(Note: This speech opened the 24th Annual Convention of Veterans For Peace last weekend in College Park, MD.)
In Paul Newman's 1967 classic, "Cool Hand Luke," the prison boss in the white suit, played memorably by Strother Martin, repeatedly tells Luke to "get your mind right." That turned out to be literally a grave warning for Luke, but it's exactly what we need to hear today.
We begin our meetings today against a backdrop of a crippled economy, sweeping foreclosures, widespread unemployment, millions without medical benefits, wars that now exceed a trillion dollars and have killed over a million people.
It's a fair question to ask, that with a name like Veterans For Peace, should we be concerned with issues that go so far beyond opposing war? The answer is "yes," because war and our economic calamities are not only connected, one is the dominant cause of all the others, and VFP is well positioned to make this argument.
As we open our convention I'd like to open a discussion on something even more fundamental than war and economic calamity. As is true so many times when talking about fundamentals, we can refer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The same year "Cool Hand Luke," played in theaters, Dr. King spoke at Riverside Church in New York, giving what many believe was his greatest speech, "Beyond Vietnam." In it, he called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
"Time" magazine called King's speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi."
But every word in King's speech was true "" and timeless. Here are a couple gems.
""what we are submitting our troops to is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war"We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for (our soldiers) must know after a short period there, that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved.
Americans, who calculate so carefully"military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."
Then, 42 years ago, he spoke words that could've been addressed to us here today:
"This war is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this"reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy-and-laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala"Cambodia" South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life""
My daughter brought this home to me right after the invasion of Iraq, when she said, "This is my generation's war, just like Vietnam was yours, isn't it?"
So here we are, organizing another generation of anti-war committees, attending rallies without end. It's still necessary, We'll keep doing it, but I'm sick of it. I'm tired of being that Vet for Peace guy who makes history dance at another rally by revealing what Smedley Butler had to say. I long for the time when Veterans For Peace can build its membership on a reputation for creating a peaceful world and its practical nonviolence skills, not just because we lept to the front ranks against yet another war.
Chris Hedges wrote "war is a force that gives us meaning." Could it also be true that anti-war is a force that gives us meaning? If we are content to be an anti-war movement or peace movement in name only, we'll have work that will give us plenty of meaning for this generation, our children's generation, and the one after that if the planet is still breathing.
No, what we need is a peace movement that is true to our chant in the streets: "No justice, no peace!" Peace with justice means stopping the few from making policy for the many; from robbing us blind; denying our right to health care; destroying Earth's life support systems; as well as sending us to war.