In 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church called “Beyond Vietnam,” where he declared that his conscience would not allow him to remain silent on the question of Vietnam, on the horrors of war, on the threat of violence to our existence. In this speech he pointed out the irony that young men of color were welcomed to join the military in order to burn villages and kill the people of Vietnam in the name of a democracy and of freedoms not yet granted to them in the country for which they fought. They could kill and wreak havoc side by side with white Americans in combat abroad, but they could not sit by one another in the same school or eat together at the same restaurant back home.
Step Toward Justice?
I could not help but be reminded of this speech when a colleague suggested that the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” legislation showed that, again in King’s words, “the arc of the universe bends toward justice.” But this colleague left out the most important word in that sentence: “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” What is “moral” about war? War is and will always be immoral because it demands of us to violate the first principle of moral conduct: thou shalt not kill. And while it is moral and right to stand firmly for conscience, which the lesbian and gay community achieves by not hiding their sexual identity, preferring to be open about whom they love, it is the moral right of no one to wage war and to kill.
Members of the lesbian and gay communities, this legislation is not a step toward justice. Marriage would be justice. Ensuring funding to eradicate anti-gay or anti-lesbian hate-crimes would be justice. Serving in the military openly? Sure, it is a victory. It was fought for, tooth and nail and won. It represents a new generation for whom sexual identity is, politically, a non-issue. It could even possibly chip away at the war system from within if one is apt to believe that homophobia breeds militarism. But, please, friends, do not call it justice. Remembering King once more, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and drone attacks on Pakistani villages carried out by U.S. service men and women – regardless of their sexual identity – is and can never be justice – never. We are not thinking only of the victims on the receiving end of this violence: as David Swanson recently wrote in his superb War is a Lie, those “who survive war are far more likely now to have been trained and conditioned to do things they cannot live with having done.”
Broader Context of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell
On the other hand, we stand to learn something from the successful campaign to end sexual discrimination in the military, precisely by being aware of this deep contradiction, by realizing that this victory in the matter of sexual identity was purchased at the cost of a much greater sacrifice; the matter of conscience about war. Don’t ask about the families of the people in Afghanistan. Don’t ask if they love life or have children the age of your children. Don’t ask if they may have the capacity to love even the ones who have bombed their village. Don’t tell that you question the motives of the government who sent you abroad to wage war. Don’t tell that you are scared to death. Don’t tell that you have nightmares. Don’t tell that you think of committing suicide upon returning home if not before. Don’t tell that you are lost, isolated. Because asking and telling such facts opens up the possibility of ending a military career — and in time, who knows, ending militarism itself through the power of truth.
Violence is the weakest possible force for change we have available to us, and the most destructive to those who use it. It does not take a strong person to use violence, nor does it leave one stronger for using it. Don’t tell anyone about this…
Dr. King said that we have a choice: nonviolence or nonexistence. Only a person who has understood nonviolence would be willing to give up their career for conscience; to render service to a country by building up and not tearing down, to make a lasting contribution to the whole of justice, not only what feels like a kind of justice for oneself.
It has often been our observation that we of a progressive persuasion can be easily fooled by our relatively narrow focus on equality for one or another group, forgetting the question of equality for all. Poor people can step up economically by being conditioned to kill for the state; now lesbians and gays can emerge from a social shadow (and we do not minimize the value of this) by undergoing a far deeper kind of dehumanization. These are Pyrrhic victories. Let us not rejoice until we have won the only kind of victory that endures: the victory of everyone over the violence that hurts us all. Φ
Michael Nagler is the President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. Stephanie Van Hook is Co-Director.