The madness of war II / By Woody Klein

Nearly 45 years ago in August 1965, I had the privilege of exclusively interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a midtown hotel in New York City. The appointment had been arranged for me through a mutual friend, Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a colleague if the civil rights leader and someone I knew from my reporting days at the New York World Telegram & Sun. I am reminded of this moment, since last Sunday marked the 42nd anniversary of the day King was slain by an assassin's bullet at the age of 39.

While his ostensible purpose in visiting New York was to expand his successful nonviolent Southern Christian Leadership movement to northern cities like Chicago and New York, during the course of our one-on-one conversation, without any of his aides nearby, he told me he was starting to think that the war in Vietnam was pointless and, indeed, sapping not only the lives of thousands of Americans, but he did not want to go on the record -- yet.

It was not until two years later, however, ironically, on April 4, 1967 -- exactly one year before his death -- that he made worldwide news when he told 3,000 people who had come to listen to him at the Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan, that failing to protest the Vietnam War amounted to what he called "a betrayal."

As Bob Herbert wrote in his column in The New York Times last Saturday, "[King] spoke of both the carnage in the war zone and the toll the war was taking here in the United States." Herbert recalled that the head of the civil rights movement referred to what he called the indictment of "the madness of Vietnam."

Many observers, including some of his ardent followers, felt he should not have expanded his reach to include the war, but should stick to his civil rights agenda. In fact, The New York Times headlined its editorial on King's anti-Vietnam War speech in New York "Dr. King's Error." No matter, King's opposition to the war added to the momentum in the growing movement of anti-war dissent across America. Herbert pointed out the irony of the fact that "Dr. King spoke of how, in Vietnam, the United States increased its commitment of troops `in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support.'" Then Herbert added: "It's strange, indeed, to read those words more than four decades later as we are increasing our commitment of troops in Afghanistan to fight in support of Hamid Karzai, who remains in power after an election that the world knows was riddled with fraud and whose government is one of the most corrupt and inept on the planet."

Using this same parallel, Herbert quoted King as warning that: "A nation that Continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Herbert observed that it took great courage for King to speak out the way he did. "His bold stand seems all the more striking in today's atmosphere, in which moral courage among the very prominent -- the kind of courage that carries real risk -- seems mostly to have disappeared."

The Times columnist, in my opinion, is one of the most incisive and clear-thinking in America today. He tells it like it is. He makes his case for pulling out by pointing up that more than 4,000 Americans have died in Iraq and upward of 1,000 so far in Afghanistan at a cost of more than $3 trillion. Moreover, Herbert chastises the Obama administration "for choosing to escalate rather than to begin a careful withdrawal." I realize that Obama's strategy is to begin to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, assuming that U.S. troops have managed to kill all of al Quaeda as possible and dispersed the Taliban. At this writing, however, from news reports I read, those strategic goals are running into stiff opposition. The Taliban remains strong and made a comeback recently. Further, there is no certainty whatsoever that Afghan troops will be able to be trained well enough to protect their own country any time soon. It is a hopeless mission. Not to mention that Karzai himself is now saying that his interests and the United States' "no longer coincide." And, as if to throw sand in our face, Karzai had the gall to invite Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidential place in Kabul, where the Iranian leader delivered a fiery anti-U.S. speech.

As readers of this column know, I have been an Obama supporter from the outset -- even before the 2008 election during the primary campaign. But I now think that his hand-picked group of savvy political civilian antimilitary advisors, are striving for an impossible goal. I don't know what the answer is -- there are brilliant minds much better acquainted with the facts than this reporter -- but I do feel, as Herbert as stated, that we as a people, should turn what has been a minor brush fire against the war into a full-fledged grass movement of demonstrations that, hopefully, will trigger both the White House and the Congress to realize that we have too much on our plate at home to dissipate our human and financial resources in a thankless war that reminds many people of Vietnam. We should have learned by now, paraphrasing the old Kenny Rogers song, that, "You got to when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em."

Woody Klein's column appears regularly in the Westport News. His views do not necessarily reflect the opinion of this newspaper.