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Archive for the ‘Peace History’ Category

Fifty years ago this week, speaking at New York’s famed Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most historic and powerful addresses, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In his remarks Dr. King declared his support for the growing movement against the war in Vietnam and explained why it is necessary to link the struggles against racism, poverty and militarism.

Dr. King was vilified for speaking out against the war. The New York Times, Washington Post and many other newspapers editorialized against him, urging him to stay in his lane and focus on civil rights. An angry President, Lyndon Johnson cut off King’s access to the White House. Leaders of established civil rights organizations groups rebuked him.

Dr. King understood that he would pay a price, but he felt compelled to speak out. He could see that militarism and war abroad were undermining the struggle against poverty and racism at home. He watched the Johnson administration’s antipoverty program “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.” He knew that America would never invest the necessary funds to help the poor as long as the war in Vietnam continued to draw resources “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

Dr. King described the war in Vietnam as “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” an arrogance and indifference to strivings for freedom around the world, a pattern of military interventionism and support for reactionary regimes that suppress justice. He warned that a nation continuously spending more money on the military than on social uplift “is approaching spiritual death.”

Today we face similar challenges. The White House proposes to increase military spending by $54 billion, while slashing spending for social programs at home and reducing U.S. support for development assistance and diplomacy abroad.

The United States remains bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are being sent back to Iraq. American troops are operating in support of foreign forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Our warplanes and drone aircraft are conducting bombing raids across the region.

The President calls for “massively” increasing nuclear weapons capability. Plans are proceeding to spend $100 billion to rebuild hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles—despite the advice of former Defense Secretary William Perry that these weapons can be safely scrapped as an unnecessary and dangerous relic of the cold war.

Like King before us we are called today to break our silence on the madness and folly of a national policy that prioritizes weapons and war, while neglecting those in need here at home and abroad. As we speak out against war and militarism, it is important to remember another lesson from Dr. King, that our dissent is motivated by patriotism—as Dr. King said to an antiwar rally soon after his address at Riverside Church:

I oppose the war in Viet Nam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. … Those of us who love peace must organize as affectively as the war hawks. … We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.

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It was exactly one year ago that more than 800 of us met in Washington DC for the conference “Vietnam the Power of Protest.” Here is a link to the conference program.

It was an exhilarating and inspiring event that brought together some of the most important voices of the Vietnam antiwar movement (Tom Hayden, Cora Weiss, Julian Bond, Dan Ellsberg and many others). The program called attention to the important role of antiwar opposition in bringing the war to an end.

The conference last year marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. escalation of the war and also of the beginning of mass antiwar protest. Preceding the public conference was an academic program sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute and New York University entitled “The Vietnam War Then and Now: Learning the Critical Lessons,” featuring a keynote address by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman.

Many public commemorations of the Vietnam War have occurred and will continue in the years ahead. Most focus on honoring the soldiers who served in the military (I was one of them), but very few acknowledge or pay tribute to the massive social movement that arose against the war. Even fewer events mention that widespread antiwar protest also emerged among many of us who were in the military. That’s how I became interested in and committed to working for peace, as I wrote previously.

Now comes a Congressional Resolution to pay tribute to the antiwar movement, introduced last week in the House of Representatives by that always reliable defender of justice and peace (and speaker at the “Power of Protest” event) Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California. It’s a marvelously succinct and powerful declaration that acknowledges our debt as a nation to the millions of people who took a stand for peace and worked to end an unjust war.

Take a look at the Resolution and urge your member of Congress to become a co-sponsor.

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The Egyptian revolution is being crushed and I grieve for what is being lost. That glorious unarmed uprising that so inspired the world is now being gunned down by the armed forces. I grieve especially for the people of Egypt and the dangers that lie ahead unless something is to done to save the day.

The army’s massacre of dozens of people on July 28 was an unspeakable crime, equivalent to the horrors of the Mubarak era. It will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of infamy. I fear it could be one of those cruel turning points in history, when a gathering tide of lawlessness and instability burst into violence. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The military’s brutality and lies are a grave menace to Egypt’s future. They make the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Morsi government seem mild by comparison. The Muslim Brothers are the main target of attack now, but all of free Egypt is in jeopardy.

Mohammed El Baradei and other liberals have finally criticized the military, but they must go further. I can imagine what Gandhi would say to them. Resign your posts. No one should continue to serve the military regime or follow any of their directives. Mass civil disobedience is the only solution in this emergency, not only in the streets but in pervasive refusal to accept military authority.

The military has gone beyond acceptable moral and legal bounds and must be forced to yield power. The Obama administration should work with the Arab League through the United Nations to support the creation of a broadly representative independent civilian authority in Egypt that guarantees the participation of all social forces, including the Brotherhood. Secular and liberal forces must work with the Brothers and the Salafists to establish an interim government and decide a road map to the future.

The international community should provide help to get such a political process started and must insist that the military turn over authority as soon as it is established. If the army refuses to yield power all U.S. and international assistance for the generals should cease.

Those who say the Muslim Brothers are not prepared or inclined for war do not understand the rage boiling over from the army’s repression. The deadly descending spiral of violence-begetting-violence is beginning, and may soon get out of hand as it did in Syria. Until now the Brothers have been very reluctant to use force, but there is likely a limit to their endurance, as for all people. Arms and materials for making bombs are readily available in the region.

The time to act is now, before it is too late.

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I gave a presentation at Villanova University last week on the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII. I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit what is arguably one of the most important statements on peace with justice ever issued by the Vatican, with insights and exhortations that remain relevant today. Here are a few of the document’s highlights.

Rights. Pope John defines peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in rights, of which the most important is the right to life. John goes beyond the narrow focus on the fetus prevalent today to emphasize what he calls “a worthy standard of living.” Every person “has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life,” including the opportunity to work and earn a just wage (paragraphs 11, 18, 20).

The Common Good. All people and governing authorities have duties to ensure that the means of sustenance are available to all. Unless civil authorities “take suitable action,” inequalities “tend to become more and more widespread.” Governments must therefore develop “essential services,” including “public health,” and see to it “that insurance systems are made available” so that “no person will be without the necessary means to maintain a decent standard of living” (paragraphs 63, 64).

Truth. Pope John calls for the “elimination of racism.” He urges those with power and wealth to “lend mutual assistance” to others. Countries with the greatest levels of development have an “obligation to make a greater contribution to the general development of the people” (paragraphs 86-88).

The Imperative of Disarmament. John notes “with deep sorrow” the “vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources” on armaments, which imposes heavy burdens on the countries affected and deprives other of the “collaboration they need to make economic and social progress.” The encyclical demands that nuclear weapons be banned and that all nations agree on “a fitting program of disarmament” (paragraphs 109, 112).

A Call to Public Action. Pacem in Terris ends with a call for people of good will to “take part in public life” to help others. He identifies “the great tasks of magnanimous men” and women and urges every believer to become a “spark of light,” a “vivifying leaven” to help create a social order founded on truth and justice (paragraphs 163, 164, 167).

It’s a remarkable document that deserves to be read and studied as an enduring guide to public policy and inspiration for personal commitment.

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This past weekend I participated in a pre-concert discussion of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at a performance by the South Bend Symphony Orchestra. At the concert I also accepted a plaque on behalf of the University of Notre Dame for its support of the Symphony. Then I settled into a box seat to listen to a magnificent rendering of Britten’s demanding work under the skilled direction of Maestro Tsung Yeh.

The pre-concert discussion provided an opportunity to reflect upon the meaning of Britten’s masterpiece. The work is a powerful indictment of war. It was commissioned and first performed in 1962 on the occasion of the dedication of the new Coventry Cathedral in England, built alongside the ruins of the historic St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers in November 1940 during a massive raid that also damaged thousands of homes and killed hundreds of residents.

Britten’s libretto is based on the traditional Latin requiem mass, but it also draws extensively from the poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a young British army officer who served in World War I and was killed in action just a week before the armistice was signed in November 1918. Owen wrote vividly realistic and often shocking poems that depicted the true horrors of war. He rejected the propagandistic portrayals of heroic war that were typical of his time (and that are occasionally heard today). His war poetry had enormous influence in the years after World War I and is considered among the finest ever written.

In one of the poems selected by Britten, Owen bleakly recasts the ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac, as the angel of mercy descends to stop Abraham’s sacrifice:

Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not do so
But slew his son
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In choosing Owen’s poetry for his text, Britten memorialized the horrors of both world wars. The Requiem is a tribute to all who were killed and all the great monuments of human creativity like St. Michael’s cathedral that were destroyed in those conflagrations. Britten manages to be respectful of the sacrifices of those who suffered in war while condemning the institution of war itself. His work is an outcry against what Owen called ‘the pity of war,’ a reminder of the destructiveness of modern warfare and its vast toll in lives lost. The Requiem reflects Britten’s deep opposition to war in all its forms, including the threat of nuclear war, which loomed large at the time he was writing this work in the early 1960s.

For the three vocalists in the premier performance, Britten commissioned a tenor from England, a baritone from Germany and a soprano from the Soviet Union. This was a gesture of reconciliation, a statement that all sides suffered in war and could come together through art to voice a common rejection of violence. The enemy is not the people of the other side, he was saying, but the institution of war itself.

Performances of the Requiem are a reminder of the horrors of war but also a plea for peace and reconciliation, for the resolution of jarring disharmonies through the magical beauty of music.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the buildup to the Iraq War exactly ten years ago, and the efforts by so many of us to halt the march to madness. I posted some reflections on Ten Years After Iraq yesterday on the God’s Politics blog at Sojourners.  Click here to read them.

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I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.

Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.

When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.

Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.

Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.

The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.

I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.

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