Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

Buy this book from Amazon.com

War is a Racket

Smedley Butler

Feral House ($9.95)

by Joel Turnipseed

It's easy enough to imagine the long history of Marine Corps war heroes: Dan Daly cutting the pistol from a dead horse to continue fighting in Haiti, where he earned his second Medal of Honor; barrel-chested Lewis "Chesty" Puller, serving in campaigns stretching from World War One to Korea, storming over a frozen Korean ridge for his fifth Bronze Star. These are the guys who are, as they say in the Corps, "Brass balls and bulletproof." Puller even petitioned, at age 68, to go to Vietnam in 1966, but was denied. His son, Lewis Puller, Jr., went instead and lost his legs.

What's harder to imagine is the long list of the Marine Corps' anti-war heroes, such as Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers, or David Shoup, also a Medal of Honor winner, who resigned as Commander of the Marine Corps in 1963 over his disagreements with the President about our action in Vietnam. Shoup said in a famous '60s anti-war speech:

I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody dollar-crooked fingers out of the businesses of nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they (would) arrive at a solution of their own that they design(ed) and want(ed). Not one crammed down their throat by Americans.

The leading Marine Corps General in the First Gulf War, Anthony Zinni, started campaigning against a subsequent invasion of Iraq during the Clinton Administration and continues to give speeches critical of our ongoing disaster in that country. Colonel David Hackworth once asked, "What is it with most Marine generals? Do they get inoculated with double shots of truth serum in boot camp?" Who knows, but both camps, the Marine Corps war heroes and the anti-war heroes, could claim the same man as their standard-bearer: Smedley Darlington Butler.

Butler was born to a long line of Quakers but grew up revelling in his grandfathers' tales of the Civil War, on whose behalf they both fought despite their pacifism. So it was only natural that when the Hearst papers ran with the headlines announcing the demise of the U.S.S. Maine, and he overheard his Congressman father talking of the need for new Marine Corps officers, that he bullied his mother into vouching for his adulthood and headed off to war. In his first action, fighting the Filipino soldiers who had taken their country back from Spain and would not surrender it to the US, Butler found his platoon pinned down in a rice paddy. His men were afraid for their life, and so was Butler, but he stood up and started firing anyway, which in turn encouraged his men to do so and the rout was on. In honor of his first victory, he tattooed the Marine Corps emblem on his chest. From there to China, where Butler earned the first decoration of the many that would eventually make him the most decorated Marine ever to leave the battlefield. After a fight in which three of his men were killed, and from which his Marines were in retreat from a village heavily armed with Boxer soldiers, Butler learned that one of his men was unaccounted for. He marched all through the night back to the village, found his man lying in a ditch with a destroyed leg, patched him up, and carried the man seven miles back to their unit. The enlisted men who went with him earned the Medal of Honor. Butler missed out on his because at the time officers were not granted the Medal of Honor, and so he was breveted from lieutenant to captain. After Congress passed a law allowing officers to win the Medal of Honor, Butler won the two he did earn (and no one has ever earned three, making Butler arguably the greatest warrior in U.S. history) in Mexico and Haiti. When he retired from the Marine Corps at age 50, he was the highest-ranking Marine Corps officer at Brigadier General and one of the most famous Americans in the world--Lowell Thomas, so responsible for making T. E. Lawrence famous, even wrote a dashing hagiography called Old Gimlet Eye.

Imagine the surprise when, in 1935, Butler published a longish pamphlet called War is a Racket, which opens:

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 wrote it in response to the growing fears that America would be dragged into yet another war, and it should be noted that his views were not so much pacifist as anti-war. A good, honest war in defense of his country's Constitution and Bill of Rights would have roused a great cheer from Butler, who loved his Marines and was as tough as anyone. But after he was asked to help assassinate Roosevelt so that the U.S. could join with the Fascists in Italy (about whom publications like Fortune had written glowingly for their business acumen), Butler said enough was enough. He spent the rest of his life exposing the lie that so often hid behind the noble rhetoric, and the money fueling the engines of war. When reading War is a Racket, you can't help but feel the anger in his words--and yet, too, the tremendous will and steel of a man who had seen hell and was bound not to expose even one more young man to it if he could help it.

Butler's anger was not aimed at war, but the war-makers, or rather, the war-profiteers. Indeed, reading his little book, you think that Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" speech (which would have been a great addition to this volume) is just a gloss on War is a Racket. Of course, even Eisenhower's speech is now lost to the dustbin of cliché and War is once again an honor and a glory (and, for the few, still tremendously profitable). Luckily, after decades out of print, alternative press Feral House has reissued Butler's famous pamphlet. Publisher Adam Parfrey could have added a bit more balance to his introduction (which focuses with harrowing detail on Butler's foiling of a Wall Street plot to assassinate Roosevelt and align the U.S. with the Fascists), but has otherwise done a great job--especially in adding two smaller Butler speeches and Frederick Barber's photographic exhibit of World War One photographs "The Horror of It." At a time when books like Max Boot's Savage Wars of Peace make bestselling sport of fighting small wars all over the globe, there is no more necessary book than Butler's War is a Racket.

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.com

Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents