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Monday, June 30, 2014

Smedley Butler And The Racket That Is War

Smedley Butler And The Racket That Is War

By Sheldon Richman
Information Clearing House
Monday, June 30, 2014

From 1898 to 1931, Smedley Darlington Butler was a member of
the U.S. Marine Corps.

By the time he retired he had achieved what was then the corps’s
highest rank, major general, and by the time he died in 1940, at 58,
he had more decorations, including two medals of honor, than any
other Marine.

During his years in the corps he was sent to the Philippines (at the
time of the uprising against the American occupation), China,
France (during World War I), Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.

In light of this record Butler presumably shocked a good many
people when in 1935 — as a second world war was looming — he
wrote in the magazine Common Sense:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and
during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle
man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short,
I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism [corporatism]. I
helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil
interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for
the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the
raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of
Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking
House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the
Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I
helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in
1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went
on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given
Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his
racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

That same year he published a short book with the now-famous title
War Is a Racket, for which he is best known today. Butler opened
the book with these words:

War is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most
vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one
in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

He followed this by noting:

“For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war
was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it.
Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they
are today, I must face it and speak out.”

Butler went on to describe who bears the costs of war — the men
who die or return home with wrecked lives, and the taxpayers —
and who profits — the companies that sell goods and services to
the military.

The term military-industrial complex would not gain prominence
until 1961, when Dwight Eisenhower used it in his presidential
farewell address.

Writing in the mid-1930s, Butler foresaw a U.S. war with Japan to
protect trade with China and investments in the Philippines, and
declared that it would make no sense to the average American:

We would be all stirred up to hate Japan and go to war, a war
that might well cost us tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of
thousands of lives of Americans, and many more hundreds of
thousands of physically maimed and mentally unbalanced men.

Of course, for this loss, there would be a compensating profit,
fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be
piled up. By a few. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders.
Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators. They would fare well.…

But what does it profit the men who are killed?

What does it profit their mothers and sisters, their wives and
their sweethearts?

What does it profit their children?

What does it profit anyone except the very few to whom war
means huge profits?

Noting that “until 1898 [and the Spanish-American War] we didn’t
own a bit of territory outside the mainland of North America,” he
observed that after becoming an expansionist world power, the
U.S. government’s debt swelled 25 times and “we forgot George
Washington’s warning about ‘entangling alliances.’ We went to
war. We acquired outside territory.”

It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average
American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements.

For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld
rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always
transferred to the people, who do not profit.

Butler detailed the huge profits of companies that sold goods to
the government during past wars and interventions and the banks
that made money handling the government’s bonds.

The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are
six, eight, ten, and sometimes twelve percent.

But war-time profits, ah!

That is another matter, twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred,
and even eighteen hundred per cent, the sky is the limit.

All that traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Let’s get it.

Of course, it isn’t put that crudely in war time.

It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country, and
‘we must all put our shoulders to the wheel,’ but the profits jump
and leap and skyrocket, and are safely pocketed.

And who provides these returns?

“We all pay them, in taxation.… But the soldier pays the biggest
part of the bill.”

His description of conditions at veterans’ hospitals reminded me of
what we’re hearing today about the dilapidated veterans’ health
care system.

Butler expressed his outrage at how members of the armed forces
are essentially tricked into going to war, at a pitiful wage.

Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to

This was the “war to end all wars.” This was the “war to make the
world safe for democracy.”

No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going
and their dying would mean huge war profits.

No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down
by bullets made by their own brothers here.

No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross
might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents.

They were just told it was to be a “glorious adventure.”

Thus, having stuffed patriotism down their throats, it was decided
to make them help pay for the war, too.

So, we gave them the large salary of $30 a month.

Butler proposed ways to make war less likely.

Unlike others, he had little faith in disarmament conferences and
the like.

Rather, he suggested three measures:

(1) take the profit out of war by conscripting “capital and industry
and labor” at $30 a month before soldiers are conscripted;

(2) submit the question of entry into a proposed war to a vote only
of “those who would be called upon to do the fighting and dying”;

(3) “make certain that our military forces are truly forces for
defense only.”

It’s unlikely that these measures would ever be adopted by
Congress or signed by a president, and of course conscription is
morally objectionable, even if the idea of drafting war profiteers
has a certain appeal.

But Butler’s heart was in the right place. He was aware that
his program would not succeed:

“I am not a fool as to believe that war is a thing of the past.”

Yet in 1936 he formalized his opposition to war in his proposed
constitutional “Amendment for Peace.” It contained three

The removal of the members of the land armed forces from within
the continental limits of the United States and the Panama Canal
Zone for any cause whatsoever is prohibited.

The vessels of the United States Navy, or of the other branches of
the armed service, are hereby prohibited from steaming, for any
reason whatsoever except on an errand of mercy, more than five
hundred miles from our coast.

Aircraft of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps is hereby prohibited
from flying, for any reason whatsoever, more than seven hundred
and fifty miles beyond the coast of the United States.

He elaborated on the amendment and his philosophy of defense
in an article in Woman’s Home Companion, September 1936.

It’s a cliche of course to say, “The more things change, the more
they stay the same,” but on reading Butler today, who can resist
thinking it?

As we watch Barack Obama unilaterally and illegally reinsert the
U.S. military into the Iraqi disaster it helped cause and sink deeper
into the violence in Syria, we might all join in the declaration with
which Butler closes his book:


Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom
Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of
Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published
by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York.

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