Why Dr. King Would Break the Silence on Afghanistan

05/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • ZP Heller Director of Digital Communications, PAFA

This week, my Get Afghanistan Right colleagues and I want you to flash back to 1967, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lashed out at the US government over the Vietnam War. We remember Dr. King's speech, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence," not just to raise parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, which are certainly growing with President Obama's mission creep calls for military escalation. Dr. King's speech also illustrates how fighting a Long War abroad grossly depletes our government's wherewithal to handle (and our nation's ability to focus on) a more critical socioeconomic crisis at home.

Speaking at New York's Riverside Church, Dr. King made the connections between the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam for several reasons. He couldn't advocate peaceful solutions to the rampant racial violence in America when our government stood as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." He couldn't ignore the fact that White and Black could die side-by-side on the battlefields of Southeast Asia more easily than they could sit together at a lunch table back home. But the primary reason Dr. King turned his attention to the war was because he saw it undermining President Johnson's ability to fight the "unconditional war on poverty." How could LBJ's poverty program help the destitute at home when our government was channeling so much national attention and so many tax dollars and lives into military escalation abroad?

Here's Dr. King in his own prescient words:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and 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.

Now let's flash forward to the economic problems that persist today. 8 million American homeowners face foreclosure in the coming years, as another family enters foreclosure every 13 seconds. The unemployment rate is at a 25-year high, jumping to 8.5 percent as employers cut payrolls by 663,000 jobs in March alone. Our economy has lost 5.1 million jobs since this recession began in December 2007, and economists predict the hemorrhaging is far from over. Meanwhile, employees who have managed to hang onto their jobs continue to feel the financial crunch, considering 1 of out 5 US workers is uninsured.

Yes, we have come a long, long way from the racial disparities and gross injustices of the Civil Rights era, thanks mainly to Dr. King's tireless efforts. Last year, our nation made history by electing an African American President, one with a brilliant progressive agenda for lifting us out of our current economic turmoil. And yet the Obama administration is jeopardizing the success of its bold plans for economic recovery by squandering hundreds of billions of dollars and all its political capital on the Afghanistan war.

We can't allow this war to become a "demonic destructive suction tube" on our already ailing economy. Military operations in Afghanistan have already cost us $172 billion in taxpayer money, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That price tag could easily exceed half a trillion dollars when you factor in the costs of future occupation and veterans' benefits, and that's before we get into the added costs of military escalation. Instead, we must invest in our own economic recovery and in fixing Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis.

To achieve these goals, it's time to break the silence on Afghanistan. Join over 42,000 people who have signed the petition for congressional oversight hearings that can shed some light on the mounting economic costs of this war, and ensure that the administration and military agencies aren't wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. Follow Peace Action West's lead and contact your representative to oppose military escalation. Then, post your concerns about escalation in diaries at Oxdown Gazette. As Dr. King said, "Somehow this madness must cease...The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours."