Rating: 4 Stars
Smedley Butler is one of those great characters in history that you never hear about but led an amazing life.
Born of Quaker parents, he lied about his age and joined the marines when he was 16. He fought in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the Banana Wars (fought in Honduras and Nicaragua), in Mexico, in Haiti, and fought in WWI. He received many medals, including two Medals of Honor. He was one of our nations most famous war heroes.
However, there was a sign of things to come. He recounted the story of Mussolini of running down a child without concern (‘It was only one life. What is one life in the affairs of a State’). In the ensuing diplomatic uproar, he was arrested and nearly court martialed.
Upon his retirement, he became even more of an activist. He supported the Bonus Army when they marched to Washington to get some relief from the Great Depression. He was aghast when the regular army (led by Douglas MacArthur) dispersed the old soldiers with cavalry charges and gas.
Later, his fame as a great soldier led some financiers and businessmen (including allegedly some duPonts) to approach him with a plot to overthrow FDR and to overturn the New Deal. If he were to join him, he would be placed at the head of their army. He indignantly refused and went public with the plot.
As I said, an interesting life. Raised as a Quaker, a decorated war hero for over 30 years, and then in his later years turned back to his Quaker roots and plead for peace.
He came to understand that each and every one of his military adventures was not to benefit the glory or honor of America, but was an excuse to make money.
Just the act of going to war guarantees that millionaires and billionaires will be created. After all, uniforms need to be made, shoes need to be shod, and weaponry and ammunition need to be manufactured.
This was especially true in WWI. He lists many respectable companies that before the war made respectable profits but during the war made obscene profits an order of magnitude greater. Although he does not specifically mention, you can make this argument all of the way back to the Civil War, if not further back. As in WWI, there were manufacturers that made incredible profits and very often provided shoddy products. In fact, the word shoddy itself derives back to the mid nineteenth century. The Civil War manufacturers could very well be the source of the word shoddy.
The soldiers sacrificed, not only those that sacrificed their lives, but also those that sacrificed arms, legs, eyes, or most tragically, their minds. Meanwhile, the businessmen sacrificed nothing.
Although raised by Quakers and a firm believer in peace, he was not purely a pacifist. He essentially wanted our military defense to be precisely that, defense.
Why did we fight in WWI? Did we really have an interest in either the Triple Entente or the Central Powers?
This was written on the eve of WWII. He could see the same war clouds gathering on the horizon and he was asking the same questions. It’s interesting that WWII is considered the last good war where clearly we were the good guys and our cause was just. This (coincidentally, I promise!) is the second straight book that asks the question, why? Did we need to fight it? Was the millions of lives lost, and the untold destruction, and the billions of dollars spent on war materials worth it?
Many years ago, I read a book called ‘The Tragedy of Great Power Politics’. Its thesis is that its every nations’ goal to achieve regional hegemony, which is basically to be impervious to invasion threats from neighbors. In this thesis, the United States is the only country in the modern era to achieve this. It’s true if you think about it (at least in regards to the continental states). Neither Canada nor Mexico are a threat to us. Any other invasion is essentially logistically impossible. Our borders are secure like no other nation in the world.
This is the point that Butler makes. Let’s stop the war time profiteering and let’s stop wasting the lives of our youth.
War is a racket and must be stopped.