From Vietnam to Syria
By Whitman Neruda, written Nov 23, 2016
I first became aware of the Vietnam War as a boy on the brink of adolescence in 1965. Now, fifty-two years later, yet another even wider conflagration of war engulfs the Mid-East because of American racism and greed. War, either overt or covert, has never ceased in my lifetime.
When I think of the madness of more than 5 years of war in Syria, my mind goes to that image of the shell-shocked 4 year old boy covered in dust and sitting in the back of an ambulance. Or the image of the toddler washed up on the shore, face down and drowned, in a failed attempt to escape the holocaust of war with family and neighbors. As in Vietnam, we are destroying the cherished institutions of family and village/town life with airstrikes and drones not just in Syria but throughout the Mid-East either directly or through our support of “allies” and dictatorial regimes. As in Vietnam, and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Now there is little to build on, save bitterness.”
No one in my lifetime, none of our so-called leaders, has ever spoken out against the evils of war more eloquently than Dr. King. “We are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.” His speech, Beyond Vietnam, given in the spring of 1967 in New York, stands as the moral calculus of peace and justice work. He had reached the point where he realized silence is betrayal, that the war, though far from his original focus on civil rights, had to be ended.
“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
He quoted a message from the Buddhist leaders in Vietnam: “’Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.’” Today, as in Vietnam, we are experiencing the same psychological and political defeats we suffered in the 60’s and 70’s all over again in this futile war on terrorism which is, let’s be honest, as the Bush administration envisioned it, a war on Arabs and Muslims.
“God didn’t call on America to engage in a senseless, unjust war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that War. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any other nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and arrogance as a nation.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“To pursue endless war is to worship the god of hate and bow before the altar of retaliation.”
“How can they [America’s enemies] trust us when we… charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions.”
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy…”
Pride and arrogance. We, as a people, continually struggle to bring an end to the perpetual wars of predatory capitalism because of our history (long before 9/11) of carefully crafted arrogance and pride, most recently stoked, crudely and bluntly, by the Trump campaign.
It was one of our most combative presidents, Harry Truman, who shifted the idea of the military as protectors of our borders to, under his Truman Doctrine, the military as instrument of policy sent all over the world to enforce that policy which, then, was conceived as stopping communism because of its resistance to the spread of capitalist globalization. I bring this up not to defend the atrocities committed in communist countries but to point out the consequences of the dangerous fallacies of male demagogues on all sides who advocate force and violence, suppression of rights (absurdly) in the name of freedom.
Greed and racism have always been the twin engines driving US imperialism and, in recent history, since the launch of the War on Drugs in the 70’s, militarization of American police departments which invade and destroy the homes of poor people of color in ghettos and barrios across the nation. The manufacturing and selling of weapons is a Monster industry. According to WorldBeyondWar.org, 79% of weapons transferred to Middle Eastern governments come from the US. This fact comes from the U.S. government itself but doesn’t track how many of these weapons are transferred into the hands of groups like ISIS.
The fact is too many Americans are profiting from the slaughter of innocents from the corporations that manufacture weapons to the ones that sell sunblock for the troops in blazing deserts.
“If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”
Given the tragic farce of the recent presidential campaign where alternatives to war, violence and militarism were never acknowledged much less discussed by media nor a part of their questions in the debates, it is clear the government has no honorable intentions in the Mid-East just as it didn’t in Vietnam. The culture and political establishment may not have matured over the last 50 years but the peace movement has; thousands of advocates, activists, and supporters, people of humanitarian instinct, have found the strength to be courageous and break silence, to admit we have been wrong for far too long, provoking mortal enmity among (to quote from a Global Research article by Dr. Gary G. Kohls) “the billions of disrespected victims in every region of the world where our corporate resource extractors have landed the troops and propagandists to make the world ‘safe for predatory capitalism’.”
Dr. King asked 50 years ago, What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them? The question is burning and relevant today. Our current “defense budget” is reaching the $700 billion mark annually and drones are the latest hi-tech weapon used in the Mid-East, an imprecise weapon resulting in hundreds of innocent victims with each strike.
The time has come to challenge the obscene idea of a “just war” and to speak of a just peace that transcends pacifism, that is composed of “millions of intricate moves” as the poet William Stafford said of making justice. A wave of community actions and policy demands that are transformative in nature: scaled up trauma healing, restorative justice, unarmed civilian protection, non-violent resistance, humanitarian assistance, an embargo on the flow of weapons to anywhere in the world, for starters.
We must organize for peace and justice with confidence yet caution because, as Maya Angelou once pointed out, processing pain without perpetuating pain is rough business. We are entering a new era where grace and grit, measured, insightful communication, will be required of us.
The courage of Dr. King needs to be honored by emulation because what he perceived as true then—that growing capitalism requires violent racism on an international scale—is stark, bitter fact now.
If not us, who? If not now, when?