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Jeh Johnson’s Full Remarks at Pentagon on Martin Luther King and Afghanistan

Yesterday, Jeh Johnson, General Counsel for the Defense Department, delivered a speech at the Pentagon in commemoration of Martin Luther King day. He was a good choice for the speech. Johnson, like King, graduated from Morehouse College, and at Morehouse he struck up a 35-year relationship with Martin Luther King III. He was active in the early efforts to get a national holiday honoring King.

Therefore, many expressed surprise and disappointment at a story on the DoD website claiming that Johnson made the statement that King today would support the war in Afghanistan. Adam Serwer’s was a typical take:

The short answer is that King was committed to the principle of nonviolence and so would not have supported any war, let alone one most Americans today think is not worth fighting. In fact it seems likely that not only would King not have supported the war in Afghanistan, he would have actively campaigned against it […]

(In Vietnam) King saw a moment for robust social investment, squandered by the need to devote government resources to a lengthy military engagement halfway across the world. Communism was more of an existential threat to the United States than Islamic extremism will ever be — it’s incomprehensible that King would have looked at a near 10 percent unemployment rate, 16 percent for black Americans, and believed that the wisest government investment would be an open-ended engagement devoted to eradicating fewer than a hundred terrorists in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

You’ll get no argument from me there. I am compelled, however, to give the full context of Jeh Johnson’s remarks, which I’ve been able to obtain. Because Johnson clearly understands King’s commitment to peace, which makes the subsequent interpretation so puzzling. After talking about his early history with the King family, Johnson starts with this:

…the most controversial and difficult stand Dr. King took the final year of his life was against the war in Vietnam. Other civil rights leaders urged him to remain silent on the issue, not to alienate President Lyndon Johnson, who had been their best friend on civil rights.

Martin Luther King hated violence. He believed that violence “is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” and that “returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars . . . He also believed “an eye for eye leaves everybody blind.”

So, beginning in April 1967, one year before he died, Dr. King, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned this message into an impassioned plea against the war in Vietnam. Indeed, from that point on he questioned the whole rationale for war in general. From the gospel song “Down by the Riverside,” Dr. King repeated the line: “I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”

That’s completely consistent with Serwer’s take on King, as well as the general biography. There’s no argument there. Terri Moon Cronk, who wrote the article at the DoD website, leaves almost that entire part of the speech out of her story.

But the rest of Cronk’s article is basically correct. Johnson shifted from that accurate biographical sketch to wondering how King would have considered the mission in Afghanistan today. This was his take:

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.

To agree with that, you have to believe that terrorist attacks are somehow imminent without continued intervention in Afghanistan, and I don’t. You have to make a parallel between poor sanitation workers in Memphis and the Afghan people, and you have to ignore things like night raids and airstrikes and all the calamity brought upon the general population in service to what he calls “dangerous unselfishness.” Plus, King accomplished his goals, be it for bus riders in Montgomery or sanitation workers in Memphis, through nonviolent actions, not the work of the US military (or at least not all of it, reconstruction and redevelopment perhaps notwithstanding).

At the end of the speech, Johnson says:

The irony of next Monday is that Mrs. King’s dream of a national holiday for her husband has become a reality; Dr. King’s dream of a world at peace with itself has not.

I don’t agree with Johnson basically at all in his way-too-generous interpretation of King’s words to justify war. I think they’re more tied up in Johnson’s current profession and audience for that speech than anything else. But I thought having the full remarks would at least give the full context.

Here they are.

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David Dayen

David Dayen