Today, I heard the speech you delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Your eloquence caught me up, and what you said about the people who made it possible for you to be there as president had me close to tears. You evoked memories in me about the civil rights struggle, the epic movement which achieved so much and changed this country for the better. You clearly understand the history and vision of that movement, that it is unfinished and still tugs at the conscience of the country.
The thought struck me that while you were preparing this speech, you were also directing the Pentagon to gear up for a possible missile attack on Syria.
With the image of Lincoln seated behind you, you spoke of the “I Have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the march in 1963. As you noted: “His words belong to the ages.” It stands as one of the greatest American speeches of the 20th century. You repeated Dr. King’s call to us to judge people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
You reminded the nation that King saw economic opportunity as integral to the achievement of full equality. You raised up the injustice of economic inequality “where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie ...”
You thus addressed, in your speech, two of the three great evils which King saw as afflicting this country — racism and materialism. But you failed to mention the third, the one to which you have succumbed — militarism.
In his Riverside Church speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” one year before he was murdered, King declared: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit ...” He went on to say, “I knew that 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.”
Your attempt to punish the government of Syria, for reportedly using chemical agents to kill more than 1,000 Syrian citizens, and to justify it without mention of the likely casualties of U.S. military action, tells me you have accepted the ideology of militarism that is enveloping this nation.
My emotions were at high pitch as I listened to you and reflected on how, with so much promise, you have yielded to the imperative of empire, and thus tarnished your place in history.
Militarism, as an ideology, shows its bloody face, sometimes clearly, sometimes dimly, in so many aspects of our society and culture. Its most obvious expression is the easy acceptance of military violence to address complex social and international issues. The frequent use of military force has become the primary means through which the U.S. government seeks to maintain and expand its global domination. And your administration has maintained and in some ways expanded this policy.
Like so many political leaders, policy-makers, academics and others in this country, Mr. President, you see the world through the faulty lens of militaristic ideology. Your assurance that your plans for attacking Syria do not include U.S. “boots on the ground” exposes the moral bankruptcy that is militarism. The implication is that an unwarranted military attack is OK if “our” men and women are kept out of harm’s way. Members of your administration have used the same justification for using drones to kill suspected, not proven, terrorists in several countries, countries with which the United States is not at war.
Andrew Bacevich, a veteran of Vietnam and subsequently a career officer, a graduate of West Point and later Princeton, where he earned a doctorate in history, is presently director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations.
In his book “The New American Militarism,” Bacevich says military idolatry “pervades our national consciousness and perverts our national policies.” He is careful to (rightly) point out that this idolatry infects both major political parties and is found across the political spectrum. War has become normal. Children 12 and under have not known the United States at peace. We declare war against a tactic, terrorism, never considering that war itself is terrorism.
But the romance so many in the United States have with the military and military violence is only one aspect of this pervasive ideology. Its norms and culture penetrate and influence the norms and culture of society.
For example, the national debate on gun violence has failed to identify a militarist mind-set that goes so far as to call for arming schoolteachers. Stand-your-ground legislation, now in over two dozen states, is militarism brought to the streets. Armed citizens is a normal phenomenon in a society under the influence of militarism.
While you tried to create a national policy of very limited gun control, you did not speak of the cultural, economic, social and psychological factors that persuade citizens to arm themselves against one another. You do not seem to see this fear as a failure of community, a failure of culture. You do not speak of it as the antithesis of Dr. King’s “beloved community.”
Militarism is a distinctive way of looking at the world; it influences how we see our neighbors, our families, our public life, and other people in the world. Militarism affects the way policy-makers and citizens frame and respond to complex social issues. For example, the U.S. government declares a “war on drugs,” a “war on poverty” and the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world in its “war on crime.”
Militarism is a means by which hierarchies of power are kept in place: men over women, white people over people of color, rich people over the rest of society, wealthy nations over poorer nations. Militarism is not compatible with democracy; that is one reason the founders of this country wanted to refrain from keeping a standing Army and wrote the Second Amendment so that citizens would provide “the security of a free state.” Well, now we have a standing Army, more powerful than any in history, yet so many of our citizens still demand to be armed.
A nation in the grip of militarism spends a disproportionate amount of its resources on weapons, standing armies, military bases, and preparations for and engaging in war. It uses military spending as an economic stimulus and for job creation. Its foreign policy is dominated by the military to the detriment of its nonmilitary diplomatic initiatives. Your threat of attack being the latest example.
Mr. President, all the above is true of the United States of America today. Our nation outspends the militaries of the next 14 nations combined, has nearly 1,000 military bases and installations around the world, and is in the process of militarizing space. While you speak of the need to abolish nuclear weapons, you spend billions to upgrade the U.S. nuclear stockpile, albeit a smaller stockpile, but still capable of destroying most of life on Earth.
So, Mr. President, when you invoke the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., I ask you to think about all he stood for, and not cherry pick those aspects of his thought and life that suit the current political moment. I ask you to remember, as Vincent Harding, in his book “An Inconvenient Hero,” reminds us, that Dr. King lived for five years after his “Dream” speech. In that time he expanded the circle of his concern and work to include greater emphasis on economic justice and more pronounced condemnation of militarism.
I ask you remember his words: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Mr. President, you must know that racism and economic and social inequality continue to exist in this country, in part, because of the implicit threat of violence to maintain them. It is no accident that the United States has the highest level of childhood poverty in the developed world, ranks below 11 other nations for human development and 42nd in life expectancy. In the words of Vincent Harding, a teacher of nonviolence, who worked closely with MLK and drafted his Riverside Church speech: “... one of the things that comes very, very clear to me in the 21st century is that it is really impossible to develop an imperial-power country stretching its tentacles, as it were, all over the world, and at the same moment, speak to the deepest needs of its own people.”
As long as you continue to be caught in the tentacles of militarism, Mr. President, you will be unable to adequately address these human needs.
Joseph Gainza, of Plainfield, is a member of Vermont Action for Peace and host of WGDR’s “Gathering Peace.”
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