Beyond Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: 50 Years of Evolving American Militarization
R. Kris Hardy
April 6th, 2017
On April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York City, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an impassioned speech to bring light to the intersection between poverty, civil rights, the military, the government’s involvement in foreign wars, and the corporations which support and implement the military’s actions1.
In this year of 2017, being the 50th anniversary of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech it is important to reflect upon his words. Not only should we consider the relevance that they held in 1967, but more importantly we must consider what has changed in the past half-century for the good and the ill. We must also consider how his words can help guide us today as we deal with continued military conflicts, an emboldened defense-industrial complex, and new methods available to the US government to apply lethal force across the globe with minimal risk to its personnel.
In the mid 1960s, Dr. King became involved with the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CLCAV), a multi-faith organization focused upon ending the Vietnam War, making the US citizens aware of the condition of the Vietnamese people and the US military personnel deployed to Vietnam, and developing strategies to hold the US government and defense industry accountable2. At Riverside Church, King was speaking was to the members of CLCAV and the larger group of civil rights activists and concerned citizens.
Early in King’s 1967 speech, he spoke of how the war in Vietnam affected what he experienced in his work on civil rights.
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle [for human rights]. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
The situation regarding social services here in the US is in a similar state to what King described in 1967. The total cost of the Vietnam War to the US, including both direct costs of conducting military operations and aid to Vietnam, and indirect costs such as veteran’s benefits and interest was estimated at between $350 and $900 billion3. Such high war spending took significant resources away from social programs, such as the new Economic Opportunity Act, Medicare and Medicaid programs that were critically needed by the poor, which disproportionately affected black communities. The high costs of war, combined with the necessary, yet insufficient, spending on social programs contributed to the severe economic stagflation of the 1970s4. By comparison, between 2001 and 2013 the total estimated cost of the US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan was calculated at an amount nearly 10-times greater; between $4 and $6 trillion dollars5. One significant difference between the Vietnam War era and the post-9/11 era is that the US government attempted to maintain its levels of spending on social programs through the 2000s, and continue to spend itself out of the severe recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s. In both these times, however, rising unemployment and increased necessity for programs to support those that were hurt by the depressed economy left many people without the basic assistance they needed. According to a study by the US Department of Health and Human Services, spending on Medicare increased greatly between 1977 and the early 1990s, and spending on other social services rose gradually during the same period. But beginning in mid-1990’s, cash assistance was cut dramatically while spending on other social services continued to grow, making it increasingly difficult for the needy to meet their needs. Furthermore, social spending in the poorest states was far less than social spending in the richest states. Further cuts and restrictions to aid programs and the exacerbation of systemic inequalities have continued into 20176.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We are taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia or East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.
In 1967, the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court which declared school segregation unconstitutional, Brown v. Board of Education, had been in effect for 13 years. King’s speech was made nearly four years after Alabama Governor George Wallace infamously blocked the door at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black students, requiring the intervention of President John F. Kennedy, and 3 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Yet, there remain schools that are effectively segregated to this day. For example, a US District Court ruled in 2016 that the Cleveland School District in Cleveland, Mississippi remained segregated and must desegregate7. That same year, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published “Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State”. Their report described significant progress that has been made in many places to increase diversity in public schools, especially in the south, but a blind eye had been turned by the US government to states in the North and West, such as New York, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, California and Texas, allowing public school segregation to run rampant8. White, Black, Latino, and other children of color are still effectively unable to sit together in the same schools in many states.
The distribution of who is in the military has changed some since 1967. A study of enlistees in 2006 and 2007 suggests that approximately 29% of enlisted recruits come from families that make less than $42k per year, or under 2-times the Federal Poverty Level for a family of 49,10. Income that low qualifies many families for programs such as subsidized health care and other assistance programs. A total of 75% of enlisted recruits come from families that make less than $65k per year. Compared to the percentage of the population, enlistees from those families with more money are over-represented in the military, and those with less money appear to be under-represented. Furthermore, the blend of whites and blacks in the military is nearly identical to that of the US population, however Hispanics are currently significantly under-represented in the military. A study of fatalities of service members in Iraq and Afghanistan show that the percentage of whites killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is higher than their percentage of population in the military, while blacks and Hispanics are lower. At least we have seemingly attained equality in death.
Yet, regarding death, it is vitally important to consider that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the most technologically advanced confrontations that have ever been seen. According to the Department of Defense, there were 58,220 service member deaths in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975, with an estimated 587,000 civilian deaths caused by either Viet Cong or US forces11. The number of US service member deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 to 2016 is approximately 6,90012,13. During the same time period in Iraq, approximately 12,500 civilian deaths by US-led coalition forces were documented14. Between 2003 and 2016, at least 188,578 civilian deaths caused by all combatants have been reported in Iraq15. In Afghanistan, neither the Afghan government nor the US-led coalition initially tracked civilian deaths, leading the United Nations to establish a monitoring system in 2007. Between 2007 and 2016, it is estimated that nearly 25,000 civilians have been violently killed, but it is believed that this number is an underestimate. There are no official estimates of non-violent deaths caused by the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as deaths due to malnutrition or disease, but it is expected that it far outnumbers those of violent deaths.
Today, the ability to wage war remotely through the use of armed drone aircraft has the seemingly beneficial result of decreasing the risk of putting US service members into harm’s way. However, decreasing the US service member death count, coupled with the blatant disregard of African and Middle Eastern deaths caused by the US government creates a unique situation that did not exist in 1967. When US service member deaths occurred in Vietnam, the cost of war was felt viscerally by the community that the unfortunate soul came from and was posthumously returned to. Today, we still feel each new service member death in our community just as strongly, yet there are far fewer of them compared to the Vietnam War. The emotional burden of war in the US is now carried by the comparatively small number of gold star families, families caring for their injured veterans, and veterans themselves. Yet, the costs of war to the citizens of those war-torn countries are tangible to a scale that are hard to comprehend in our isolated safety here in the US. It is perhaps even more important today that each of us, as King said in 1967, “speak clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today; [our] own government.”
As many in the US government today, and especially in the US military, laud themselves as moral Christians, “have they forgotten that [the Christian] ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?” To embody those virtues of justice and equality that our leaders claim to follow but fail to act upon, “we are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy”, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” Today, this applies equally to laws which restrict civil rights, impose religion-based travel bans, demonize undocumented immigrants, or allow a pilot sitting in a chair in Creech AFB, Nevada to remotely murder an innocent family in Yemen while they are celebrating a wedding16,17.
How has the US come to this? As King said, “We again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” It happened in Vietnam when the US government refused to recognize Vietnamese independence in 1945, and instead supported France’s attempt to regain control of their former colony. In 2001, the US refused to continue talks with Kabul, despite an offer made by Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Haji Abdul Kabir, to turn over Osama bin Laden, who had been blamed for the deaths of nearly 3,000 US citizens on September 11th, 200118,19. Kabir, 8 days into the US bombing campaign of Afghanistan, publicly stated that “if the Taliban is given evidence that Osama bin Laden is involved” and the bombing campaign stopped, “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country.” Kabir’s offer was ignored by the US government, and Afghanistan was invaded on October 7th, 2001 under Operation Enduring Freedom.
Similarly, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was due to Western arrogance. Triggered by concerns in the international community about chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs in Iraq in the 1990’s, the Iraqi government agreed to be inspected by UN weapons inspection teams to verify that they were complying with a weapons ban imposed by the UN Security Council. From late 2002 to early 2003, a UN weapons investigation team inspected more than 500 sites and found no evidence that Iraq had any ongoing programs for producing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons20. While evidence discovered by the investigators made them suspicious that chemical and biological weapons may have remained in the Iraqi military stockpiles, as well as inconsistencies in the destruction records of chemical and biological arms reported by the Iraqi government, there was no evidence that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program21. Despite their inspection being incomplete and pleas for more time, the inspectors were forced out of Iraq by the US on March 18th, 2003, and the US invaded Iraq the next day. The US government’s public rationale for the invasion was founded on lies that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, further bolstered by the repetition of those lies by the media22. No evidence of the alleged on-going weapons programs were found. There were some chemical weapons what were reportedly recovered by the CIA, but they originated from the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980’s, and in most cases were severely degraded and leaking; hardly suitable for use as munitions23.
One aspect of King’s speech is alarmingly relevant today, perhaps even more-so than in 1967. “What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?”
In the Vietnam War, the US had fielded a number of new weapons of all sorts: rifles, tanks, flamethrowers, artillery, gunship aircraft, bombers, fighters, attack helicopters, cluster munitions, the BLU-82 “daisy cutter” bomb, as well as the herbicide-turned-chemical warfare agent Agent Orange24. Today, the legacy of testing the US’s new weapons on foreign soil continues. Drone aircraft, flown over the Middle East by pilots sitting in an office building in Nevada, are capable of launching missiles at people who have been identified as threats by surveillance drones, aircraft and satellites based upon their perceived gender, age, cell phone number, or any number of classified “signals intelligence” indicators25. Depleted Uranium rounds fired from close air support aircraft create toxic dust and suspected long-term biological effects26. Napalm has been used in both Vietnam and Iraq. White phosphorus munitions have been fired at people intentionally in so-called “shake and bake” missions, turning the use of white phosphorus from a conventional munition which is used to light the battlefield at night into a chemical munition when used directly on people, causing severe chemical burns27. Defense contractors continue to spend over $150 billion per year to develop new aircraft, ships and ground equipment which are faster, quieter and stealthier, with the ultimate goal of killing more people with greater precision while reducing the risk to US personnel28. One weapon that is waiting for an excuse to be used, which very well may present itself in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, or against some other foreign country’s citizens is the GBU-43/B Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB or Mother of All Bombs), which was the most powerful non-nuclear weapon when it was designed in 200229. [Edit: One week after this article was written, the US did indeed use the MOAB in Afghanistan.30] Even more devastating bombs are likely to be under development today. Placed in the context of the current US military spending and the recent announcement by President Trump to request an additional $54 Billion for the military budget, the development of improved methods of killing by for-profit corporations who develop such capabilities with the US taxpayer’s hard-earned money, just as 50 years ago, will continue unabated and will likely increase31.
But these wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and so many other places, are “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
When we place the powers of corporations above those of people, as we have done with the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision to destroy campaign finance laws, we allow money to control the government32. When multi-national corporations can hold the government hostage by sheltering tax dollars in legal tax havens, the government has no choice but to cut social services33. When the corporations with the deepest pockets are the same ones that have control over our safety and security, such as the defense contracting industry, private mercenary companies and private prisons, it creates a financial incentive for the government to continue contracting out those efforts that should instead be reformed, and a financial incentive for those corporations to continue to grow their revenue by securing ever-larger contracts, at the cost of tax dollars that are needed to support the poor, hungry, cold and ill34. Perhaps the clearest example of the plight imposed upon a community by prioritizing militarization and profits over humanity is in Indian Country. Wyoming’s Northern Arapaho reservation has just 230 homes for its 11,000 members, with 55% of the reservation’s population being homeless35. The Navajo Nation, partly in my home state of New Mexico as well as Arizona, Utah and Colorado, has approximately 18,000 homes which lack running water or electricity. Ironically, these politically-discarded communities are displayed as examples of heroism and bravery by the US government36. Native Americans, as a community, perennially enlist in the military in the highest per-capita percentages of any ethnic group37,38. Despite their proud service, they return to communities of poverty, homelessness and disease, and are forgotten by the government once they are no longer valuable to the military-industrial complex39,40.
A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” That time has now come in the US government’s involvement in military actions worldwide, especially those focused on Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa.
We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible… Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
If we are to bring our government to account, and lead with values of peace and non-militarization, we must be willing to resist despite the fervor of the government, the propaganda it feeds to our society, and the events of the day which intend to distract us from its long-term path. We must also listen intently to those that are in power in order to understand them, as well as introspect deeply within ourselves and our communities in order to identify our strengths and weaknesses, and to become stronger and more united. This is especially important if we find ourselves in a time of turmoil, such as following a terrorist attack or a serious political scandal. As in 1967, vigilance and presence of mind remains critical today. “Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence? Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view, we may indeed see the basic weakness of our own condition, and if we mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
We do not know what tomorrow, next year or our next decade will bring, but we must continue to nonviolently protest, speak truth about power to the powerless, and hold power to account.
We are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.
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2. Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV). Available at: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_clergy_and_laymen_concerned_about_vietnam_calcav/. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)
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5. Harvard Kennedy School – Linda Bilmes on the U.S. Engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan: ‘The Most Expensive Wars in U.S. History’. Available at: https://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/articles/bilmes-iraq-afghan-war-cost-wp. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)
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7. Judge orders Cleveland, Mississippi, schools to desegregate – CNN.com. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/17/us/cleveland-mississippi-school-desegregation/index.html. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)
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35. America’s forgotten crisis: over 50% of one Native American tribe are homeless | Julian Brave NoiseCat | Opinion | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/06/americas-forgotten-crisis-50-percent-native-american-tribe-homeless. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)
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39. Disparities | Fact Sheets. Available at: https://www.ihs.gov/newsroom/factsheets/disparities/. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)
40. 5 Ways The Government Keeps Native Americans In Poverty. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/03/13/5-ways-the-government-keeps-native-americans-in-poverty/#6c3faf8d2c27. (Accessed: 6th April 2017)