Would Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. have countenanced the use of force against ISIS?
Today we honor a true hero of American history, civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my mind, his “I Have a Dream” speech is the one of the most inspirational pieces of oratory I’ve ever heard. I also think his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to achieve civil rights was the right strategy at the time. But would he have nevertheless countenanced the use of force against the Islamic State (ISIS)? We’ll never know, but I think the answer is “yes.”
Stanford University researchers suggest that King’s views did not extend to absolute pacifism “on the grounds that it ignores the essentially sinful side of human nature and the need for coercion to avoid anarchy.” Historian David Chappell wrote in the Washington Post last year that:
King rebelled against the pacifist attitudes that so many liberal Christians in his day embraced. To King, conventional pacifism required too much faith in human goodness. King believed that pacifists’ moral purity also imbued their cause with a self-righteousness that alienated the ordinary masses that he identified with. Pacifists refused to acknowledge the moral dilemmas that ordinary people faced: Force was often necessary, for example, to free slaves, defend the defenseless or halt the expansion of mass-murdering regimes.
King himself was very much a man of his times, and said this in 1960 in the midst of the Cold War:
I felt that while war could never be a positive or absolute good, it could serve as a negative good in the sense of preventing the spread and growth of an evil force. War, I felt, horrible as it is, might be preferable to surrender to a totalitarian system. But more and more I have come to the conclusion that the potential destructiveness of modern weapons of war totally rules out the possibility of war ever serving again as a negative good. If we assume that mankind has a right to survive then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.
So it seems that King’s view on nonviolence was premised on the notion that war inevitably would result in a nuclear exchange that “nobody can win” – not on the use of force that could, indeed, stop the killing of innocents without the risk of annihilation of the human race.
King did address conflicts short of nuclear war. In his famous 1967 speech declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War, he offered specific objections based on particular facts, not so much on some generalized view that all of war of any kind was unacceptable. Indeed, part of what he relied upon later proved to be inaccurate. For example, he said that the Vietnam War 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 were 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 and East Harlem.
Clearly, King based his anti-Vietnam War position at least in part on what the facts may have shown in 1967. That data, however, changed by the end of the war. The National Archives figures show that both blacks (7,243 deaths or 12.4% of the total) and whites (49,830 deaths or 85.5% of the total) suffered casualties in Vietnam at rates the Pew Research Center indicates were slightly above their respective proportions of the U.S. population at the time. The point is that by the end of the war blacks did not “fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative” to their white comrades-in-arms.
Still, were people “taken” and sent to Vietnam? It is true that draftees were sent to Vietnam, but they amounted to only about 30% of those who served there; likewise, draftees were not disproportionately pushed into combat duties as the facts show that approximately 70% of the casualties were actually volunteers, not draftees. African-Americans comprised about 11% of those who served in Vietnam, about the same percentage they were of the U.S. population at the time.
The casualty ratios that seemed to rouse King so much in 1967 are not reflected in current data. A September 2018 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report shows that minorities – to include African Americans – do not suffer causalities in our post-9/11 conflicts at a higher rate than the portion in the population would suggest. Whites represent 76.6% of the U.S. population, but CRS shows that in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) they suffered 1,997 of 2,347 deaths (85%), and in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 3,640 of 4,410 deaths or 82%. With respect specifically to the conflict against ISIS (Operation Inherent Resolve), whites comprised 53 of the 67 troops (79%) who have died (as of Aug. 29, 2018).
Nor are the poor bearing a disproportionate burden in current wars. As I’ve said elsewhere, a 2017 CRS report concludes that “recent data indicate that a majority of recruits come from middle-income families.” In fact, today “recruits from the bottom quintile of households (lower-income) are generally underrepresented in the military, with the exception of the Army” (and the upper quintile is also underrepresented).
King was also concerned about the fiscal resources the Vietnam War was costing, but defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product “has declined by over 50 percent since the peak during the Vietnam War.”
Additionally, during the Vietnam War there were certainly racial tensions and, tragically, they became more exacerbated after King’s death. Yes, there are still racial issues in the military (though less so than elsewhere in American society), but by no means are they as aggravated as they were during Vietnam. As one commentator pointed out recently:
The military is integrated; it was the first place in the United States where blacks routinely commanded whites and it built the first integrated Southern schools in the late 1940s. The safest place in the United States for an African-American teen outside the home alone at night is probably on a military base.
In short, the social justice issues related to the military that so animated King when he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s have markedly lessened in the last half century. That is not to suggest, however, that were he alive today King would be embracing a hawkish foreign policy. To the contrary, I believe he would still be a powerful exponent of nonviolence, and a staunch critique of many military actions.
But I also don’t think that he would necessarily oppose the use of force in each and every situation, including against a vicious adversary like ISIS. King was a very great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but Gandhi – like King – pursued their nonviolent strategies in societies which, for all their many faults and injustices, never permitted in post-World War II era the systematic savagery that ISIS has perpetuated in the 21st century.
ISIS simply is not, and ideologically cannot be, amenable to the nonviolent techniques that Gandhi and King used so successfully to awaken the consciences of the British and American publics of the 1950s and 60s. (Author Harry Turtledove once wrote a sobering alternative history of what would have happened had the Nazis successfully invaded India during World War II, and Gandhi tried his nonviolent tactics on them.) Even advocates of nonviolence seem to recognize that “it is unlikely that core members of ISIS’s punishment brigades will succumb to civic pressure.”
My view is that King was very much a realist, and would have understood that there are circumstances where force must be used. Even while he might fervently advocate nonviolent techniques to address the ISIS threat, King would not, in my opinion, forswear violence against ISIS as one element of a larger solution. I believe he would have been repulsed by ISIS’ sex slavery, brutality against Christians, and their “acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale.” I don’t think he would stand-by and abjure the use of force as a near-term counter to ISIS evil.
Still, as we like to say at Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!