An Obama administration official said that nonviolent icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would "understand" and "recognize" the need for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan if he were alive today.
In a speech commemorating the late hero days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, the Department of Defense's general counsel Jeh C. Johnson imputed highly questionable views to the civil rights leader.
"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," Johnson said.
Johnson claimed US service members are helping the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that Dr. King spoke out in favor of acts of kindness.
"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, adding that the "dangerous unselfishness" of the troops would make Dr. King proud.
The claim sparked controversy as critics were quick to note that Dr. King was an ardent anti-war activist who spoke out against military interventions.
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill called it "[o]ne of the most despicable attempts at revisionist use of Martin Luther King Jr. I've ever seen."
Salon's Justin Elliott remarked that Dr. King's "political philosophy, as outlined in his landmark 1967 speech against the Vietnam war, strongly suggests that he would be an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, for that matter, the secret wars in Yemen and Pakistan."
In the speech, Dr. King lamented "the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8000 miles from its shores."
He called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today" and said: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
The Pentagon release goes on to note that Johnson, an African-American, is a graduate of Morehouse College, Dr. King's alma mater, where he attended school with Dr. King's son.