To ensure the “revolution of values” that Dr. King called for, justice and equality must be enshrined under new anti-racist systems. This requires exercising our imaginations, investing in peace education, and rethinking global economic and security systems. Only then will we defeat the evil triplets, “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” and foster positive, sustainable peace.
By Catalina Jaramillo*
In his 1967 speech condemning the Vietnam War (Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. identified racism, militarism, and extreme materialism as the “giant triplets,” or evils, that require conquering. Like triplets, these three super structures or institutions share a ‘genetic code,’ or common foundation, from which they derive and function. It was against the backdrop of racism that militarism and materialism as we know them sprung. In consequence, the institutions and practices encompassed within the three evils–including military institutions and organizations, war, and free-market capitalism–reinforce and perpetuate one another by empowering the same elite and oppressing the same disadvantaged core of society: poor, and predominantly Black and brown communities. Racism, extreme materialism, and militarism have extended the United States’ domestic power imbalances abroad, shaping its international posture to be one of intervention propelled by and propelling global and racially oppressive power structures. Militarism and materialism must not be an afterthought to the fight against racism; they ought to be understood as pillars that uphold and are upheld by racism. Shared imbalances of power are the common thread that weaves racism, militarism, and materialism together. This implies that structurally tackling one of the triplets targets the other two as well. To ensure the “revolution of values” that Dr. King called for, justice and equality must be enshrined under new anti-racist systems. This requires exercising our imaginations, investing in peace education, and rethinking global economic and security systems. Only then will we defeat the evil triplets, “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” and foster positive, sustainable peace.
The United States’ long quest for global military supremacy and the concept of “national security” were born from the bedrock of systemic racism, causing US militarism to perpetuate white supremacy and racism at home and abroad, while using violence to uphold such structures. War and militarism empower and enrich a predominantly white elite at the expense of the poor, and largely Black and brown communities everywhere. In countries ravaged by war, key infrastructure is destroyed, food access is inhibited, ecological systems are devastated, and people are displaced. War makes formal education nearly impossible to access for those affected, contributing to cycles of intergenerational poverty, as well. Those who are impoverished are disproportionately impacted as war intensifies poor living conditions for those who are already vulnerable and plunges even more communities into poverty. Since 2001, the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have cost over half a million lives while enabling resource extraction and sales by US-based oil companies, depriving many of these populations of their resources (Poor People’s Campaign).
Yemen, for example, is suffering a civil war fueled by external forces that has created the worst humanitarian crisis ever seen. Approximately 80% of the Yemeni population requires urgent humanitarian aid and 20 million experience conditions of famine. Saudi Arabia’s military campaigns in Yemen lead the carnage and consist of “airstrikes targeting civilian and agricultural infrastructure, arbitrary killings, torture, detention, and sexual violence against women,” having directly killed hundreds of thousands and pushing nearly 14 million Yemenis to famine (El-Tayyab). They are made possible by large-scale arms sales by actors such as the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands. Four of the top five most profitable military contractors are US companies that received a combined $117.9 billion in military contracts in 2018 (Poor People’s Campaign). Two of those four US companies, Raytheon and General Dynamics, have sold a combined $6.3 billion of arms to the Saudi-led coalition, and pieces of Raytheon weapons were found at various sites where innocent civilians were attacked (Langan). The Global South tends to carry the burden for wars waged by countries of the Global North, perpetuating global power imbalances under which predominantly white and wealthy nations gain, and Black and brown communities in the Global South lose.
The United States has not yet grappled with a distorted moral narrative it espouses when it comes to militarism and its relationship with systemic racism.
The United States has not yet grappled with the distorted moral narrative it espouses when it comes to militarism and its relationship with systemic racism. The US government has 31% of the world’s military spending, with a budget greater than the combined budget of the next nine countries (Siddique). Policymakers have long claimed that such unfathomable defense budgets are necessary to protect freedoms abroad. However, these freedoms are not guaranteed at home as systemic racism persists, all while defense spending has long translated to a depletion of funding and resources for the civilian economy. During the Cold War, the US military-industrial complex used “more than the money value of the nation’s entire stock of civilian industrial plant, equipment, and infrastructure,” as the federal government also became the “single largest funder of R&D in the economy” (Melman) primarily used by the Department of Defense. Of the $21 trillion that the United States has spent on foreign and domestic militarization since 9/11, “$2.3 trillion could create 5 million jobs at $15 per hour with benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for 10 years…$1.7 trillion could erase student debt…[and] $25 billion could provide COVID vaccines for the populations of low-income countries” (Koshgarian, Siddique & Steichen). The United States’ and the world’s vulnerable populations are forgotten, and their predicaments neglected as a result.
Although 43 percent of people on active duty in the US military are people of color, this same representation is not reflected in high-ranking positions which are almost completely occupied by white, non-minority individuals (Cooper). The target audience for US military recruitment is largely young men from low-income and rural areas (Camacho). Growing up, seeing military recruitment officers at my public schools in south Florida distributing pamphlets or organizing pull-up contests was never rare. These recruitment efforts always rubbed me the wrong way, though I was unsure why. The United States is unique among other developed nations in allowing the military to actively operate within its education system (Camacho).
The United States is unique among other developed nations in allowing the military to actively operate within its education system.
Recruiters use manipulation tactics such as exaggerated financial awards like offers to pay for college, the promise of potential citizenship, and notions of serving one’s community or learning necessary skills (Camacho). Students in situations of need and limited opportunities–disproportionately Black and brown students–often view joining the military as a lifeline. In his speech against the war in Vietnam, Dr. King spoke of the reality that “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” (King). This is dissonant with the United States’ claimed values of defending freedom abroad. During the Vietnam War, many of the Black and brown soldiers who honorably fought grew up in a segregated United States and came home to continued racist discrimination and oppression.
The US military effectively mobilizes those that it neglects and oppresses, asking them to fight and die for liberties that they do not possess at home. Poor, Black, and brown communities in the United States do not know it to be the land of the free; they are not familiar with the democratic identity and soul that this country has become so emblematic of. Dr. King asserted that efforts must be focused on the hope that “America will be.” Because Black and brown Americans live the reality of an unrealized America, that America does not exist. However, it can exist.
The interdependent relationship between racism, militarism, and materialism makes it so that structural and systemic solutions address the harm produced by all three. This first requires imagining domestic and global cultures of peace.
The interdependent relationship between racism, militarism, and materialism makes it so that structural and systemic solutions address the harm produced by all three. This first requires imagining domestic and global cultures of peace. We can individually and collectively embark on mental adventures or participate in mental play to imagine and create the world we wish to live in. Hope and a vision of what we want to work towards, no matter how distinct from the status quo, are prerequisites to planning and tangible action. As Elise Boulding put it, “People can’t work for what they can’t imagine” (Boulding). Critical to this vision is the inclusion and representation of diverse perspectives, experiences, and needs–most importantly, those of the marginalized. In reference to the Vietnam War, Dr. King believed that there would be “no meaningful solution…until some attempt [was] made to know [the people of Vietnam who had been living under the curse of war] and hear their broken cries.” Compassion is the foremost principle in the imagination of peace, for it allows for inclusion. Peace for some is not peace.
I imagine a world informed by peace education that instills in its youngest citizens the values of collective identity and belonging, self-transcendence, cooperation, and empathy in order to dismantle hierarchies that are upheld in minds and social conceptions and foment micro-level peaceful interactions.
I imagine a world informed by peace education that instills in its youngest citizens the values of collective identity and belonging, self-transcendence, cooperation, and empathy in order to dismantle hierarchies that are upheld in minds and social conceptions and foment micro-level peaceful interactions. This peace education is culturally and context-specific, working with localized wants and experiences. I imagine a broader creative rethinking of the global economic system to one that is less exclusionary and does not create zero-sum games of economic gain. People are always placed above profits, and the basic needs of all are met. In fact, it is economically favorable to prioritize the welfare of all given that intrinsic values and rights predominate, and not monetary values. I imagine a security sector that is predicated on the principle of collective security–that one’s security is that of all, and as such, a threat against one is a threat against all. Aggression is rare, and if it is encountered, it is approached compassionately and collectively, with a priority to listen to and address the complaints and needs of the aggressor. As such, weapons are futile. There is no need for war and resources are shared across borders. Governments invest in people, not elusive and ineffective defense. Furthermore, reimagined institutions are flexible, allowing for the possibility of change over time with the understanding that people’s demands and welfare needs may evolve. Decision-making is inclusive and non-hierarchical, incorporating the voices of all sectors and groups of society. Diverse and pluralistic democracies are realized. There is respect for a rule of law that is applied and enforced equally and justly.
Angela Davis’ radical feminism posits that no one is free until those at the bottom of the hierarchy are free. Only until the most underprivileged and disempowered are uplifted and live lives free of oppression, will America–the ‘land of the free’–exist. That will be the demise of the evil triplets.
Boulding, E. (2000). The Passion for Utopia. In Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (pp. 29–55). essay, Syracuse University Press.
Camacho, R. (2022, April 18). Marginalized students pay the price of military recruitment efforts. Prism. Retrieved from https://prismreports.org/2022/04/18/marginalized-students-military-recruitment/
Cooper, H. (2020, May 25). African-Americans are highly visible in the military, but almost invisible at the top. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/us/politics/military-minorities-leadership.html
Davis, A. (2018, January 8). Angela Davis criticizes “mainstream feminism” / bourgeois feminism. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzQkVfO9ToQ
El-Tayyab, H. (2020, October 19). Who’s Profiting From the War on Yemen? Friends Committee On National Legislation. Retrieved from https://www.fcnl.org/updates/2020-10/whos-profiting-war-yemen
King Jr., M. L. (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam.
Koshgarian, L., Siddique, A., & Steichen, L. (2021, September 1). State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11. National Priorities Project. Retrieved from https://media.nationalpriorities.org/uploads/publications/state_of_insecurity_report.pdf
Langan, M. K. (2020, October 23). How American Companies Have Made Profits from the Yemen War. Borgen Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.borgenmagazine.com/how-american-companies-have-made-profits-from-the-yemen-war/
McCarthy, J. (2022, March 1). How War Fuels Poverty. Global Citizen. Retrieved from https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/how-war-fuels-poverty/
Melman, S. (1995). Disarmament, Economic Conversion, and Jobs for All. Retrieved from https://njfac.org/index.php/us8/
The New York State Poor People’s Campaign. (2020, January 28). A Poor People’s Resistance to War and Militarism. Poor People’s Campaign. Retrieved from https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/update/a-poor-peoples-resistance-to-war-and-militarism/
Siddique, A. (2022, June 22). U.S. Still Spends More on Military Than Next Nine Countries Combined. National Priorities Project. Retrieved from https://www.nationalpriorities.org/blog/2022/06/22/us-still-spends-more-military-next-nine-countries-combined/#:~:text=The%20United%20States%20still%20makes,of%20the%20world’s%20military%20spending