As we approach the April 4 anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech in New York City’s Riverside Church, the War Resisters League reiterates King’s urgent cry for nonviolence—and nonviolent resistance. The parallels between the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. war against Vietnam fill us with foreboding. While we adamantly oppose continued U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we also call upon people of conscience to think beyond Afghanistan and challenge, as King did, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
Others have laid out reasons—from Afghanistan’s topography to the U.S. economic crisis—that would make an expanded war in Afghanistan “unwinnable.” But WRL does not base our opposition on such arguments. While they may be correct, we challenge the very idea of a “winnable” war and oppose this one as we oppose all war: not solely for practical and strategic reasons, but because of our, and King’s, decades-long commitment to nonviolence.
Purveyor of Violence
Much has changed in the 40-plus years since King made that speech, yet the United States remains, as he named it then, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” WRL stands, as he did, against that violence, which is not only wrong in itself, but cures nothing and rebounds on its perpetrators.
King declared that the people of Vietnam “must see Americans as strange liberators.” The assessment applies today to the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has lost more than two million civilian lives to war in the last 30 years alone, and the toll is rising again, in a dreadful example of the ways in which violence boomerangs and warfare begets only devastation and more warfare (including attacks by groups like Al Qaeda). For centuries that battered land has been subject to imperial aggression and intervention. The Taliban rose to power with the support of the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services, intervening against the USSR’s invasion. Today, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is destroyed. Each year, pregnancy and childbirth kill 25,000 women, and diarrhea kills 85,000 children. Landmines planted in turn by troops of the Soviet Union, the Northern Alliance, and the Taliban kill 600 people per year and maim so many that manufacturing artificial limbs is a major industry. The infamous U.S. “detention center” at Bagram continues to hold more prisoners than Guantánamo. Rather than bombing and shelling Afghanistan—and maintaining a prison there—the United States could promote economic development, public health, education, food security, women’s empowerment, and de-mining efforts.
The Enemy of the Poor
War wreaks its devastation within our own country as well. In this period of increased global instability and recession, the world is undergoing a tectonic shift in its assumptions about the institutions of capitalism. That re-evaluation must include its assumptions about the institution of war.
“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,” King said in 1967. Substitute “Iraq and Afghanistan” for Vietnam, and the sentence is equally, terribly true today.
Here as abroad, war remains, as King called it, the “enemy of the poor.” While the Pentagon pours billions of tax dollars into implements of destruction and rains down bombs on poor civilians in Afghanistan, our own infrastructure crumbles, and our own people are struggling without decent schools, healthcare, and employment. The funds that we need to provide housing and care at home end up diverted into killing people thousands of miles away, and people of color, immigrants, and lower-income whites are targeted by military recruiters to do the killing. Massive bailouts line the pockets of bankers, unemployment skyrockets, and military recruiters are having the easiest time meeting their quotas in years.
Nonviolence in Afghanistan and at Home
Despite the monumental obstacles they face, many in Afghanistan and Pakistan are working nonviolently for peace and to repair the ravages of war and warmaking. In Afghanistan, Parliamentarian Malalai Joya—despite illegal suspension from Parliament and assassination attempts—has continued to denounce the warlords and call for human rights, women’s rights, and governmental accountability. Thousands of peace advocates in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan have met in the assemblies called jirgas to imagine and formulate peace and reconstruction initiatives. The lawyers’ campaign in Pakistan has mobilized thousands, despite beatings and arrests, to reverse the military’s control over the courts. Others are building schools and countering the bitter legacy of violence against women. U.S. peace advocates should be promoting and publicizing these nonviolent actions to rebuild Afghan and Pakistani society in the midst of war, devastation, warlordism, and patriarchal control.
In our own country as well, there are increasingly loud voices against war and for a reordering of our priorities—for affordable housing, universal healthcare, gender justice, disability rights, clean energy, quality education, restorative justice, fair food, and an anti-racist society. Among these allies are newcomers to the United States, people who have survived and resisted wars and challenged immigration policies that facilitate the extraction of profits from cheap labor, even while being criminalized, imprisoned, deported, and denied citizenship. Some of those most forsaken by the U.S. government have continued to build organizations and networks for those with no safety net.
The War Resisters League urges everyone to join us in organizing, protesting, and demanding the closing of Bagram prison (and all such “detention centers”) and an end to military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan and across the globe. Organize against military recruitment—the military is preying on those most affected by the battered economy. Support the voices and actions of the survivors of war. Listen to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; create space for their heartbreaking stories of remorse and harrowing accounts of the worst kinds of violence and dehumanization. Stop funding war—become a war tax resister. Instead of paying to train men and women to kill, foster ways to help all of us rebuild our communities.
The so-called “war on terrorism,” with its occupations and detentions, its torture and carnage, has failed because military action can never lead to security. We don’t have easy answers, but we know that the cycle of violence has to end, and we have to help end it. While thousands of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan are finding the courage to risk their lives to work for nonviolent solutions, we have a responsibility to lift our voices. We must reject the notions of good wars and bad wars, legal or illegal wars, winnable and unwinnable wars. We must decide whether our identity as a nation will be based on a culture of cultivating life or dealing death. As King declared, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. ... We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Together, let’s choose the path of nonviolence.
For suggestions for actions opposing war in Afghanistan, see United for Peace and Justice, the antiwar coalition to which WRL belongs, www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=4044.