War is a Racket-Smedley Butler (book review)
War is a Racket isn't exactly a book as much as it's a tract of about 30 pages written in 1935 by a former Marine general who was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor. Butler is now the most obscure of the four famous 20th century generals involved in the 1932 Bonus March incident in Anacostia Flats in Washington D.C. At the height of the depression, some 20,000 World War 1 veterans, their families, and other supporters came to DC to urge Congress to make early payment on a 1500 dollar bonus to be paid out to them in 1945. With the help of the government, they set up a shantytown near the Capitol to dramatize their commitment. Although many went home after the Congress moved the payment forward slightly, many of the marchers refused to leave and the DC police were unable to evict some of them from a Federal construction site. (William Manchester's The Glory and the Dream
, one of my favorite books of social history btw, opens his narrative with a detailed description of the Bonus Marchers' tragedy.)
Six weeks in, the U.S. Army under the command of Douglas Macarthur was summoned to disperse the marchers. Dwight Eisenhower was on Macarthur's staff. George Patton was a captain who took the lead in the operation. Two bonus marchers were shot dead and hundreds more were wounded. Two infants were also killed. Although he wasn't there that day, Smedley Butler was the lone General who openly supported the marchers' demands. Butler, who grew up as the son of a Republican Congressman and who ran for office as a Republican that year changed his support to FDR. More important, Butler who had a longstanding reputation for standing up for rank and file servicemen, became increasingly and openly critical of war profiteering.
War is a Racket is one of a handful of tracts Butler produced to supplement his public speaking career after the Bonus March incident. The tract remains as provocative today as it was seventy years ago. Butler's argument is simple. He calls 20th century war the ultimate form of gangsterism. He cites a variety of figures to support his contention that America's foreign adventures were allowing defense contractors to make enormous profits while the common soldier was paying the price and taking the risk. In short, Butler identified the dangers of the military-industrial complex exactly twenty five years before Dwight Eisenhower. Although Eisenhower was on Macarthur's staff, he was deeply disturbed by what happened that day in Anacostia flats. The Bonus Army incident may have been the seed for what turned out to be Eisenhower's last major speech.
Butler writes with the kind of directness that one would expect from a lifelong Marine. He's particularly effective when he points to items like the fact that the US Army wound up with five extra pairs of boots for every active soldier at the end of the war and trainloads of wrenches built for a non-existent application. His proposed three part solution is also very direct,
1) Essentially draft corporations along with soldiers. During a war all officers in corporations supplying the defense department should be forced to accept the same salary as an enlisted man fighting at the front.
2) Let those who will actually have to serve on the front lines make the decision to go to war in a limited plebiscite.
3) Don't allow US forces to serve more than 200 miles outside our continental borders. (Butler was an isolationist even in the face of Hitler and Mussolini, something that critics have cited repeatedly as an example that he was both impractical and wrong. Butler died from cancer in 1940 and thus did not live to see Pearl Harbor.
Butler's ideas remain radical and in some ways much more visionary than anything current politicians or military folk have been willing to discuss. I find myself seriously wondering what might have happened had the US imposed laws that took the profit motive out of foreign wars. Are you listening Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld?
Years ago, I used to facilitate a great books group. Often, I found that actual great books didn't make for great discussion. War is a Racket would be a terrific springboard for discussion in a reading group or in any school. It's short, easy to understand, and it re-asks the fundamental question about America's role in the world at a time when it needs to be re-examined. In particular, he points out a finding which came through the Nye Committeein that same year that the US involvement in WW1 may have been largely due to the fact that the allies had huge outstanding loans to the United States. If the British and French had lost the war, the U.S. would have lost 2.3 billion dollars in loan payments. Butler very provocatively argues that U.S. investment forced it to enter a war whose purpose from a U.S. standpoint still gets debated.
While he is featured in a documentary called the Corporation, I'm surprised that there hasn't been a dramatic movie about Butler's extraordinary life. Here's a man who was raised Quaker by a congressman father, dropped out of high school against his parents' wishes at age 16 to serve in both the Spanish American War and the Boxer Rebellion expedition. Butler's military history includes a number of foreign interventions that seldom make contemporary history books. Along the way, he wins two Medals of Honor and a Brevet Award (the equivalent of the CMH for officers pre-1900) and becomes a genuine celebrity. In fact, Lowell Thomas, the American radio man/filmmaker, who made T.E. Lawrence famous(yet another fascinating character from the period whose struggles also have an enormous amount to say about current U.S. foreign policy) also wrote a hagiography of Butler, Old Gimlet Eye that celebrated him as the ultimate Marine.
Butler also served as the controversial public safety commissioner for the city of Philadelphia from 1924-1925 where he took on gambling, alcohol, and prostitution only to get fired after he also raided the upper class venues for such activities. This may have further fueled his later disenchantment with profiteers and the war machine.
Perhaps most fascinating of all, Butler testified in 1934 before the McCormack-Dickstein Committee that he had been recruited by corporate representatives who included J.P Morgan Bank, Goodyear Tires, etc. to lead a military coup to rein in Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Although the mainstream media of the time derided Butler's testimony, the committee actually found his testimony credible though it deleted the names of the extremely wealthy individuals whom Butler claimed had been involved in the plot. It's not clear how serious or far along the plot was, but the Business Plot along with the Nye Committee have largely disappeared from history texts.
Revisionists have tended to dismiss Butler as
1) simple-minded often by citing the fact that he never went to college.
2) too isolationist and thus not attuned to the 20th century
3) too lacking in nuance and diplomacy
This has essentially been used as a rationale for dismissing his still provocative ideas. In some ways, Socialists and Marxists have have had to keep Butler's memory alive, because his ideas seem to align so well with Marxist critiques of Imperialist-Capitalism. Butler, however, was a strong believer in both civil liberties and the democratic process. He was in fact deeply patriotic- he was just out of step with the Internationalist-interventionist trends that swept through World War 2 and continue into our time.
In the meantime, we live in a culture that glorified George Patton in movie form. I suspect war and U.S. intervention throughout the world remains very much a racket.
Whether one agrees with him or not, Smedley Butler may have been the greatest of the four generals whose careers converged with the Bonus Army. It's a shame that he's now the least remembered and I can't believe that I was well into middle age before I'd even heard of this book.