Martin Luther King on War
By Tyler Boudreau, January 17, 2008
As most know, and as he said himself, speaking out against the war in Vietnam was for Martin Luther King, a breakthrough. It’s not that he wasn’t aware of war’s immorality prior to that point, but that he was concerned that his speaking out against the war might jeopardize the civil rights movement in which he was a part and a leader.
In other words, he feared he might lose the support of those who he’d struggled so deeply to gather by broadening his stance, by speaking true to his conscience. So he compromised. And I’m not talking about the good kind of compromise, the cooperating with your fellow human-being kind of compromise. I’m talking about the kind of compromise that dissolves the essence of your self.
He felt the dissolution. And finally, he came to a point where he could no longer watch his soul torn apart, because after all, it was the human soul that Martin Luther King most vigorously pursued—the soul, complete and true. And he stood up and he said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
I know something about compromise myself. Compromise is a definitive element of any large institution such as a the military. The instincts and proclivities of an institution so often run counter to the individuals that make it up, and so often run counter to any common sense at all, that its members are left shaking their heads in bewilderment.
Like the day my unit flew to Iraq, and we had to turn in our cuticle scissors at the security gate as we boarded the plane with automatic rifles and machine guns slung over our shoulders. But we shrugged and smiled and tossed our scissors in a box and we moved on. In that case, only scissors were lost. In many others, however, we lost much more.
I went to war on the notion that we, the United States military, were going to do good for the Iraqi people, that we were going to help. And so when we rendered more misery than relief, when I saw my own head and hands playing into all the killing, I felt distinctly saddened. Yet I did nothing. I said nothing. I pressed on with the fight. Why?
I made a deal with myself. I compromised. “Hang in there boy,” I urged myself. “Hang in there until you can take command, until you’re in control. Then you’ll do it better. Then you’ll make good on your word.” I don’t know an officer in any outfit, in any clime or place, who hasn’t made that same promise many times throughout his or her life.
There are a few careerists out there, running around in hot pursuit of individual glory, but in my experience, most officers wanted deeply to do the right thing. And I thought earnestly that through those harmless compromises that popped up incidentally here and there, I could mitigate any harm done by doing some real good.
In Iraq, it was no different. I’ll make good, I told myself. But I never did. I let all those gray episodes of lethality whither into the silence. Our silence. My silence. Iraqi men were shot for walking outside past curfews we imposed. Others were shot for skulking in the darkness near roads we patrolled. And still others were shot for driving their cars near checkpoints we established.
None of them were armed. But they “could have been the enemy” we reasoned. And so I wrote down in our operations log that they were. That is how they will go down in history—as the enemy. That’s how they’ll be remembered.
When I finally took command of my own rifle company, I was happy and proud. And I was gloomy at the same time. It finally struck me that one cannot compromise one’s morality in a bargain today to achieve some greater morality on some later date. It doesn’t work. So I resigned. And from that point forward I vowed never to compromise what I believed in.
That is why I now say no, in response to those who suggest I should vote for this popular candidate, or that one, because they are the only ones who have any chance of winning. No, I say, to them. No, I will not vote for a candidate just to be on the winning side. I’ve done that before and it pays no dividends to the conscience. I will vote as I believe, and in doing so I will be complete and true to myself—even in losing.
That, I think, is what Martin Luther King was saying on April 4, 1967. That is what he meant when he said, “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. But we must move on.”
That is the legacy Martin Luther King left behind. And I am proudest now to help carry it on.