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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Reading List: War Is a Racket

Butler, Smedley D. War Is a Racket. San Diego, CA: Dauphin Publications, [1935] 2018. ISBN 978-1-939438-58-4.
Smedley Butler knew a thing or two about war. In 1898, a little over a month before his seventeenth birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, which directly commissioned him a second lieutenant. After completing training, he was sent to Cuba, arriving shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. Upon returning home, he was promoted to first lieutenant and sent to the Philippines as part of the American garrison. There, he led Marines in combat against Filipino rebels. In 1900 he was deployed to China during the Boxer Rebellion and was wounded in the Gaselee Expedition, being promoted to captain for his bravery.

He then served in the “Banana Wars” in Central America and the Caribbean. In 1914, during a conflict in Mexico, he carried out an undercover mission in support of a planned U.S. intervention. For his command in the battle of Veracruz, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Next, he was sent to Haiti, where he commanded Marines and Navy troops in an attack on Fort Rivière in November 1915. For this action, he won a second Medal of Honor. To this day, he is only one of nineteen people to have twice won the Medal of Honor.

In World War I he did not receive a combat command, but for his work in commanding the debarkation camp in France for American troops, he was awarded both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals. Returning to the U.S. after the armistice, he became commanding general of the Marine training base at Quantico, Virginia. Between 1927 and 1929 he commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in China, and returning to Quantico in 1929, he was promoted to Major General, then the highest rank available in the Marine Corps (which was subordinate to the Navy), becoming the youngest person in the Corps to attain that rank. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1931.

In this slim pamphlet (just 21 pages in the Kindle edition I read), Butler demolishes the argument that the U.S. military actions in which he took part in his 33 years as a Marine had anything whatsoever to do with the defence of the United States. Instead, he saw lives and fortune squandered on foreign adventures largely in the interest of U.S. business interests, with those funding and supplying the military banking large profits from the operation. With the introduction of conscription in World War I, the cynical exploitation of young men reached a zenith with draftees paid US$30 a month, with half taken out to support dependants, and another bite for mandatory insurance, leaving less than US$9 per month for putting their lives on the line. And then, in a final insult, there was powerful coercion to “invest” this paltry sum in “Liberty Bonds” which, after the war, were repaid well below the price of purchase and/or in dollars which had lost half their purchasing power.

Want to put an end to endless, futile, and tragic wars? Forget disarmament conferences and idealistic initiatives, Butler says,

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations [sic] manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation—it must conscript capital and industry. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted—to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

Let the workers in these plants get the same wages—all the workers, all presidents, all directors, all managers, all bankers—yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders—everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!

Let all these kings and tycoons and masters of business and all those workers in industry and all our senators and governors and majors [I think “mayors” was intended —JW] pay half their monthly $30 wage to their families and pay war risk insurance and buy Liberty Bonds.

Why shouldn't they?

Butler goes on to recommend that any declaration of war require approval by a national plebiscite in which voting would be restricted to those subject to conscription in a military conflict. (Writing in 1935, he never foresaw that young men and women would be sent into combat without so much as a declaration of war being voted by Congress.) Further, he would restrict all use of military force to genuine defence of the nation, in particular, limiting the Navy to operating no more than 200 miles (320 km) from the coastline.

This is an impassioned plea against the folly of foreign wars by a man whose career was as a warrior. One can argue that there is a legitimate interest in, say assuring freedom of navigation in international waters, but looking back on the results of U.S. foreign wars in the 21st century, it is difficult to argue they can be justified any more than the “Banana Wars” Butler fought in his time.

Posted at August 29, 2019 22:03