The Necessity of Moral Resistance in the Face of Militarism
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
This sermon was delivered at the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 2018, in the lead up to the launch of the 40 Days of Moral Action organized by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in 2018.
It has been lightly edited for clarity.
A video of the sermon is available here.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II:
Good evening to you all. God, we ask your grace and mercy to be with us as we seek to live lives of truth and justice and love. Grant us the power of your spirit always, for we ask in the name of that which is divine in this universe. Amen.
I’m honored to be here tonight. I want to first thank the pastor of this church…and the congregation here. And I want to recognize that this is the church certainly where Abraham Lincoln worshiped but also where the  Poor People’s Campaign was housed, right here in this church, and people were in the sanctuary during those days. I want to honor Liz Theoharis, the Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, who could not be with us tonight… I want to thank the great Reverend Grayland Hagler for all of his work and my good sister Phyllis Bennis … for Roz Pelles, for all of the organizers who continued to work and continued to build as we move toward the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, that begins next week on Mother’s Day and I want to certainly thank the National Council of Churches, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Iranian American Council, Code Pink, Peace Action, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Veterans for Peace, Win Without War, Jobs for Justice and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and others who have been so supportive in us having this night to come together.
I want, tonight, to talk about in the face of the war economy and militarism, nonviolent moral dissent. Nonviolent moral resistance and nonviolent moral vision are a necessity today just as they were in yesteryear.
I come here tonight to speak, and yes even to preach, on a subject that cannot be ignored if we are truly concerned about a more perfect union. The establishment of justice cannot be ignored, if we are concerned about moral injury and the deepest moral foundations of faith that call us to embrace and prophetically imagine and promote an agenda of love, truth, justice, care for the immigrant and the poor and the least of these.
I come tonight to speak on a subject that cannot be ignored, if we truly are concerned about this democracy and the world a subject so important the Martin Luther King taught, and we know that if every decision is shaped by our nation’s commitment to a philosophy and ideology that privileges militarism [and its] own demise. Dr. King stood courageously and said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs on social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He was right then and 50 years later it is still true.
I come to address tonight what General Eisenhower, a retired five-star army general, the man who led the Allies on D-Day, said when he made his remarks in his farewell speech in 1961. He said to us, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”…He said then, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist and we must remember that today.”
I come tonight to address what we must address: how the war economy and militarism connect to what we in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival call five interlocking injustices. [This is] Brother Grayland’s systemic racism, as seen through voter suppression, immigrant injustice, the continuing legacy and oppression of indigenous, first nations, Islamophobia, and xenophobia; the systemic poverty of over 140 million poor and low wealth [people] in this country; and ecological devastation and our distorted moral narrative. If you’re going to address the other four you have to address the issue of the war economy and militarism.
What’s Going On?
Tonight, I also come as a pastor, a pastor for 25 years of a church in a military base town. I have to sooth and console the members of my church and community when they or their loved ones go off to war and when they have deep questions about why. I pastor people who have been affected by every war since WWII. I’ve had to bury family members who came back in flag draped caskets from the war. I must minister to those among the hundreds of thousands who come back alive, but scarred mentally and physically from war.
…And I am the son of a WWII navy veteran who was drafted as a college student and into a segregated navy, asked to go and fight for the world’s safety against Hitler, and yet had to suffer because of white supremacy in America. The indignity of having to ride in the back of the train while German war veterans rode in the front. I am the grandson of a man who was a WWI veteran, who was among those threatened when they came back home in a land where black men were being hanged, on an average of one per day.
Yet I come with no hatred towards this country, but with a prayerful commitment to be among those who love her enough to be the real kind of patriots that dare to tell her the truth and to join with others who would tell the truth. I don’t come proposing to know everything and I don’t come naive enough to think that we do not have dangers in the world, but I do come tonight from all of those different directions and even remembering the words of my father who was in war who still knew that war is not the answer. I come knowing, as Marvin Gaye once sang years ago, we must still ask today as the United States spends more and more on war and militarism, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” Especially now, as we have a President fueled by narcissism as a Commander-in-Chief and the hounds of war lining up and filling up the top advisory roles, who just a few days ago dropped illegal bombs on Syria that in no way met the standards laid down in the Joint War Powers Resolution.
The first question is not even about the wrongness of Syria, but the War Powers Resolution that was designed to interpret the purpose of our Constitution and to ensure that the collective judgment of both Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States armed forces into hostilities. It is in that place that the Constitutional powers of the Commander-in-chief to introduce the United States armed forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement into hostilities is clearly indicated by circumstance and are exercised only pursuant to 1) a declaration of war, 2) specific statutory authorization, and 3) a national emergency created by attack upon the US, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces. This means that the President can order troops, without a congressional declaration and without an authorization for the use of military force, only if there is an attack on US territory, on US troops, or on US territories or possessions, which means the other day we dropped illegal bombs.
We can never surrender this power to one man. We must declare that moral dissent, moral resistance, and moral vision cannot in any way dismiss the violence of any country or leader and must challenge the war economy and militarism here in America, because as we sit here tonight there are enough nuclear weapons in the world to destroy life on earth between five to fifty times … The US spends more on the military than the next seven countries combined: China, Saudi Arabia, Russian Federation, India, France, the UK and Japan. We spend nearly 3 times as much as China and 9 times as much as Russia. Our military spending was 26 percent of the world’s total. [The US] has around 800 or more bases in foreign countries, seventy years after WWII and 62 years after the Korean War. If this is left unchecked and unchallenged and uncritiqued, America, as Dr. King once said, “has been and still has the potential to be the greatest purveyor of violence the world has ever known.”
Biblical Confrontations of Imperialism
The Bible says in Mark, Chapter five, that Jesus arrived on the other side of the country of Gerasenes. He got out of the boat. He met a mad man from the cemetery that came upon him. He couldn’t be chained, he couldn’t be tied down, he had been tied up many times with many chains, night and day. He rolled through the lowlands of the grave and the hills. Jesus saw him a ways off. He ran to pray before Jesus. Asked Jesus what business he, the son, had with him and he said, “I don’t want you to give me a hard time.” And Jesus did something interesting. He asked him, “Tell me your name.” The man replied, “My name is legion,” and then he desperately begged Jesus not to banish him from the country. A large herd of pigs were browsing and rooting on a nearby hill. The demons begged to send them into the pigs…. Jesus gave the order and then the pigs ran off the side of the hill. Everyone came out to see what had happened and they came up to Jesus and saw the mad man sitting there wearing decent clothing, no longer in the graveyard, but up higher and those who saw it told others. At first they were in awe, but then suddenly they were upset. They were more upset over losing their money (their pigs), than they were about this man being healed and the demons being exorcised and they demanded that Jesus go and never come back again.
You need to know that this text is about the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. It was a place that was settled by many veterans of the Roman army. Veterans that conquered lands as payment for their service.
This story in the Bible is about confronting imperial militarism. Mark’s description of this demonic pain is detailed and it’s poignant. We should be mindful that this sort of agony has long captured the imagination of artists and poets as well as psychologists and political reformers describing the condition of human oppression. And Mark clearly characterizes this man as a victim. He’s a victim of militarism. He’s a victim of military occupation for he says, “My name is Legion. Legion for we are many.” And that Latin term had only one meaning: a division of Roman soldiers, for such legions were based in Syria to control at that time the eastern frontier including Jewish Palestine. And we need to understand that this text is trying to say to us that an over commitment to militarism and war will literally drive us down into the graveyard of life. It is trying to say that the whole demonic structural complex of militarism can create a situation where we no longer know our names or our purpose. And every decision is driven by military might and the war economy, rather than what is right and instead of what should be done.
The Problem of the War in Vietnam
We must wrestle with how, historically, the legions have held us down in the low places. Fifty years ago, the US was mired in a brutal unwinnable war thousands of miles away. The war in Vietnam was a classic rich man’s war fought by and between poor people, mostly poor American soldiers and poor South Vietnamese troops, fighting against even more poorer South Vietnamese nationalist guerillas and North Vietnamese troops.
The poor people who met in the muddy tents of Washington DC’s resurrection city in the summer of 1968 were the people whose sons and fathers, uncles and brothers had been drafted and sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. So, focusing on militarism as a key component of what the Poor People’s Campaign was all about was new to some in that movement, but not all….There was a legal draft then that made all young men theoretically vulnerable to being drafted, willingly or not, into the military. The draft made the military somewhat more democratic. All young men had to register by their eighteenth birthday. All knew they might be sent to Vietnam, but that draft didn’t in fact affect everybody the same. The wealthier boys and those tracked into high achievement high school classes looked forward to college deferment, which, if they planned it right, would keep them out of the military all together. That was where race and racism and poverty came in, because the young men who weren’t wealthy and didn’t get tracked into college prep courses were disproportionately black and Latino and many were poor whites. So they were the ones who were disproportionately drafted, disproportionately served in the frontline combat units, and were disproportionately killed.
The war in Vietnam reflected the militarism that had infected our whole society in the context of the Cold War. We were told Vietnam was a domino and, if it fell, all of Southeast Asia would fall next and soon the Communists would be invading San Diego. Only war could protect us from such a fate, and if it meant 58,000 young American troops had to die and if two million more Vietnamese, Cambodians, and like Latinos, had to be killed, that was just the price of freedom.
We didn’t hear much about the origins of the war in Vietnam – and I don’t mean only the specific origin or the so-called Gulf Resolution, authorizing troops to be deployed to Vietnam – which we now know was based on lies. I’m talking about the broader origin, that Vietnam was fighting a war against French colonialism and when the French were finally defeated our government agreed to take up the military fight to protect the progress and proxy government in South Vietnam.
We didn’t hear much about that, but mother Coretta Scott King, who was right on the war question before Martin, she actually led him and she spoke three weeks after his death and said this, “I was looking among the notes in my husband’s pockets when he was shot and I saw parts of a speech which he never delivered. Perhaps they were his early thoughts for the message he was going to give to you today.” And then she said, “These are Martin’s ten commandments on Vietnam. One, thou shalt not believe in military victory. Two, thou shalt not believe in a political victory. Three, thou shalt not believe that they, the Vietnamese, love us. Four, thou shalt not believe that the government has the support of the people. Five, thou shalt not believe that the majority of the South Vietnamese look upon the Viet Cong as terrorists. Six, thou shalt not believe the figures of killed enemies or killed Americans. Seven, thou shalt not believe that the generals know best. Eight, thou shalt not believe that the enemies’ victory means communism. Nine, thou shalt not believe that the world supports the United States. Ten, thou shalt not kill. These are Martin Luther King’s ten commandments on Vietnam,” Coretta said. “It was on April 4th, 1967,” she said “that my husband gave his major address against the war in Vietnam. On April 4th, 1968, he was assassinated actually one year later.” She says, “I remember how he agonized over the grave misunderstanding which took place as a result of his position on the Vietnam War.”
Coretta and Martin tried to warn America, along with other groups they tried to warn America, but instead politicians, civil rights organizations, labor, even preachers said they were wrong, but history has proven that they were right. We lost that war. We didn’t lose it because the media held back our troops or because politicians didn’t allow the generals to use all their potential power. We lost because the Vietnamese were fighting for something they believed in, while on our side, however brave, our individual soldiers were fighting as foreign invaders on somebody else’s land and it was an unwinnable war.
Today, the daughters and the sons of many of our core supporters of the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival are still in the military. Today, we don’t have a legal draft and we hear a lot about an all-volunteer military except it isn’t really volunteering at all. It’s made up through a poverty draft. The military is disproportionally made up of poor young people, men and woman disproportionately from rural areas and small towns. And one effect of that is that most journalists writing or broadcasting in the mainstream national press don’t even know those in the military, because they come from places outside of normally where the media reports so they don’t know how to talk about it and very often they just don’t.
All we hear is, “Thank you for your service,” and that’s a huge problem because today, like in 1968, the United States is again fighting a still brutal, still unwinnable war. This time it’s almost 18 years old, the longest war in our nation’s history is in Afghanistan. At the moment, the number of troops is significantly smaller than at the height of the US and US backed occupation that saw more than 200,000 troops in place, at one time, but there are still thousands of US troops fighting, killing, and sometimes dying in that far away war. US political and military leaders during the Bush, Obama, and today’s Trump administration – from both political parties and all parts of government – have repeatedly told us there is no military solution, nonetheless, they continue to send troops and Special Forces, armed drones, and more…What was true in 1968 and what remains an ancient truth today is the understanding that any nation, any nation, we are not an exception, any nation that lives by the sword will ultimately die by the sword, and what was similar to those of the first Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 remains a powerful understanding today, is that militarism was then, as it is today, continually, an evil reality that has held the center of our nation hostage, since the founding of this country.
The Genocidal Roots of the U.S.
Ours is a country, and there’s no joy in saying it, founded on two evil realities: the genocide of indigenous populations who had lived in this land since time memorial, and the enslavement of Africans to this country, in chains. Both of those realities were enabled by superior military power. Guns that won out over arrows. Whips and chains and nooses that won out over stolen lives. And both of those realities provided this country with the land and the water that had once belonged to others, and with the value of the labor of people forced to work for the enrichment of others. Those realities made this country – or at least the elites within it – richer and more powerful than any other country in history. And not to tell this truth is to live the American lie and to ever be bound by its distortions.
It is not enough, it is never enough, to just remember the evils of our past, however, for we know from our great teacher Howard Zinn that there are two narratives in our country and that we need to keep them both simultaneously in our minds and hearts. The first is the painful reality that genocide and slavery are central to our county’s history. But there’s always a second narrative, always a second remnant. And that is the crucial reality that our county has also been a country of powerful people’s movements rising up against slavery and genocide with moral dissent and moral vision and moral resistance. So if we are serious about changing the present, we need to understand how that past came to be and how the legacies, both the legacies of genocide and slavery and the legacies of the movement against those evils, remain with us today and why we must make sure that that legacy of resistance remains.
Militarism has been a part of our nation from its founding. The myth of manifest destiny gave religious cover to what sometimes only slightly more honestly identified as westward expansion. It stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that the Catholic faith and Christian religion should be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread that the health of souls be cared for and that the barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.
This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas, as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. MacIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in a unanimous decision held that the principle of [this doctrine] gave European nations an absolute right to new worlds and new lands. In essence, American Indians had only the right of occupancy which could be abolished. That meant white European settlers, using military force as they moved westward to seize the land across the continent, could establish networks of forts and militarized communities where Native communities once thrived, killing all those who stood in their way. Whole communities, entire nations were forced off their land, on long treks, creating the Trail of Tears, where thousands, tens of thousands, died. And that’s why last weekend, at our Arizona meeting with the Apache and the Cherokee and the Pueblo and the Navajo people, they asked one thing of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival – that one day, when we’re here in DC, if we would get a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery and burn it, send the ashes to Pope Francis and ask him to denounce it and be the kind of man we know he is.
From the beginning of this country, from the earliest wars, the Indian wars, racism was the key to US wars and militarism. Wars were fought by “us,” the white European colonizers against “them,” the other, who were demonized as less than human, as barbarians, as savages. The multi-faceted democracies of the various Indian confederacies were ignored. Indigenous peoples’ complex integration of humanity with the rest of the living environment was dismissed. Manifest destiny of a continent-wide country required the extermination, or at least the removal and concentration, of native populations outside of most of the lands they had inhabited for centuries, for millennia.
The racism toward native people was not simply hatred of people who were different from the Europeans. It was key to legitimizing genocidal wars among ordinary, self-described, so-called God-fearing people. Everything was militarized and the environment became a weapon, as millions of buffalo were slaughtered, so that native tribes on the plains – whose culture and very survival was bound up with the survival of the buffalo – die due to hunger or were forced off their land. Diseases common to Europeans, but genocidal to the indigenous people, were used as germ warfare, early weapons of mass destruction. Millions of native people died. In 1763, Lord Jeffery Amherst proposed sending smallpox infected blankets to native tribes, around the same time he called for measures to be taken to ensure the total expiration of those Indian nations. And Amherst is still the namesake of a lovely town in Massachusetts.
On this recent visit to the Apache nation in Arizona, I heard how the Apaches were forced onto a reservation down in the river basin. They had never lived there before. They were people who lived in the hills. They were forced down in a river basin, and then the army, at night opened the river and flooded the river basin, in an attempt to wipe them out. And the people there still suffer, the children still suffer, with psychic trauma even today.
The use of military force, militarism, became not just an occasional necessity or an instrument of self-defense, but key to the ideological basis for legitimizing United States power. United States’ settlers came from Europe for a host of reasons, some were fleeing religious persecution, others came in search of land and profit or colonial enterprise, for some it was both. Some came to do good, they said, and they did right well. And militarism was a big part of making that possible.
Like so many things in our country, good and bad, the impact of militarism does not affect everyone, equally. First nations, the indigenous nations, who once populated this land were almost wiped out in the Indian Wars of the first 200 years of what would become the United States. Those who survived were forced onto reservations, small and inhospitable plots of land, mostly incapable of supporting healthy communities. Their cultures, political systems, religious practices, systems of education, and economic life were all shattered.
Those who survived kept the legacies of life and movements to reclaim and rebuild those cultures. Societies were rebuilt beginning in the 20th century, but barely, including powerful movements for land and water rights and for the protection of Mother Earth and for national, cultural, economic, and social rights. But today, they still live under military treaties and militarism continues to affect Native American communities, with military bases encroaching on native lands, with weapons testing, including nuclear testing, carried out dangerously close to native lands. A Washington State University study showed that the huge expansion of military bases in the 20th century was concentrated in the same area as Indian Reservations, meaning Native Americans face disproportionate exposure to military dangers. The study said the World Wars and the Cold War pushed the United States to produce, test and deploy weapons of unprecedented toxicity, and Native Americans have been left exposed to the dangers of this toxicity, and that is why we must continue to have moral dissent, moral vision, and moral resistance, until we exorcise this demon of militarism from our national body.
The Origins and Legacy of Slavery
For African Americans the legacy of militarism goes all the way back to the first enslaved African Americans brought to the United States in the Middle Passage. In fact, the Second Amendment’s reference to “state militias” was not about guns; it was about slave masters having guns to put down slave revolts. Now, the Second Amendment, that was put there to make sure the slave masters had guns to kill black folk, is being used to keep guns in the hands of everybody that’s killing all of us.
It was through war and militarism that the institution of slavery was struggled over and even the wealthy slave holding aristocrats made rules to send poor whites in the South to fight their fight while their wealthy sons stayed home. The Union army only embraced black soldiers when they were losing and then only in segregated and unfair ways.
Notably, Lincoln, who sat on a pew in this very church cites both North and South as the complicit in this horrible war. Slavery was not simply South’s sin. Lincoln said it was America’s sin. And the price America paid, said Lincoln, was just. “Finally,” he said, “finally do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills, that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk and until every drop of blood drawn by the last shall be paid by another drawn by the sword as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said. The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Our America also watched after the Civil War, but between 1870 and the 1900s, when Africa faced European imperialist aggression and colonization and conquest. African societies tried to resist but many, many were overrun. And by the early 20th century, much of Africa, except Ethiopia and Liberia, had been colonized by European powers, and America watched. The European imperialists’ push into Africa was motivated by three main factors: economic, political, and social, as Walter Rodney, who was assassinated in the 1980s, wrote in his powerful book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.”
In the 21st century, militarism continues, having a particular impact on black communities. Militarism and war abroad have been matched by the militarization of US police in communities across this country. For the last fifty years, when America has gone to war or bombed people, it has been against black and brown countries, period. [It continues through the militarization of] US police, including programs through which the Pentagon donates leftover military equipment to law enforcement, which is how we saw the horror of armed personnel carriers patrolling the streets of Ferguson’s black community after the police killing of Michael Brown. And we know that young black men are nine times more likely to be killed by the police than other people in this country, and police killing rates for Native American and Latinos are also disproportionately high. And yet we are giving the police departments more military firepower now than ever before.
The Origins and Implications of Building Borders
The other day, President Trump touted militarism in his speech in Dallas at the NRA. He brought up the history of the battle of Gonzales, which actually has an impact historically on both black and Latino people. He said that that battle traces back to the beginning of the Texas revolution. And he noted that the flag that they put up in the face of the Mexican army, in Mexican territory, was “Come and take it.” But what he didn’t teach the nation, what he didn’t say, was the reason the settlers took their stand in Gonzales: it was because the white settlers in Mexico, at that time that was Mexico, it wasn’t Texas, they wanted to keep their slaves. And they wanted to remove Texas from Mexico, because Mexico had outlawed slavery in 1829 and it was still legal in the US. Stephen F. Austin made this clear in 1824 when he said, “The principle product that will elevate us from poverty is cotton and we cannot do this without the slave.”
Latino communities continue to suffer from the escalating militarism of the US border, because in reality our Mexican brothers and sisters did not cross the border, the border crossed them. It took from them what was theirs in the first place and it was rooted in the desire to hold slaves. And now, training border patrol agencies in military tactics guarantees more casualties at the border, even before we get to the latest horror of the White House call for border states to deploy national guard troops in the border regions.
The Poverty Draft
We cannot also forget that poor white communities suffer from militarism, because they remain the largest source drafted by poverty recruits to the supposedly “volunteer” military. Garret Rappenhagen, a veteran from Colorado, described how he dropped out of high school after his father died of Agent Orange related cancer and ended up working small minimum-wage jobs. He says, “I bounced around a lot, until I decided to join the military, one month before September 11th. I was getting in trouble with the law enforcement. I realized I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to go to college. I thought serving in the military, I would get that opportunity … Recruiters are in our high schools, sometimes in our junior high schools, in our middle schools, recruiting kids all the time … you see them at the fair.” This is someone white! He said, “You see them at the fairs and other things, where we see eight- and ten-year old’s being allowed to pick up weapons at a table and hold them and cock them and feel proud holding them. That’s what militarism looks like. That’s what the poverty draft looks like.”
Protecting Military Contracts
And of course, a country grounded in militarism goes to war. Westward expansion in the United States didn’t stop when it hit the California coast, they kept moving west, across the ocean and US colonialism moved into places like Hawaii and Guam and the Philippines and far beyond.
The wars the United States is fighting around the world today…are fought for the same things that earlier wars were fought for: resources, military bases, and the expansion of power. And they still don’t keep us any safer. Our young people, mainly our poor young people, are drafted by poverty and the lack of other opportunity into a military to fight wars that cannot be won, and that means that they are drafted into wars where they are fighting and killing other poor people, just like them, just like us, halfway around the world.
In 2009, already eight years into the war, the US military admitted that there were only about 100 al-Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan and another 300 in Pakistan and that was the same year President Obama decided on the troop surge in Afghanistan, adding almost 50,000 more US troops. The situation is worse than ever for Afghans now and for the 15,000+ UU troops still serving there, plus thousands more privately-paid military contractors. There is still no chance of a real victory, because no one knows what victory might look like.
What we do know is that the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan continues to climb. Thousands have been killed, children, old folks, whole families sometimes. US airstrikes have hit wedding parties, where whole communities fall victim to our bombs.
Does killing thousands of Afghans make us safer? No. But this is what US militarism looks like and we know that the commitment to militarism and the continuing wars has completely distorted our economy so our country, the wealthiest country in history, is the only developed country (that’s an interesting term considering the way we keep going to war) but the only developed country that does not provide healthcare to all of its people.
In our country, the wealthiest country in the world, women are more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than in any other developed country, 10 times more likely than in Belarus or Poland. Here, in Washington DC, in the capital of the wealthiest country in history, the women’s mortality rate is the highest in the country, and it varies by race with black women who are more than three times likely to die of pregnancy related causes than white women.
Why? Not because we’re a poor country. Not because we can’t afford health care or first-class education or good union jobs or a decent infrastructure for our country, but because our economy is first and foremost a war economy, before it uplifts our people economy. We live in a country in which 53 cents of every discretionary federal dollar goes directly to the military – and only 15 cents to help end poverty. We might blame our debt on entitlement and welfare, but our debt is really based on all the bombs we have exploded in wars, which we never should have gone into, and our war economy. If this President has his way, by 2023 that will be 65 cents, almost two thirds of every dollar going to the military, and only 12 cents to fight poverty. That’s what has to change and that’s why we must have a nonviolent moral direct action, moral vision, moral dissent, and moral resistance. That’s why.
The Cost of War
We are not poor. The issue is never that we don’t have the money or that we’ve got to raise taxes to do right. We don’t need more money; we need a different will and a different consciousness. We need to spend the money differently than we’re spending it. And we know that if we did spend it differently, our country would be very different.
Just a few weeks ago, Trump used 66 Tomahawk cruise missiles made by Raytheon and 19 joint air-to-surface standoff missiles extended range from Lockheed Martin to attack a Syrian airbase, after a still unproven allegation of chemical weapon use. That cost about $199 million. That doesn’t sound like much compared to the over $700 billion Congress just budgeted for military spending – and by the way on the budget piece, when we have Democrats bragging on a budget deal that they did right by what’s for the military, and Democrats bragging that they did right by the middle class, and nobody talking about doing right by the poor, we really have a problem. But $119 million could have made an enormous difference for people at home. It could have paid for 11,000 veterans getting health care in Ohio. It could have paid for decent pay for 14,000 more elementary school teachers in Kentucky. It could have paid for 2141 good union jobs to build safe water systems in Flint, Michigan. The current annual budget at $668 billion dwarfs the $190 million allocated for education jobs, housing and other basic services and infrastructure combined…What would make us safer: a dangerous escalation of war across the world or a real war on poverty right here in America for jobs, healthcare, education? We have to make a moral choice.
Around the globe we see the effects of this intersection between racism and militarism. We can see it in the $3.8 billion dollars of our tax money that the United States sends directly to the Israeli Defense Forces every year, money that enables the military to continue its violations against Palestinian rights and gives to Netanyahu, who continuously talks about war and war mongering, more strength.
To say this is not to dismiss the Holocaust. It is not to be anti-Semitic. It is not to dismiss the tragic remembrance and it is not to dismiss legitimate enemies of the world in Israel. But money can never be the basis for ignoring the lives of Palestinian children and ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people. It just can’t. Anytime money gets in the way of believing and working toward a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that would serve the cause of peace and guarantee a two-state solution and promote peace throughout the Middle East, anytime money gets in the way of that, then our money is being used in the wrong way. And any time money is given that can be exploited and used to serve the interests of more occupation and more destruction, it is wrong. And so we must understand that, at this moment, protests, overwhelmingly nonviolent unarmed protests, continue in the besieged Gaza strip, protests, which in the last five weeks have led to 40 people killed and over 5500 injured, many seriously. All of those casualties are Palestinian. Not a single Israeli person has been injured or killed. And they include children, journalists, women, and more. And whenever money causes us to be silent on any kind of destruction of the human family, then our money is wrong.
The war economy has been around a long time and we know that it’s the big arms manufacturers, the military corporations, the war profiteers who benefit from the wars, not our people. War and the war economy continue to undermine our dreams, to shred the moral core of our nation. We don’t need a war economy to protect the troops, because the money doesn’t go to the troops. Washington’s wars of the last fifty years have had little to do with protecting Americans, while profit motives have increased significantly with private contractors now providing many traditional military roles. There have been almost 10 times as many military contractors per soldier in the Afghanistan and Iraq war as there were during the Vietnam war. Many of them are making far more money than underpaid US soldiers: an Army private in combat received less than $30,000 dollars in 2016, but in 2016 the CEOs of the top five military contractors earned an average of $19 million dollars a year. This is more than 90 times the $214,000 earned by a US military general with 20 years of experience and, including housing allowance and extra combat pay it’s about 640 times the amount earned by army privates in combat.
The Psychological Toll of War
These interests are making a killing off of killing. They sold their stocks on Wall Street and the stocks jumped 20, 30, and 40 percent. In fact, the stocks go up when there’s talk of war and go down when there’s talk of peace. The money goes to the corporations, about a third of it for huge weapons systems. They don’t help troops. They don’t keep us safer, but they keep killing people all across the world: Afghanistan, Syria, Niger, somewhere else, that doesn’t keep us safe. It’s not what makes us strong and influential around that world. It’s just killing people: killing and making a killing.
US military adventures have caused staggering numbers of civilian deaths in poor countries. According to the United Nations, almost one-third more civilians died in Afghanistan during the first nine months of 2017, than during the same period in 2009 when the counting began. Compared to that same period in 2016, there was a 52 percent increase of civilian deaths from air strikes in 2018, with women and children compromising 68 percent of these deaths.
We hear a lot about taking care of our veterans and we should, but they are also victims of this war. We hear “thank you for your service” over and over again, but when our soldiers come home, we know they have to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, struggle with wounds, and they have to struggle to get healthcare. They come home with grievous injuries, physical, mental, both, and we know the pain of moral injury, the consequences of what our troops are ordered to do in these wars.
In 2012 suicide, listen, claimed more military deaths than military action. A follow up study found that in 2014, the risk of suicide was 22 percent higher among veterans than among US civilian adults. By September 2017 an average of 20 veterans were still dying by suicide every day. That’s more than the number of black people that were being hung every day in the early 1900s.
Among women in the military, sexual harassment is rampant. A 2012 Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ survey indicated that nearly half of female military personnel sent to Iraq or Afghanistan reported being sexually harassed and nearly 25 percent said they had been sexually assaulted.
Michael McPherson, the [former] executive director of Veterans for Peace, describes what happens when you find out that what you’ve been taught about people in foreign lands or people in other places is not true, and when you find out that the same economic or social forces that are impacting your communities, whether it be that you are a black person or a poor person or Latino or whatever, are also impacting those other poor communities. He said, “It is then that you find out that you really have a lot more in common with them than not. That’s when you realize that a lot of the policies that you’re helping to underpin with your military are not good for your community nor good for the people you fight.” He said, “Then you realize that you’re not really standing on stable moral ground as a soldier.” And McPherson says, “and then I do believe that there’s something called moral injury. We talk about post-traumatic stress, but people can come back home and they can come home to moral injury.” Like that man in the grave, moral injury. And the only way you can reconcile it, says McPherson, “Is you have to speak up.” He said, “You really have no choice because unless you speak up and resist that moral injury will traumatize you and hold you prisoner.”
The Demands of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
My friends, the truth is that instead of waging a war on poverty, we’re still waging a war on the poor, at home and abroad, for the financial benefit of a few. It is morally indefensible to profit from perpetual war, which is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has said emphatically and clearly, if you’re going to address systemic racism and systemic poverty and ecological devastation and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism, you have to add into those interlocking injustices addressing the war economy and militarism.
In this campaign, we demand that we have a right to protect our communities from the ravages of war and the weapons of war.
We demand an end to military aggression and war mongering. We raise our moral dissent, our moral vision and our moral resistance.
We demand a call to and end any surplus military equipment from being sent to our police forces in our communities and we demand that we need to shift money from war and militarism to meeting people’s needs.
We demand and we will demand with our moral power that we need to end the longest war of the modern era, the US war in Afghanistan.
And we demand that when our people come home from Afghanistan, we need to help them better. We need a better VA, we need to help them with depression and help them prevent suicide and help them with stress disorder and trauma and stop walking away from them and having them come home from the battlefield many of them never should have gone to and have to battle for life itself.
There is an urgency here. Dr. King said it and it’s still true: “nonviolence or nonexistence.” Either we have a massive moral reset, or we will continue to have massive moral injury leading to more people dying, dying in their minds and dying in their bodies from the demons of militarism.
Oh yes, we demand a stop to the privatization of the military budget. And a reallocation of the resources from military budget to education, health care, jobs, green infrastructure needs and strengthening the VA and keeping that system public.
And we demand an end to voter suppression that suppresses the votes of the very communities sent to war, black people, and brown people and poor white people, and allows the money from those who benefit from the profits of war and militarism to have untold influence on elections and who gets elected. We demand an end to voter suppression, and we call on all people of margin and moral consciousness to go to the polls and vote like never before in your life.
We demand a ban on the proliferation of guns in our community, including semi-automatic weapons. We are tired of the blood thirst of the NRA that is more interested in protecting guns than it is in protecting children and humans.
We demand the demilitarization of our communities on the border and the interior. This includes ending federal programs that send this equipment into these local and state communities and we demand not only that we bring down the wall at the US Mexico border and we surely don’t build another wall and the Mexico border.
We demand an end to the constant attacks and lies on Latino and Mexican immigrants. And instead of talking about building a wall and building war, why don’t we build bridges and an immigration that will allow immigrants who have worked in this country and spent money in this country and paid taxes in this country to vote in this country, so that we can change this country. Instead of criminalizing people, let’s help them raise their families and keep their families together.
And we demand an end to tearing up treaties and the constant Islamophobia and homophobia that drive so much of the war and military rhetoric and reasoning.
We demand a just two state solution in Israel and Palestine.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus found this man in the low place, in the graveyard, because of the hurt and the pain of militarism and the war economy. Jesus came down. God came down. The divine came down to the low place and took him to higher ground. The business people got mad, when their pig business – that some scholars say was connected to feeding the military industrial complex – ran off the cliff. But the man was saved. The community was saved. The demon was exorcised. Today, moral dissent, moral vision, moral resistance and moral agenda is needed once again to break the whole of militarism and war profiteering and to take our nation and our world to higher ground.
Above the Snake Line
My son is an environmental physicist, and he told me once that those who study the environment will tell you that in geography and demographics, there is something known as the snake line. They know that if you get about the snake line, at a certain altitude, snakes can’t live because they’re cold blooded creatures. Snakes can only live below the snake line and so when you’re going to navigate in certain territories, you’ve got to get above the snake line.
In order for Jesus to get the man broken by militarism, he had to go down to the graveyard, but then he had to pick him up and get him above the snake line. In our world today, we must take our nation from the lowlands and the graveyards of war mongering and profiteering, which are below the snake line. Greed is below the snake line. Racism is below the snake line. Islamophobia is below the snake line. Homophobia is below the snake line. Militarizing our communities is below the snake line. And we’re being called to struggle and fight to take America to higher ground.
I don’t know about you, but I know there have always been two streams in America. One that wanted to go backwards and one that wanted to go forward. Which stream are you in? Because I still believe in higher ground.
Higher ground, above the snake line, where we build schools and not walls.
Higher ground where we’re more concerned about bread and butter than bombs and destruction.
Higher ground where we’re more concerned about a guided culture than a guided missile.
Higher ground where we’re more concerned about saving life and educating children than exploding communities.
Higher ground where we’re more concerned about treaties of peace than triggering war.
Higher ground. There is higher ground where black and white and red and brown and Jewish and Asian and Muslim can form a beloved community instead of finding more ways to kill and destroy and oppress one another.
There is a place above the snake line, it’s called higher ground and we must take this nation from the low ground and the graveyards of war mongering and war economy and profiteering and militarism to higher ground.
Is there anybody in America that still believes in higher ground where we save life? Higher ground. Higher ground. Higher ground! I feel like singing, I’m pressing on the upward way. New heights I’m gaining every day. Still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord plant America, Lord plant this nation, Lord plant this world, Lord plant our Congress, Lord plant the Senate, Lord plant our world on higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher, higher ground! Above the snake line!
Rev. Grayland Hagler:
As Rev. Barber gets his breath, I want you to just hold in place just one moment. One moment as we come close to the end of our program this evening. You know, we have this report that’s been put out, an Audit that has been done of what’s been going on is this country. I’m going to invite forward just for a moment, while the offering is being taken up, sister Phyllis Bennis. Y’all know Phyllis, if y’all don’t know Phyllis, you need to know Phyllis. Phyllis is a tremendous and bright activist, scholar, one that teaches us and leads us. Phyllis, where are you?
I’m hiding. Good evening. I have for the moment perhaps the worst job in this room, which is to speak after Reverend William Barber. That’s something nobody should ever do.
But let me start for a moment with another story. A quick story about Dr. Martin Luther King, how he came to write the speech that is, in my view, and I think that view of many,the most important speech of his career, which was the speech at the Riverside Church where he first came out publicly against the war in Vietnam. What happened was he was stuck at an airport, a familiar story. He was stuck at an airport and a colleague who was traveling with him went to get food and brought it back and saw that he was leafing through a magazine and it turned out to be the Ramparts magazine, with a special photographic essay about the cost of the war in Vietnam, for the children in Vietnam. And he put the food down in front of Dr. King and Dr. King pushed the food aside. And his friend said, “Aren’t you hungry? Aren’t you going to eat something?” And King said, “I don’t think I could ever eat again until we do something to end this wretched war.”
Three months later, he came to the Riverside Church in New York City to come out against the war that was ravaging the people of Vietnam and ravaging his own community. And it was from that that the first Poor People’s Campaign emerged. And I think we know, we know from what Revered Barber has told us tonight and we’ve known it all along, that the cost of war in this country disproportionately impacts the poorest among us, the people of color among us, the most marginalized among us.
But what’s very important is that we also recognize again and again that it’s not only about the economic cost. It’s also about the social cost here and across the globe, because if it was cheap to kill people in a wedding party in Afghanistan, it still would be wrong. If it was cheap to kill civilians in Iraq using weapons of mass or other destruction, it would still be wrong. It’s not only because we pay the price in money here. It’s because people are dying over there. They are poor people. These days they are brown and black people and mostly Muslim. They are us. They are us. And we have to keep in mind the necessity of fighting against militarism every step of the way, as we fight against racism, as we fight against poverty, as we fight against environmental degradation.
So how do we do that? It has to do with making the struggle against war part of every movement that we fight in. That when we fight, in all of our movements, when we fight for jobs and education, for health care, for infrastructure, and people say we just don’t have enough money. Yeah, it’s because the money is going to the military.
So that is the call, and not just of the anti-war movement. That is the call of the movement against racism. That is the call of the movement for environmental justice. That is the call of the movement against homophobia and for LGBT rights. That is the movement against racism in this country. All of our movements need to be talking about the impact of war and militarism in our countries. When we talk about protecting refugees, it means we call for an end to the wars that create refugees all around the world. And when we fight to end police violence, we fight against the reality that military weapons from our wars are coming home to be used against black and brown communities in this country.
Why there was such an armored vehicle, an armored personnel carrier in the streets of Ferguson. Why? Because under Pentagon rules, they can give away their leftover goods when they bring them back from Afghanistan and somebody in the police department in Ferguson said, oh yeah, we’ll take one of those APGs. One of those armored personnel carriers. What do we need it for? We don’t know but we’ll use it and sure enough they used it. They used it.
So, let me just end with one more quote from Dr. King that I think gives us our nonviolent marching orders tonight. When he said, “our only hope today.” And it was as true 50 years ago as it is tonight: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world declaring our eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” Thank you.
Rev. Grayland Hagler:
We’re almost done, but that was from Phyllis Bennis who is from the Institute for Policy Studies and she’s one of the authors of The Souls of Poor Folk Audit report and lastly but not least, Matthew Hoh, who is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a Veteran who resigned from the State Department to protest the war in Afghanistan.
Hi. Good evening. A few years ago I could have done this from memory, but I have a brain injury from the wars that I have to read stuff now. And I want to thank Reverend Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign for asking me to speak today about what war does to veterans.
But first, I want to thank a few people who I see here tonight: Medea and Cathy and Patty and Mr. Barry, for their continual courageous stance against the wars, against injustice, and against what is happening here in this town nearly every day. So, thank you. You all mean a lot to me.
All right so you know for many veterans, those of us who have taken part in the killing and are honest about it, war has made us broken people. We live with afflictions of the mind, the body, and the soul. This has always been the case and for no more complicated reason than this: war is organized murder. The effect of it has been and always will be a very profound and damning effect.
Even in our good wars, the Civil War, after the war was over, 400,000-500,000 men died of morphine addiction. Contemporary tales talk all the time about the old Civil War vet drinking himself or shooting up or smoking himself to death in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Our other good war, WWII, sixteen million men and women went to war and about 7 million of them saw combat. Of that, one million were discharged, over 1 million were discharged as psychiatric casualties during their time in service. And remember PTSD wasn’t recognized by the VA or by the American Psychiatric Association until 1980, until those men were in their 60s or 70s. From my generation.
Can I get a thing of water please? I’m sorry one of the things also is that I take some meds that make my mouth dry. Thank you.
For my generation, veterans, we’re killing ourselves at rates three to four times higher than our civilian peers. For the youngest among us, veterans in their twenties, they’re killing themselves at rates six times higher than their brothers and sisters who are the same age. For combat units that have come home and that we have tracked, we are seeing rates of suicide as high as fourteen times what their civilian brothers and sisters are experiencing. And this is true for all generations of veteran who have been to war. WWII veterans are killing themselves at rates four times higher than men their same age who did not go to war. And there should be no doubt about this at all because there’s been dozens of studies that have been done as early as 1981 that have concluded that there is a very real and clear connection between combat, guilt, and suicide. And it goes back to what happened to us in the beginning.
We thought we were going off to be heroes but what we found was that we were not more than pawns for the weapons companies, the bankers, the politicians, and the generals. And that we were villains to those that we were occupying. We did, we really went off thinking that we were going to be heroes. But war is organized murder.
And so those of us who take up the sword are due to die by it at some point. My own life is wrecked and debilitated by an anger and a rage that I unleash without control on those I love the most. And I have a guilt and a sadness that won’t leave me and that brings me continually to thoughts of ending my own life. But dying by the sword is just not an individual experience for veterans, but also for our society, because the wars that we conduct overseas are mirrored in the wars we have here at home.
And for what reason are these wars? Democracy? Freedom? It’s capitalism. We have lies and we have myths that we are told to cover up the killing we do overseas to put and keep in place dictators who will buy our weapons and sell us their resources. And when we come home, we come home to live in an unjust and unequal society with the largest prison complex in the world and a political system that seeks to oppress voting, rather than to expand it.
My friends, I put ten years into the Marine Corps. I went to war three times, but I never served. But being here tonight with you all, I feel like I’m now serving. And together in this moral revival we can overcome the lies and the greed that direct the killing and the suffering, and we can find justice and love, both here at home and abroad.
Thank you very much. And thank you all for what you’re doing.
Rev. Grayland Hagler:
And as we prepare to adjourn. We’re going to adjourn just like we started, with a song and so when we walk out there, we’ve got a song in our hearts, but fire in our spirits. Fire in our spirits to bring about the change that we need. Amen.