King Might Understand Today’s Wars, Pentagon Lawyer Says

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13, 2011 — If Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. were alive today, would he under­stand why the Unit­ed States is at war?
Jeh C. John­son, the Defense Department’s gen­er­al coun­sel, posed that ques­tion at today’s Pen­ta­gon com­mem­o­ra­tion of King’s lega­cy.

In the final year of his life, King became an out­spo­ken oppo­nent of the Viet­nam War, John­son told a packed audi­to­ri­um. How­ev­er, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the icon­ic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teach­ings.

“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would rec­og­nize that we live in a com­pli­cat­ed world, and that our nation’s mil­i­tary should not and can­not lay down its arms and leave the Amer­i­can peo­ple vul­ner­a­ble to ter­ror­ist attack,” he said.

John­son is a 1979 grad­u­ate of More­house Col­lege in Atlanta, where King grad­u­at­ed in 1948. He also attend­ed school with King’s son, Mar­tin Luther King III, and was privy to the elder King’s speak­ing engage­ments there.

John­son said today’s ser­vice mem­bers might won­der whether the mis­sion they serve is con­sis­tent with King’s mes­sage and beliefs. In King’s last speech in Mem­phis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968 — the night before he died — King evoked the bib­li­cal para­ble of the Good Samar­i­tan, John­son not­ed.

Accord­ing to the para­ble, a trav­el­er was beat­en and robbed and left for dead. Two oth­er trav­el­ers passed the man as he lay along­side the road — one was a priest. Both ignored the man and con­tin­ued on their way. Final­ly, a Samar­i­tan trav­el­ing the road showed com­pas­sion and took the stranger to an inn and saw to his care.

In his speech, King drew a par­al­lel between those who passed by the man on the road and those in Mem­phis who at the time hes­i­tat­ed to help strik­ing san­i­ta­tion work­ers because they feared for their own jobs.

John­son said King crit­i­cized those who are com­pas­sion­ate by proxy, not­ing the civ­il rights leader told the audi­ence in Mem­phis that night, “The ques­tion is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will hap­pen to me?’ The ques­tion is, ‘If I do not stop to help the san­i­ta­tion work­ers, what will hap­pen to them?’ ”

John­son com­pared today’s troops to the Samar­i­tan, who chose to help instead of tak­ing an eas­i­er path.

“I draw the par­al­lel to our own ser­vice­men and women deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and else­where, away from the com­fort of con­ven­tion­al jobs, their fam­i­lies and their homes,” John­son said.

Vol­un­teers in today’s mil­i­tary, he said, “have made the con­scious deci­sion to trav­el a dan­ger­ous road and per­son­al­ly stop and admin­is­ter aid to those who want peace, free­dom and a bet­ter place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

“Every day, our ser­vice­men and women prac­tice the dan­ger­ous­ness — the dan­ger­ous unselfish­ness Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968,” John­son told the audi­ence.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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