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Sitting Through Anthems and Dishonoring Legacies: Eric C and MLK Jr's Thoughts on Syria

(Before the Syria situation exploded, we had planned to continue our "Oscar's Month". It will return after next week.)

In college, as a naive, young activist, I used to sit down during the national anthem. Michael C, as a young cadet, freaked out whenever I did this. At the time, I protested the anthem because I believed that excessive patriotism directly inhibits the self-criticism our nation (and all nations) need to be great. At its worst, unthinking lack of self-criticism helps repeatedly send our nation into destructive, violent, poorly-planned wars.

As we’ve written before, people tend to falsely attribute quotes to Martin Luther King Jr. Along with Einstein, Plato, Churchill and others, he’s one of the great men of history people attach to the quotes of less important thinkers to impart relevance. But I’ve been researching some anti-war “Quotes Behaving Badly”, and I found something interesting: virtually every quote by Martin Luther King Jr opposing war is true. Quotes like:

“But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”

Or this short excerpt from a much longer piece:

“War is not the answer.”

Tavis Smiley brought up Dr. King’s pacifism on ABC’s This Week, arguing that talk of war with Syria dishonors his legacy:

“There’s the issue of violence. War, Dr. King would say were he here, is not the answer. We cannot worship at the altar of retaliation. It’s either non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation, Dr. King would say were he here.”

The other panelists ignored him. When media critics criticize the media for not offering context, they’re talking about segments like this. During a week which featured two major news stories--the fiftieth anniversary of “I Have a Dream” and talks about going to war with Syria--very few pundits, reporters or news anchors connected the two. Every network covered the anniversary; few of them described Dr. King as anti-war.

The reason that the quotes of the less famous get attributed to the more famous is that the great thinkers of history become ciphers. We see in them what we want to see in them. Later on This Week, James Carville tried to make the case the Dr. King would have supported intervening in Syria:

“I think that we’ll frame our response this way. We’re not intervening in Syria. We’re punishing Assad. Because Assad is the one that actually did this and this is a horrible thing to gas young people. Let’s just put that right out. I don’t think Dr. King would have approved of that at all.”

He's right: Dr. King wouldn’t ever have dreamed of “approving” of using chemical weapons on civilians. He wouldn’t, though, have turned to cruise missile strikes as a first resort. In Foreign Policy, Elias Groll links Martin Luther King Jr. to intervening in Syria more forcefully (and still incorrectly):

“Still, it is important to remember that King was no outright pacifist. He was an avid student of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that in the face of tyranny and violence an armed response can sometimes be justified. Niebuhr is also one of Obama's favorite philosophers. In 2007, when asked what he had taken away from Niebuhr, Obama offered something of a prescient preview of his often-militarist foreign policy: ‘I take away the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction’; that ‘we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.’

“It's a foreign policy King might have gotten behind.”

I doubt it. Dr. King was non-violent. Militantly non-violent. Pacifists like Dr. King and myself fear war. We only support war as a means of last resort in the most dire of situations. Last resort. Syria does not fit that criteria. At all.

This weekend, I attended a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the L.A. Philharmonic conducted by John Williams. The show opened with the national anthem. As the crowd stood, I couldn't help thinking about Syria. I thought about how almost no one in the auditorium knew about the possible intervention with Syria. Hell, I’d barely followed the issue and I co-write a milblog. I thought about how, since Obama became president, America has dropped bombs in four different countries and we were about to launch missiles into a fifth. I wondered if most of the auditorium could even name those countries.

Mostly, I thought about how, in my relatively young life, my country will have gone to war three times, deployed its military eight times--three times since 9/11 not counting Syria or drone strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. It doesn’t make me proud. It makes me not want to stand and sing the national anthem.

Though I didn’t think about it last Saturday, Dr. King’s word from his speech ‘Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” captured my feelings best:

“Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.”

It’s why, now, I stand during the national anthem.

thirteen comments

In the media’s slight defense, some did link MLK Jr. to the NSA scandal as an example of intelligence overreach of innocent people. He was an “ordinary American” and the FBI investigated him ridiculously too far.


On the use of military action or going to war only as a “last resort”: is this not an isolationist argument? Is it acceptable to allow the world around us to crumble as long as our own safety is not threatened? Seems rather callous to me. And I’m not saying that the situation in Syria warrants action, but the “war as a last resort” argument seems very selfish.

While imperial adventures may be one end of the spectrum of using military power, the other end of the spectrum for the “last resort” crowd seems to be when the hordes are landing on Long Island or California.


Don, I think you are taking last resort a bit too far. As I’ve written before, I’m a liberal on foreign affairs, in the classical IR sense. So I don’t want to be isolated from the world, but incredibly engaged in trade, diplomacy, aid, creating international institutions and spreading democracy. That’s not isolationist, but involved. However, war or military action takes a much less important role because it so often backfires.

I think you could say “last resort” was satisfied in two specific times since we were born. (roughly early 80s). The Persian Gulf war had international support and exhausted all diplomatic alternatives. Same with invading Afghanistan after 9/11 when the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.

So I don’t think last resort is too high of a bar. (And yes, this was Eric’s post, but I will make similar arguments next week.)


I’d be curious to hear what Eric thinks about those two wars, whether they really were “last resort.” One might argue that Saddam had a rightful claim to taking Kuwait or that marshalling the world to war would result in needless death and suffering (and it did lead to much death and suffering). In terms of Afghanistan, not a lot of time was spent waiting for the Taliban to hand over OBL. Troops were in country pretty quickly and are still there.

I think you have to go back to WWII to find the last resort analogy working.


@ Don – Good question Don. I’m going to address this in a post next week.


Wrote this two years ago:

“ Why is violence only as last resort wrong?

Well, this idea that violence is justified only if nothing else helps is misplaced. Violence is justified if it’s the least terrible choice.
It makes no sense to stay peaceful and endure a predictably worse outcome than by fighting back. On the other hand, it makes no sense to fight (back) and endure a worse outcome than achievable by diplomacy.
Most importantly – and this is what hawks don’t seem to get – there’s extremely rarely (if ever nowadays) an opportunity to actually gain something by being violent.

Violence / warfare is inherently destructive, not productive. You could only gain a material advantage by stealing. You can gain immaterial advantages (such as national independence or freedom in civil war) by becoming violent, of course.

In the end, the choice between war and peace depends a lot on preferences. How highly do you rate the losses of war, how highly do you rate the advantages of achieving political objectives in war, how highly do you estimate the probability of achieving them through warfare in relation to diplomacy?”


Eric, you, like Tavis Smiley; Chester James Carville, Jr.; and Elias Groll, used the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. outside context. King was a civil-rights activist and clergyman, not a soldier, veteran, military historian, military theorist, or other professional whose experience implies the right to judge war. He criticized the Vietnam War with vagaries such as ‘American imperialism.’ King was a visionary civil-rights activist, a blind antiwar activist. He never used facts when criticizing Vietnam. Are you using facts when criticizing American intervention in the Syrian civil war?

Having spoken to fighters on both sides, I can give you several facts for future reference. The most-decisive controversy for the United States of America in Syria has been not chemical weapons but al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda through its two known Syrian affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and the Victory Front for the Levantine People (Jabhat al-Nusra), has ten-forty thousand fighters in the Syrian Arab Republic according to the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, and the Western world. Fewer than ten thousand of these fighters are foreigners.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has one hundred thousand soldiers, give or take twenty thousand. A minority of FSA brigades support al-Qaeda, namely in Aleppo, Deir-ez-Zor, Latakia, and ar-Raqqah Governorates. A majority of FSA brigades, maybe fifty thousand soldiers, maintain peace with al-Qaeda because of their common enemy, the Syrian government. These brigades would often prefer Syria to be ‘the Syrian Islamic Republic,’ modeled on American allies the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan and Pakistan. A minority of FSA brigades, maybe forty thousand fighters, fight al-Qaeda or hide from it. Senator John Sidney McCain III has marketed these brigades for two years.

I have contacts in the majority and two minorities of FSA brigades. Would you like me to quote them? Several examples from the moderate minority should do for now. Lieutenant Colonel Abu Ahmad, leader of the Free Coastal Brigade (Latakia), has one thousand five hundred soldiers. Little more than two hundred have weapons—not weapons such as rockets but weapons such as AK-47s. The Latakia Military Council severed Ahmad’s supplies because he refused to fight alongside ISIS. Ahmad refused to fight alongside ISIS because it had killed his best friend, a commander on the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) named Kamal Hamami. ISIS had then declared that it would kill all Western-backed commanders on the SMC because they are ‘infidels.’ Ahmad is hiding from ISIS at the moment.

Colonel Khaled Ali leads all Druze (religious minority) in the FSA, six thousand soldiers. Three hundred of them have weapons. Jabhat al-Nusra has massacred Druze in their homeland, as-Suwayda Governorate, because they, like Christians and the SMC, are ‘infidels.’ Ali has been waiting for American support, wondering why Western media calls him and the rest of the FSA ‘Islamic terrorists’ when he is not even a Muslim.

Brigadier General Ziad Ismail Fahd, Deputy Chief of Staff for the Southern Front, represents Damascus, Daraa, Quneitra, and as-Suwayda on the SMC. He also leads the Damascus Military Council. While waiting for American support, which America promised two years ago, Fahd has seen Jabhat al-Nusra rape almost as many women (and men) as the Syrian Arab Army has raped. He, like Ahmad and Ali, is still waiting for American support.

These three commanders should prove that there are anti-al-Qaeda, Israel-friendly, pro-Western commanders in the FSA, none of whom have American support. All my information comes from media, personal and professional research, and personal contact with FSA commanders such as Ahmad, Ali, and Fahd.

Your post never mentioned chemical weapons, previous interventions, or other arguments against American involvement outside emotion. Eric, you criticize arguments that rely on quotations (correct or not) from high-and-mighty historical figures. What did you just do here? What does King have to do with Syria? What does he have to do with war for that matter?

If you would like to debate, facts found, I’m ready when you are. I’ll debate you, not King.

Read my comment-less post when given time.


@ Don – Michael C and I have been talking a lot about foreign policy this week. I guess I would describe myself a military isolationist. I just don’t think war works or works well. As Sven wrote, “Violence / warfare is inherently destructive, not productive” As I wrote before, war is the opposite of civilization.

I count the poorly planned/executed military interventions, and I’m incredibly, incredibly skeptical. Iraq was obviously a disaster, but look at Afghanistan. 13 years on, we haven’t made that country any better. Or look at Iran. Too many Americans don’t take responsibility for what we did—deposing their leader—to make them hate us.

As Michael C wrote, though, I’m not an isolationist when it comes to the rest of the world. I want us to give aid. Lots of it. Turkey, South Korea and Israel are shining examples of what positive American investment can do to turn a country around. If we gave more things to more people, everyone would rise together. And less people would hate us.

There’s way too much to write on this subject, but other issues to consider: our foreign policy tends to be incredibly selfish and self-interested. What about unintended consequences? Why help Syria but not Burma? (And actually the Burmese, through forceful diplomacy and incentives, have started democratizing) Are we pretending that Syria isn’t more about geopolitical considerations than helping the Syria people?

Anyway, I appreciate and understand your push back on this opinion.


@ Austin – I’m not really interested in debating you point by point on this issue. I think it’s clear we’re not going to agree. Anyway, this post wasn’t about Syria, it was about war and American intervention and how I feel about that.

Also, I’m not a “soldier, veteran, military historian, military theorist, or other professional whose experience implies the right to judge war.” so I guess I don’t really have a say on the issue. Neither would most anti-war activists or pacifists by your logic. Shame though. I feel like the country would benefit from hearing non-military people’s opinions on war, especially since the military usually seems incredibly pro-war, for obvious reasons.

Of course, I believe everyone has a right to debate their country going to war.


“Turkey, South Korea and Israel are shining examples of what positive American investment can do to turn a country around.”

I think you give too much credit to the U.S. here.

Israel would probably not be able to stem enough military spending without the subsidies, but its economic development was really more a product of good education and of taking advantage of immigration.

The link between Turkey’s development and the USA eludes me entirely.

South Korea followed the Japanese model; American input post-‘53 was not very substantial. The American troops in the ROK were a token force since the 60’s (in comparison to ROK’s own forces).

Similarly, the Marshall program is vastly overrated in its macroeconomic effects. Its supposed biggest successes happened in countries which got money from it only late and not much per capita (FRG, Italy).

As an economist I have a lot of respect for domestic forces (Solow-Swan et cetera), not much for foreign influence. Foreign support tends to create bubbles or to be dwarfed by domestic factors.

Likewise I’m sceptical about how much influence soft power has on development of institutions and democracy. The EU’s requirements for joining are probably amongst the most powerful political soft power effects (because they were backed by a powerful incentive). The most powerful non-political factors are likely cultural; influence through entertainment.

The intentional shaping of distant foreign countries appears to be a game for people who don’t pay attention to history, macroeconomics or political science.


@ S O – http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/07..


Eric, you misinterpreted my argument. Sorry. I should have been less vague. You and Eric are credible sources on war because of facts. You know the facts. Michael knows the facts and used them as an intelligence officer. You two are reputable antiwar activists because you know war and the facts to argue for or against it.

I respect King’s arguments on violence and nonviolence in general, not war in particular. King was a fulltime civil-rights activist, part-time antiwar activist. He argued against Vietnam for Christian reasons, not factual ones. Christianity is only an argument in its context: religion. King did not criticize Vietnam with examples or statistics. He just argued that killing people is wrong, which makes war sound far more black and white than the gray picture that you and Michael have painted (with facts). If you wrote, ‘Why should we intervene in Syria when we do not intervene in [countries A, B, and C]?’ or, ‘Why should we intervene in Syria when intervening in [countries A, B, and C] achieved nothing?’ I would disagree but listen. King, however, has no more relevance here than does Albert Einstein or another ill-argued, long-dead antiwar activist.

There are good antiwar activists and bad ones. You and Michael are good ones. King and Einstein were bad ones. They were good at their day jobs, which had little relationship with war or antiwar activism. Well-argued, well-researched antiwar activists—the qualities go together—deserve a larger audience for this topic than do halfhearted intellectuals leaving their usual sphere of influence. Why not quote a fulltime antiwar activist or, better yet, argue against American interventionism with historical evidence? Other than a coincidence of dates, King has no relevance here.


I consider myself a pacifist and disagree with your position that going to war should only be a last resort. Being a “last resort” is not a sufficient condition for going to war. Sometimes when all other alternatives are exhausted, violence is still not justified. My view is that a nation should only go to war if itself, or one of its allies is attacked. That is violence is only justified in self defence.

The Gulf War was justified because Kuwait was attacked by Iraq. After the attack of course diplomatic alternatives should be exercised; but it was the attack, not the exhaustion of diplomatic alternatives, that justified the war.

I do not believe the Afghan War was justified. I do not believe that harboring of fugitives is sufficient justification for war, and so, even if all alternatives were exhausted and war was the last resort, that war was not justified.

My thinking is much in agreement with the Catechism of the Catholic Church CCC 2309 http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/2309... . This is worth quoting:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Being the “last resort” is but one of at least four conditions that must be satisfied before going to war, or using military action.