coming from poverty, even though less than the bulk that come from the middle class, are fighting for a nation that does not fight for them. The very Americans left behind by capitalism are being pushed to the front lines by the military.

In 1967, King said the Vietnamese must see U.S. soldiers as “strange liberators” who burned their villages, prostituted women and killed relentlessly in the name of freedom. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the numerous military operations — from the invasion of Panama to our current “war on terror” — have killed at least half a million people. It shows no sign of stopping.

“On September the 11th,” President George W. Bush said, “enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.” He launched a war against an “Axis of Evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq spanned Bush’s two terms, Obama’s two terms and now Trump’s first term. The death toll, according to a Watson Institute report, is a staggering figure of at least 480,000 people killed, including 244,000 civilians. The U.S. has filled their lives with terror and grief. Imagine soldiers kicking down doors and pointing guns in your face. Drones circling overhead, and after a bright blast, you wake up to see your family die in the street. Bitterness turns your heart into a funeral pyre and you want the U.S. to burn. Now President Trump is on TV, threatening more war.

Peace Now

Right now, some Iranian relatives of passengers on Flight 752 do not even have bodies to bury, and must use mementos. Trump and his hawkish Security Council see it as a necessary gamble in a zero-sum world of the strong and the weak. If Trump thinks he or the U.S. is losing ground, he will risk another roll of the dice, even if the cost is total war.

The cost is more than a war, because in a nuclear age on a planet on the precipice of climate catastrophe, the choice is, as King said, “not between violence and non-violence but between non-violence and non-existence.” To be alive now. To be aware. It means that we can no longer afford these ideas of “might makes right” or of the inhuman “other.” The enemy is not Iran or North Korea, China or Russia. The enemy is war itself.

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