Terri Moon Cronk, a reporter for the Armed Forces Press Service, has a story currently in major front page rotation at the Department of Defense website about a speech given by DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson that is appalling to anyone who has read or heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence” speech.

[Update: The DOD front page is still featuring the MLK observance ceremony, but they scrubbed Cronk's story from the highlight box, though it is still available at the direct link.]

From the DOD story:

If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he understand why the United States is at war?

Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel, posed that question at today’s Pentagon commemoration of King’s legacy.

In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack,” he said.

Let’s wind back the clock, shall we?

In his April 1967 speech (both text and audio at the link above), King makes it clear that the war being fought in his day and the world in his day was anything but simple. He lays out seven reasons why he was speaking out in opposition to the war, and first on the list was this: war saps the resources and the will of the nation to address glaring issues and needs at home.

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.

Second, and related to the first, is the toll of the war on those communities who are supplying the troops to fight the war:

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.

Yes, we have a volunteer force now as opposed to a military built around the draft as we did then, but the economic forces today are just as powerful as they were in the 1960s. Then, the rich had ways of avoiding the draft, while the poor did not. Today, the rich have options in difficult economic times that the poor do not. To a poor young person looking unsuccessfully for a job, that military recruiter’s pitch sounds more and more attractive. The Great Recession seems to have solved the military recruitment problems rather nicely. As John McCutcheon’s song about World War I put it, “the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame.” True about the Great War, true about Vietnam, and still true about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then there’s King’s commitment to non-violence and his own intellectual consistency.

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

King was very blunt: how can I preach non-violence and accept the violence of my own government? Call me crazy, but I don’t think today’s wars with their drone strikes, indefinite detentions without appeal, and government sanctioned torture (called such by everyone but our own government) would induce King to make an exception to his commitment to non-violence.

Then there’s that whole Nobel Peace Prize thing:

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.”

Moving on to specifics of the Vietnam war, King continues:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators.

Substitute out the Vietnam references and replace them with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the corruption of the Karzai government, the massive “embassy” in Iraq, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and King’s language continues to speak very clearly and appropriately. Going on, King asks some rather pointed questions himself:

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out 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? . . .

Gosh, that sounds like it might fit today’s wars, too. King speaks eloquently about the double standards of those who tried to justify Vietnam without applying those standards to themselves:

Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. . . . How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and 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. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts. . .

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 weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

Maturity. What a novel idea.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

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 of the — 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.

This does not sound like a man unfamiliar with war — and not just the war of his generation.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala — Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan fit nicely into that list.

As the Pentagon tries to twist King’s legacy to their own ends, it seems they only serve to demonstrate the wisdom of King’s words. We are indeed beset by “a far deeper malady,” to which the Pentagon apparently continues to turn a blind eye.

Here’s a link to the full text of Jeh Johnson’s speech, the relevant portion of which is this:

People like to speculate about what Dr. King would believe and say if he were alive today.

I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.

To our individual servicemen and women who wonder whether their mission is consistent with Martin Luther King’s own message and beliefs, I refer you again to his very last speech in Memphis, the night before he died.

In it Dr. King talked about Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan on the dangerous road to Jericho.  With great effect Dr. King drew a parallel between the priest and the Levite who passed by the man on the road to Jericho, beaten and robbed and in need of aid, and failed to help him, and those in Memphis in April 1968 who hesitated to help the striking sanitation workers because they feared for their own jobs, for their own comfortable positions in the Memphis community.

He criticized those who are “compassionate by proxy,” and said to those in the audience in Memphis that night “The question is not, if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?  The question is, if I do not stop the sanitation workers, what will happen to them.”

In 2011, I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes.  Those in today’s volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road, and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people.  Every day our servicemen and women practice that “dangerous unselfishness” Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968.

In accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our President recognized that, in response to an unprovoked terrorist attack, war is inevitable to secure peace, and that the role of the military is to keep peace.

Fine words, but not supported by my reading of King. There was no asterisk next to King’s words about non-violence, and no footnote to his condemnation of war as a vehicle for social change.

Let me close with one last excerpt — one that picks up the image of the parable of the Good Samaritan to which Jeh Johnson referred:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Our policies in Iraq and much of that region are not designed to transform the Jericho Road, but to make it safe for the corporate powers to travel. We did not build a mammoth embassy in Iraq to transform the place, but to guard our ability to exploit it. Whether napalm or drones, the message of King does not change: this way of settling differences is not just.

And the DOD attempting to say otherwise is offensive as hell.