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Remembering the lessons of Gen. Smedley Butler

Thursday, August 23, 2007 | 12:52 p.m. CDT; updated 1:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

At the time of his death in 1940, Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler was the most decorated marine in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. He was a double winner of the Medal of Honor, and his book “War is a Racket” was one of the first works describing the U.S. military-industrial complex.

According to writer Ed Roberts, the general, shortly before his death, said: “I spent 33 years 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

In the introduction to a Reader’s Digest condensation of “War is a Racket”, journalist Lowell Thomas noted that Gen. Butler was a strong defender of the U.S. homeland. He just didn’t support corporate bullies who, in their greed, were sending young American soldiers abroad to kill or be killed.

In describing war as a racket, Butler wrote: “It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” “A racket” said the general “is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

In speaking of the war profiteers of his day Gen. Butler asked “How many of the war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dugout? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried the bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”

In describing the costs of war, Butler said: “The general public shoulders the bill. The bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.”

Regarding the militant call for such sacrifice, he observes: “It is dressed into speeches about patriotism, love of country in ‘we must all shoulder the wheel,’ but the profits jump and leap and skyrocket – and are safely pocketed.”

To put an end to the war racket, Gen. Butler wrote: “You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our steel companies and our munitions makers and our ship-builders and the manufacturers of all 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... Give capital and industry and labor thirty days to think it over and you will find, by that time, there will be no war. That will smash the war racket — that and nothing else.”

Needless to say, Gen. Butler’s words ring true today. His prescription should definitely be extended to the “chicken hawk,” neo-conservative war profiteers who got us into the mess in Iraq, and who now claim the right to preemptively attack any perceived enemy on Earth.

For an online copy of “War is a Racket,” click here.

Bill Wickersham is an adjunct professor of peace studies at MU and a member of Veterans for Peace.


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