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King, Ike, and 20 Years of War in Iraq

Andrew Fiala

This year, two significant anniversaries occur on Martin Luther King Day. On January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower delivered his Farewell Address, warning about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. And on January 17, 1991, American forces unleashed the first massive air assaults against Iraq. The fact that we have been fighting with Iraq for twenty years-and in Afghanistan for nearly ten-reminds us of King's warnings about the dangers of militarism.

When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he said that war was becoming obsolete. And he argued that mankind's survival depended upon solving the problems of racial injustice, poverty, and war. In 1967, when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, King said, "war is not the answer." And he warned that the deep malady of the American spirit is our perverse devotion to what he called the "giant triplets" of "racism, extreme materialism, and militarism."

In his Nobel Prize speech, King called for an ecumenical spiritual revolution grounded in love. He claimed that love is a force that "all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life." According to King this is a "Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality." Love is opposed to racism, to poverty, and to war.

King put it this way: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." But today nearly half of the federal budget is devoted to military spending, while we grapple with massive deficits and unemployment rates that are double what they were during the 1960's.

After twenty years of no-fly zones and shock and awe in Iraq, this war may soon come to an end. But at what cost? Over a million Iraqis have died from the combined result of war, terrorism, and the sanctions imposed during the 1990's. Thousands of American soldiers have died and many more have been permanently disabled. The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that the total cost of the war in Iraq will amount to several trillion dollars.

Unfortunately, Iraq remains unstable. Our commitment in Afghanistan will extend at least until 2014. We are planning military raids on Iran. And we still have yet to solve the problem of terrorism. We are on a permanent war footing: a generation of Americans has grown up without ever knowing a nation at peace. Far from becoming obsolete, war has become a permanent part of our national economy. And we pay for it by borrowing from the future.

King was not the first to note that military power and economics are connected. George Washington insisted that we avoid war if possible and especially avoid creating debt to pay for war, so that we do not "ungenerously throw upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear." And Eisenhower warned about the power of the "permanent armaments industry" and the "military establishment." War erodes our liberties, burdens us with debt, and builds up the strength of the military-industrial complex.

As we commemorate King's compassion and wisdom, we should reflect on the question of whether we have made progress toward King' vision. Although there is still a long way to go, we have made significant progress in dealing with racism. But militarism is a more insidious danger because very few are willing to speak out against it. Martin Luther King Day is perhaps the only day in which such a message can be heard: a message of love, hope, and peace.

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Ethics Center at Fresno State.  He is the author of Public War, Private Conscience (Continuum, 2010).

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