I Have A Nightmare Today: Martin Luther King and the Moral Obscenity of John Kerry

As the mainstream media set the stage for the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the featured right-wing propagandists of the Leesburg Daily Commercial sought to recast Dr. King in the improbable role of a Christian conservative. In a freakish hall of mirrors erected by both Star Parker (for whom insulting Dr. King is a visa stamp in her passport to plutocratic acceptance) and Cal Thomas (whose sole qualification for pontificating on this topic seems to be that he had a black maid in childhood), King’s broad concerns of equality and peace morphed into a narrow obsession with personal responsibility. And, wouldn’t you know it, personal responsibility seems to be sorely lacking in the legions of poor people who find themselves in need of public assistance, yet is apparently strong enough to need no attention in the boardrooms of corporate America, where bankers and industrialists are always held accountable for their actions and Christian principles find their purest expression. As spectacularly cynical as this distortion might be – and as depressing as it is to behold the historical illiteracy of a public that tolerates the nationwide publication of such dross – the memory of Dr. King was subjected to far graver insults this week. For the very leader who claimed to have benefited the most from Dr. King’s heroism essentially spat on the great man’s grave.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in WashingtonWhen Barack Obama writes his inevitable multi-million-dollar memoirs, you can be sure that at least two pictures will be featured inside: his announcement, with barely concealed sadistic pleasure, of the assassination of Osama bin Laden; and his appearance before the statue of the Great Emancipator on August 28th, 2013. How proud he must have been, standing before the nation as the First Black President, appearing to embody the realization of King’s famous dream. And how stupid and shallow we must be to believe it, when the color of Barack Obama’s skin can not obscure the color of the money that rules his country or the color of the blood that stains his hands. And in the same week that he sought to establish a political genetic link between King and himself, Barack Obama’s revolting combination of amnesia and hypocrisy proved to the world once again that only one of them deserved his Nobel Prize for Peace.

Barack Obama’s stage-managed appearance on the National Mall was accompanied during the event by the ringing of freedom’s bells, but surrounded all week by the rattling of sabers. The American empire’s innate desire to flex its steroid-pumped military muscles on the global stage seems to have settled on Syria as the next target. Exactly why, nobody seems to know. Former Reagan economist Paul Craig Roberts believes the Administration seeks to destabilize Russia and China by strengthening Muslim extremists on the peripheries of the only two countries that can really challenge American hegemony – a dangerous game that he believes could lead to nuclear war. Others contend that the biggest donkey in town can’t afford to look weak in front of the trumpeting elephants, especially after drawing a red line and all – a courtiers’ calculus that discounts to zero the lives that donkey has already taken along with the additional lives he plans to take. While we have our own thoughts on America’s motives in the Middle East, there is no need for speculation regarding America’s world-leading hypocrisy.

Moral Obscenity Then and Now: John Kerry’s Imperial Odyssey

In announcing that the United States had “undeniable”1 evidence of chemical weapons use by President Assad’s Syrian regime, Secretary of State John Kerry rendered the verdict that the attack was a “moral obscenity” that “should shock the conscience of the world.”

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and – despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured – it is undeniable. This international norm cannot be violated without consequences.

John Kerry discusses his latest moral obscenityThe proposition that the United States is fit to act as the world’s moral compass may seem entirely normal to the millions of Americans who have been reared on the arrogant fallacy of American Exceptionalism, but to much of the rest of the world it is utterly preposterous. Put aside for now the current killing of civilians by U.S. drones across the Middle East, and all the American “excuses and equivocations” about the mastery of aerial terrorism by this great, Christian country. Ignore the death toll from the unjust war on Iraq and the sanctions regime that preceded it; after all, when a million ants are killed by an exterminator, we don’t think of it as “indiscriminate slaughter,” do we? And don’t waste any energy digging up the inconvenient fact that the United States facilitated Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran when it found him useful. No, the most gag-inducing aspect of John Kerry’s statement is that the United States itself has used chemical weapons on a scale that dwarfs anything that may or may not have been committed by Syria, and has never suffered any consequences for its own moral obscenities. We are referring, of course, to a tragic episode in American history of which John Kerry – of all people – ought to be painfully aware.

When John Kerry returned from Vietnam, he had seen and practiced the depravity of modern, industrial warfare. His speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 lay bare the torments of those veterans who had come to understand the enormity of the sins being committed in America’s name. And it sketched out a moral road map that neither the nation as a whole, nor Kerry himself, would elect to follow.

Several months ago, in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit—the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told stories that, at times, they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.[…]

John Kerry testifies before the Fulbright Committee in 1971

John Kerry testifies before the Fulbright Committee in 1971

I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn’t know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped.

As a veteran and one who felt this anger, I would like to talk about it. We are angry because we feel we have been used in the worst fashion by the administration of this country.[…]

In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits [Spiro Agnew’s term for anti-war protestors] supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.[…]

We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped away their memories of us. But all that they have done, and all that they can do by this denial, is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission: To search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war; to pacify our own hearts; to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more. And so, when, thirty years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say “Vietnam” and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning. [Emphasis added.]

And yet, thirty-one years later, Senator John Kerry would argue in favor of, and then vote for, George Bush’s impending war crime in Iraq. (Two years after that, seeking to become emperor himself, he would infamously change his mind.) Today, he acts as a front man for the latest in a long line of American war criminals (albeit the first one with black skin), ready to unleash death and destruction once more. Perhaps, in John Kerry’s mind, his denunciations of chemical weapon usage flow from the same moral core that informed his anti-war campaigning. But for a man of stronger and unfaltering morality such as Dr. Martin Luther King, it would have been clear that Kerry has gone over to the dark side. Even before the “swiftboating” scandal of his 2004 election campaign reminded him that opposing war is as “un-American” as opposing capitalism (for inseparable reasons), Kerry seems to have decided that in order to “be someone” in the world’s greatest-ever military empire, certain concessions need to be made. Let us, therefore, provide Secretary Kerry, and the First Black President whose agenda he serves, with a salutary reminder of what moral obscenity looks like – first with gruesome facts, and then in the words of Dr. King that were so religiously eschewed this past week.

American Use of Chemical Weapons in the Vietnam War

The extent to which the corporate media has avoided this undeniable aspect of America’s past is nauseating, but not the least bit surprising. Above all else, the press must not challenge the fundamental assumption that we are the good guys. Only the bad guys – primitive peoples who aren’t ready for U.S.-style democracy – use chemical weapons. When the bad guys misbehave, we get to play sheriff, because nobody else is man enough for the job. Thus, in today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial, Scripps Howard syndicated columnist Dale McFeatters blathered on about the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons and cited some genuinely disturbing issues regarding their disposal. But not once did he mention the fact that we actually used the bloody stuff – and lots of it.

The following extract was taken from a British educational website that has since been taken down. This account includes by no means the most disturbing image or statistics available to those who care to know what their country does in their name.

One of the major problems of the US forces was the detection of the National Liberation Front hiding in the forests of Vietnam. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy approved Operation Ranch Hand. This involved the spraying of chemicals from the air in an attempt to destroy the National Liberation Front hiding places. In 1969 alone, Operation Ranch Hand destroyed 1,034,300 hectares of forest. Agent Orange, the chemical used in this defoliation programme not only destroyed trees but caused chromosomal damage in people.

Chemicals were also sprayed on crops. Between 1962 and 1969, 688,000 agricultural acres were sprayed with a chemical called Agent Blue. The aim of this exercise was to deny food to the NLF. However, research suggests that it was the civilian population who suffered most from the poor rice harvests that followed the spraying.

When a report appeared in the St. Louis Dispatch about the dropping of “poison” on North Vietnam the United States denied the herbicide they were using was a chemical weapon. It was claimed that Agent Orange and Agent Blue were harmless to humans and only had a short-lived impact on the environment.

This was disputed by international experts and 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel prize winners and 129 members of the Academy of Sciences, signed a petition against chemical and biological weapons being used in Vietnam. However, it was not until 1974 that the United States government stopped using Agent Orange and Agent Blue.

Vietnamese Baby Deformed by American Chemicals

A baby in Tu Du Hospital suffering from the consequences of Agent Orange being dropped on Vietnam 30 years ago.

During the war about 10% of Vietnam was intensively sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66% was Agent Orange. Some of this landed on their own troops and soon after the war ended veterans began complaining about serious health problems. There was also a high incidence of their children being born limbless or with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida. The veterans sued the defoliant manufacturers and this was settled out of court in 1984 by the payment of $180 million.

The TCCD dioxin used in Agent Orange seeped into the soil and water supply, and therefore into the food chain. In this way it passed from mother to foetus in the womb. In Vietnam the dioxin remains in the soil and is now damaging the health of the grandchildren of the war’s victims.

A report published in 2003 claimed that 650,000 people in Vietnam were still suffering from chronic conditions as a result of the chemicals dropped on the country during the war. Since the war the Vietnamese Red Cross has registered an estimated one million people disabled by Agent Orange. It is estimated that 500,000 people in Vietnam have died from the numerous health problems created by these chemical weapons.

Now, to be fair to John Kerry, the veterans’ organization of which he was a prominent part led the effort to sue Dow Chemical and Monsanto for the damage done to U.S. veterans by their chemicals.2 But what have been the consequences for America’s use of chemical weapons? Has the United States established a Department of Restoration and Reparations to provide support for its victims? No. After forty years of denying the existence of the problem, the amount of financial support finally committed to clean-up is trivial and limited to former U.S. bases. (The video that follows has, for some reason, been plagued by YouTube delivery issues.)

Have we made sure that Monsanto will never again be allowed to destroy people’s crops? Again, no. In fact, the government is working as we speak to force Monsanto’s toxic brew of chemicals and genetic experiments on an unwilling world, and systematically denies any possibility of harm from their products.

Do we feel the slightest bit guilty for what we have done, or do we still think that “the gooks” had it coming? Why do we erect memorials to American soldiers with lovingly-etched individualized recognition, yet refuse to grant our victims even occasional acknowledgment as statistics? Why should the international community pay any attention to the moralizing of a country such as this?

Martin Luther King’s Timeless Anti-War Message

In order to truly turn away from war in the way that a younger, war-weary John Kerry once hoped for, the United States needs a new national narrative. The equation of martial force with manliness, and the confusion of unquestioning obedience with patriotism, need to be replaced by a profound respect for all life and a desperate desire to prevent unnecessary suffering. As it happens, we were provided with just such a narrative on April 4th, 1967, when Dr. Martin Luther King formally declared his opposition to the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City. Thankfully, the speech was recorded, and resonates with an extraordinary power far beyond the reach of this generation’s fraudulent leaders.

As David Bromwich explained in a poignant synopsis on Antiwar.com, King’s speech, A Time to Break Silence, exemplified the highest form of moral courage. President Johnson, with whom King had worked on the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, never forgave him; other civil rights leaders saw the issue as a distraction from their cause; and the mainstream media charged that he had permanently undermined his own credibility. In fact, he had delivered the message that America most needed to hear – a message that a genuinely Christian country would embrace wholeheartedly.

Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.[…]

Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?[…]

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call ‘fortified hamlets.’ The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.[…]

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

Tragically, we still aren’t listening. The conservatives who present themselves as Christians distort King’s message beyond recognition. The First Black President possesses the unforgivable hubris to seek to cover himself in King’s glory while cementing his own place in history as a bone fide war criminal. The media tell us that we have made much progress while ever-more sophisticated instruments of death lay waste to distant peoples and our latest inventions poison the world.

Martin Luther King was assassinated exactly one year after delivering A Time to Break Silence. If James Earl Ray had not been responsible, someone else would have taken his place. For King’s radical condemnation of the country’s manifest and manifold evils – once it reached beyond the singular evil of racism to embrace the compound evils of war and capitalistic exploitation – triggered a violent auto-immune response that marked his incompatible body for death. America was not worthy of King, and can not fulfill his dreams. When we lost King, we lost our last chance for decency; in its place, we have a nightmare.

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  1. At the time of writing, it had nothing of the kind.
  2. Most other veterans’ groups did not want to get involved in that struggle, seeing Kerry’s group as “unpatriotic” – a shameful failure to elevate real human needs over social posturing (and one which prefigured the amoral partisan wrangling over Syria today).

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