On the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq (March 20th), journalist Dahr Jamail discussed the devastation in that country: millions dead, injured and homeless; torture and assassinations; massive unemployment; birth defects from depleted uranium 40 times higher than pre-war Iraq – in Fallujah alone, 14 times higher than after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The graphic images of disfigured infants are similar to those found in Vietnam as a result of Agent Orange – discussed and photographed in Fred Wilcox’s brilliant and moving Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare in Vietnam.
I thought of Jamail’s report as I walked past a Santa Monica church on Easter Sunday. Did the clergy inside address the war’s anniversary? Had they at any time in the past ten years condemned it in clear and prophetic language? Where have they been during the long nightmare of war in Iraq – and Afghanistan? Thousands of sermons have been given across this land since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: how many honored the “Prince of Peace” by opposing U.S. aggression? How many millions sat in services that did not address this outrage?
The silence of clergy today led me back to the Vietnam War and April 4, 1967. Exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historic speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” at New York’s Riverside Church. Although millions have been moved by King’s “I Have a Dream” oration in 1963, most Americans have never heard what is arguably his most eloquent and powerful talk. King’s courageous stand against the Vietnam War brought an avalanche of vicious attacks from the White House, mainstream media, political officials and some Civil Rights leaders – buried down the historical memory hole by those who have erased the martyred leader’s anti-war and anti-imperialist views.
King’s historical insights and moral lessons in that speech can help us to understand and ultimately condemn the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq – that when combined with Afghanistan will eventually cost $5 trillion dollars. On a per person basis, that’s about $1.4 billion dollars for Santa Monica, $63.1 billion for Los Angeles and $589 billion for California.
In that April 1967 oration, King stated he “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.” What King concluded about U.S. aggression in Vietnam could be said today of Iraq: “It should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam [Iraq].’” How many clergy have addressed “America’s soul” and our imperial violence with their congregations?
For King, the Vietnam War was merely “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality … (we) will be marching and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.” He urged us to see that “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” These words remain prophetic and relevant to what has unfolded over the past ten years – and for more than a decade before that with U.S.-promoted economic sanctions against Iraq that led to the deaths of some 500,000 children, most of them during the Clinton administration. Did clergy in Santa Monica and across the nation condemn these sanctions and loss of life?
King concluded his speech with a warning that we ignore to this day: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” With at least $1 trillion dollars a year in the federal budget devoted to war and preparation for war, will American clergy confront the implications of King’s profound assertion: “I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism.”
Thursday, 4 April 2013