By far the favorite phrase of commentators remarking upon President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech before the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway today is the notion of a “just war.”
Though he did not attempt to portray the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as “just wars,” it is clear that Obama felt the need to justify his recent decision to send another 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in light of his receipt of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama and his speech writers indeed faced a difficult task in crafting a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech for a “commander-in-chief of the military of a nation in the midst of two wars.” But there is a better way to do it.
As a person who considers herself approximately 88 percent pacifist, it’s hard to determine what is a “just war.” But they do exist. And perhaps the best person to answer that question of when it is just to fight back is a commander of sorts who accepted the very same prize 45 years ago today.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly spoke of the “creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice” when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He did so “mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.”
The civil rights movement was a deployment unlike any other. And King’s mindfulness of the long journey ahead toward peace is one that Obama decided to mimic in his several references to King and his acceptance speech today.
Soundbites aside, it is important for Americans hearing our president talk about “just wars” to remember that King never mentioned the idea of “just racism.”
Today, Obama referred to King’s commitment to nonviolence as something he, as a world leader, doesn’t have the luxury of pursuing. Yet all too often we forget that King had a dream beyond desegregation. He also believed that we can overcome war itself, as he hinted at in Oslo in 1964:
I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.
Obama, on the other hand, reflected the cynicism of today (though he specifically rejects the word in the speech), rather than what King called his “audacious faith in the future of mankind.” Obama insists that war is a natural human state, which is incidentally a pretty grand departure from the archaeological evidence we have to rely upon today (emphasis mine):
War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.
Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence…
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
More offensive than his reference to “just war” were the moments when Obama paid lip service to the idea of rule of law:
Furthermore, America — in fact, no nation — can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified…
And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war…
That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America’s commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions.
But Obama failed to mention the disregard for rule of law shown by the previous administration, as well as his own administration’s failure to correct such disregard. The best illustration of what Obama left out of that section comes from a fiery reaction to the speech from author and activist David Swanson:
Torture was illegal internationally and in the U.S. code of law before Obama became president. He publicly instructed the attorney general of the United States not to enforce those laws. He claimed the power to “rendition” people to other nations where they might be tortured. His CIA director and a top presidential advisor have claimed the president has the power to torture if he chooses to. And President Obama has here claimed the power to prohibit or un-prohibit torture, spitting in the face of the very idea of the rule of law. The prison at Guantanamo is not closed, and moving those prisoners to Illinois or Bagram or any other lawless U.S. prison will not bring the United States into compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Swanson also noted that though the president insisted that “America has never fought a war against a democracy,” we sure have overthrown more than our fair share of other nations’ democratically-elected rulers.
With all this whitewashing of American military history, you shouldn’t be surprised that, while we heard about our great deeds in the Balkans and World War II several times each, Vietnam was never mentioned. Perhaps because that was one of those countries with democratically-elected officials whom we disagreed with in quite the violent fashion.
Now, Vietnam wasn’t in King’s speech either. But instead of studying King’s 1964 acceptance speech as a precursor to his own appearance in Oslo, there is another, lesser-known speech of King’s which Obama would have done well to acquaint himself with.
Carefully archived in full thanks to the BRC-NEWS service, King delivered a speech on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City. At the time, King still remembered and was striving to honor the Nobel Committee, and in doing so, felt the need to speak out against the Vietnam War:
Another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission — a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.
And in that same speech, when he talks about the war’s effect on the people of Vietnam, he could just as easily be talking about those in Afghanistan and Pakistan (emphasis mine):
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy — and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us — not their fellow Vietnamese –the real enemy…
Now there is little left to build on — save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts?
And of the enemy King says this:
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…
And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them — the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
And of our troops:
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 hell for the poor.
The striking parallels to our current conflicts aside, King finished this speech with a call to a “true revolution,” one which would invalidate the spirit of American militarism:
A true revolution of values will lay hands 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 veins of people 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.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
Though he was a few years late with these words, I would venture to say that is the way you accept a Nobel Peace Prize.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS