I remember, as a child, singing Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” alongside my mother as she strummed away at her guitar.
There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
The song’s cultural relevance eluded me as an 8-year-old at the start of a new millennium. I’d known little of the violence at Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965, little of the bloodletting at Kent State in 1970, and little of the numerous domestic conflicts that enlivened the lyrics of, perhaps, the era’s most famous protest song. But I gained context as a 9-year-old in 2001 after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.
It is almost unbelievable how the pall of billowing smoke in New York City and Washington, D.C., extended — even if only metaphorically — to my elementary school classroom in Phoenix. Conversations we’d entertained a day prior —whether to ask out Bekah Gonzalez and how to access games on the library computers — gave way to a tragic, adolescent nativism.
The entirety of my adult life has been consumed by war.
I recall, for example, the heartbreak in overhearing bemoaned arguments by classmates about the intrusion of “sand niggers” into the U.S. and wondering how those uttering the slur could just as soon ask me for help with social studies homework without batting an eye.
From that moment on, the entirety of my adult life has been consumed by war; anticipation of it, recovery from it and resistance against it. Sept. 11 marked an important shift in my perception of war and the tribalism it encourages. Daily, I awake to news of the success or failure of military operations I’d not known existed. I am trained to oblige the massive deployment of men and women — many of them family of mine — in service of defending freedoms abroad that are denied them (and many others) domestically.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to this ever-present hypocrisy in American militarism. His frustrations with the unimpeded defense industry were heightened by the squalor and rancor he witnessed all across the country. His rage and frankness are instructional for our times, when the calls for culture wars — some fought stateside, some fought in foreign lands, but many fought with similar weaponry — are growing in volume.
It was King’s strident pacifism that attracted the most intense government scrutiny he’d experienced, yet his death ― 50 years ago on April 4 ― did not mark the termination of his ideals.
King’s famous speech decrying the Vietnam War in 1967 is chock-full of devastating condemnations that deliver blows to politicians today ― many of whom claim to have been inspired by his words:
“It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.”
It is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only $53 for each person classified as poor, and much of that $53 goes for salaries to people who are not poor.
“There’s something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,” but will curse and damn you when you say, “Be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children.” There’s something wrong with that press!”
What King understood was that pacifism is the most thorough form of anti-racism, because in questioning the military industrial complex, he also questioned its domestic proxies in American law enforcement whose behaviors mimicked those of the tyrannical leaders America claimed to despise.
For this reason, black pacifists of King’s ilk pose a unique threat to the current milieu, which promotes utter deference to the U.S. military.
It is one thing to question the use of force abroad, but doing so inevitably endangers use of force as a compliance technique at home.
Today, this conflation of the U.S. military and law enforcement is commonplace and often weaponized against dissenters of police violence.
This is why an NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, can protest explicitly against police violence while a broad swath of the population misreads his protest as a slight against the military.
It is why the Trump administration can advocate the deployment of military forces to thwart the passage of Mexican immigrants into the U.S., even as such duties are often delegated to law enforcement.
It is why the president of the United States can preemptively threaten to sic the National Guard on an American city he doesn’t like.
There is a general view in the current administration that the armed forces are bodies with nebulous purpose, which can be weaponized against enemies of the state, be they within our borders or without.
One risk in accepting this premise is the inevitable backsliding of black and brown Americans, whose engagement with the military industrial complex stateside more often ends in tragedy than the engagements of their white peers.
But there are foreboding implications for broader society, as well. It is tragically ironic for the past 10 years to have largely been a sounding board for people lambasting the government, decrying its expansion, taking up arms in the event of its inevitable turn to tyranny. All this, while the military has ballooned in size and the drumbeat toward war grows louder daily.
And there is always a belief this militarism will never, like an approaching wildfire, lick at your feet and threaten your world.
Until it does.