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Capturing the Flag

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Photo by Giuseppe Milo | CC by 2.0

How tiring it all becomes! How can the very simple lessons of history get lost in the brouhaha of what constitutes patriotism for some?

Here is the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Democracy Now:

“But now I think Trump has diverted the issue from racial justice to the flag. And how can Trump take the lead on a patriotic flag test? When it was time for war, he ran. He’s a draft dodger.”

The Reverend Jackson was referring to the raging debate across the U.S. about Colin Kaepernick’s taking a so-called knee to protest racism in the U.S. and police brutality against black people (Rev. Jesse Jackson: Colin Kaepernick is a ‘Martyr” & Deserves the Right to Play Football, October 11, 2017). The reverend is stating a no-brainer for anyone with any sense of balance and what fair-play means in practice. In other words, the right to protest and civil disobedience are obvious to any system of government and society that considers itself even marginally democratic. And it’s a no-brainer of equal importance that Donald Trump has taken the issue of athletes who protest racism and police brutality and the police murders of people of color and turned it on its head and made it an issue of racism itself. Why would Trump do otherwise as a means of kowtowing to a part of his base? It’s Trump’s modus operandi and it’s incredibly effective with those who want to throw all of U.S. society under the bus while leaving the leftovers to the very wealthy.

But there’s something of equal importance here. The reverend was with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when King was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee while fighting for the rights of sanitation workers exactly one year after giving one of his most important speeches, “Beyond Vietnam.”  Many rightly believe that Dr. King was gunned down because he moved in “Beyond Vietnam” from a brilliant critique of U.S. racism in the civil rights struggle to a critique of how the military-industrial complex operated in the killing fields of Vietnam and that was too much for the elite to tolerate.  Here are Dr. King’s words from “Beyond Vietnam:”

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

What Dr. King is saying here ought to be obvious to Reverend Jackson. He is counseling and speaking strongly for the right of those who were revolted by the horror of the Vietnam War to resist, revolt, and become, in some cases, those Reverend Jackson refers to as draft dodgers.

It really didn’t matter how a person took on the war in the 1960s and early 1970s through civil disobedience. It literally stopped the immense power of the U.S. government in its tracks. Some of the naysayers contended that it cost some U.S. troops their lives. With over 58.000 U.S. dead by the end of the war and millions more dead in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Jesse Jackson needs to recognize that his brilliant mentor had the war exactly right! Lots and lots of my contemporaries took a knee to the Vietnam War and we had it exactly right, too!

Was Donald Trump a hypocrite during the Vietnam War? There’s no credible way of determining the latter. That Trump is a dangerous hypocrite now is beyond rational debate and that’s the issue we need to react to in the present.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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