Is War Still a Racket?
As a Marine serving on a ship in the Pacific in 1997, the ship’s commander ordered the dumping of the ship’s refuse into the ocean. I asked around to see if this was a common event, as this was my first time at sea in the military, and was told that the Navy had no other way of dumping while at sea, and that it was standard procedure. In order to make this environmental atrocity productive, the Marines used the big, filled, plastic garbage bags as target practice. For a good two hours, we fired thousands of rounds out of our .50 caliber machine guns and sniper rifles at the trail of waste that stretched for miles toward the horizon.
The above story is meant to illustrate how counterproductive the military is, and this applies to this essay’s discussion of how the military is inherently bound to the interests of the power elite, and against everything else, especially the defense of freedom. After his retirement in 1931, Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, one of only two Marines in history to have received two Medals of Honor, spoke out against the U.S. government’s use of force in world affairs. He wrote and spoke of the way in which corporations profited from war, while countless millions suffered as a result. This essay compares General Butler’s analysis of this process in 1933 with the use of war for power and profit in 2003, with the goal of establishing that not only has the racket expanded tremendously, but our national security has correlatively reduced. I am not anti-American. I am an ex-Marine sergeant and current doctoral student in history who is concerned about the consistent destruction of this planet and its people carried out by my government in the false name of the promotion and defense of freedom.
Paradoxically, the tremendous proliferation in military spending and ventures that the U.S. has carried out since WWII has made us less safe than ever by creating anti-U.S. hatred that manifests itself from time to time in the form of random acts of violence. If one were to look closely at the past 58 years, one would be hard pressed to find a single U.S. military or C.I.A. intervention that has brought us one iota of safety, or, for that matter, that has actually been done for national defense purposes. As Butler illustrated in 1933, and it is even truer now than then, the U.S. engages in interventions meant to protect the interests of the powerful and wealthy of our nation and our allies, and rarely, if ever, in order to actually protect its citizens.
For some reason, many who have little understanding of our foreign policy history prefer to point to the three instances in our nation’s history when the military was used for defending the people: the War of 1812, WWI, and WWII. Moreover, while one can certainly find fault with aspects of our involvement in those three wars, nonetheless, every other one had nothing to do with national security, and everything to do with profits and power. While we draped our foreign policy in the cloak of beneficence in order to fight the Cold War, we instead killed over six million union leaders, peasants, teachers, priests, and resistance fighters in the developing world. We were not fighting the Soviets and the Chinese on their soil; we were busy setting the developing world back a century in their development.
In the early 1980s, with the Cold War still on, we began in force the wars on terrorism and drugs, neither of which has brought us any closer to the proclaimed goals over twenty years later. Instead, the prison industry has inflated to the point that it has become incredibly profitable to corporations, and we have lost billions to national law enforcement efforts and military aid to Latin American and other nations, who repress and imprison their own citizens as they did during the Cold War. Corporations have profited from all of these wars, and they in turn support politicians and own the media, both of which present these wars as necessary measures for protecting freedom. The mutual support between the rich and the politicians (the power elite) has always dictated this nation’s political process, and as long as there is profit to be made from destruction and suffering, especially of those who are not reaping the profits thereof, war will be facilitated and promoted.
In 1933, Butler lamented how as a Marine officer, he assisted Wall Street in their efforts to extend their empires into the Caribbean Basin and other places in the developing world. His opening statement follows: 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 is scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what is 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. My mission as a Marine veteran is to continue Smedley Butler’s (as well as all other veteran dissidents) legacy of exposing the truth about the purpose of military.
According to Butler, World War I cost the U.S. 52 billion dollars, giving 16 billion in profits to private corporations. He illustrated the significance of this by comparing the profits of several large companies before and during the war. According to Butler, Du Pont (who produced powder) went from 6 million to 58 million in annual profits, Bethlehem Steel went from 6 million to 49 million, U.S. Steel went from 105 million to 240 million, Anaconda’s copper production (ammunition casings) helped the company to go from 10 million to 34 million, and Utah Copper went from 5 million to 21 million in annual profits during the war. The Great War cost each American 400 dollars and these companies benefited from the deaths of over 130,000 U.S. soldiers and countless Europeans.
Other sectors profited enormously from the War. From leather companies to chemicals, to nickel, to sugar refining, to banks, to coal, to shoes, to field gear, to tools, to ship builders, to airplane and auto engine manufacturers, companies had profits ranging from 30 to 300 percent. The leftover waste was also a point of contention with Butler (and this is certainly worse today), as he explained that millions of pieces of equipment never made it to the soldiers, and were in fact never used due to regulation adjustments and extreme overproduction. Moreover, while this racket was immense back in Butler’s day, it was quite paltry when compared with that of today.
According to sources cited by Joel Andreas, in his excellent book, Addicted to War, between 1948 and 2002, the U.S. spent more than 15 trillion dollars on its military. The military budget for 2002 was 346.5 billion dollars, and when the budgets for the pentagon, the Energy Department’s nuclear costs, NASA’s military portion, foreign military aid, veterans’ benefits, and the interest paid for our military debt, the total reaches 670 billion dollars. In comparison to the amount spent per American during WWI (400), we each give 4,000 dollars annually to cover a military budget that could not even protect us from nineteen box-cutter wielding airline passengers. For that amount, we could each afford to save up for an electric car, so that we could reduce our dependence on oil, which largely dictates our military presence in the Gulf in the first place.
Meanwhile, high school students are made to peddle corporate products in order to fill in the gaps left behind by the drain that is the military budget and other counterproductive federal expenditures. While the military receives 50.5 percent of federal tax money, education receives 8 percent. During his campaign, George W. Bush claimed that his number one priority would be education, just like the proclaimed priority of most other politicians. Meanwhile, high school students can be suspended for wearing Pepsi shirts on Coke day (which happened in a Colorado high school), and teachers must designate fifteen minutes of class time each day for the commercial-rich Channel One, as many schools are obligated to these types of corporations for their supplies.
The amount of companies that benefit from this militaristic system makes Butler’s analysis pale by comparison. Over 100,000 companies depend on the pentagon for their profits each year, which means that many people depend on “national defense” for their livelihoods. These people, especially the leaders of the corporations, are what the peace movement is largely up against in its fight to end our nation’s permanent war footing. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon, and thousands of others, rake in billions each year, which means that they will not give up the business of war without a fight. Therefore, ending war does not only mean struggling for peace in general, it means challenging the ways in which the currently-powerful corporations make money. Moreover, because corporations who benefit from war also support political candidates, the candidates have every reason to defend those corporate interests who depend on war making, and the politicians have very little reason to defend the nation’s interests as a whole.
Therefore, it is pointless to argue how we can make education a higher priority for our country without understanding this system. It is in the best interest of the power elite on Wall Street and in Washington that we remain undereducated with respect to our nation’s use of force in world affairs, and that the education we receive directs us toward supporting the power elite while deterring us away from learning the truth about the functioning of the militaristic system. I believe that we do live a semi-democratic society, but because we as a whole are so fundamentally blinded to the criminality of our elected leaders and their wealthy supporters, we live in a “plutocracy,” to borrow Ramsey Clark’s description.
So, how does the government get away with the hypocrisy? As long as people are in the dark about the atrocities our nation commits, one will find the media’s complicity to be almost total. I find a couple of simple examples helpful for illustrating this. First, in all of my public and private talks with people, ranging from high school age to history graduate students, only one person (a high school senior) could identify the significance of one of these dates: 09/11/1973 and 12/07/1975. Most Americans surely recognize 09/11/2001 and 12/07/1941, as these were the days “that will live in infamy”, because they led the U.S. into expanding the global War on Terror and World War II. Yet, for some reason, all but one of the hundreds of people I have asked to identify the former dates has heard of them.
These dates (09/11/1973 and 12/07/1975), are quite important to the people who still suffer their consequences. Take the Chileans, who lost at least 3,000 people because of a military coup that the U.S. supported on September 11, 1973, or the East Timorese, who lost 200,000 people (1/3 of the population) after we assisted Indonesia in their destruction of that nation beginning with the invasion of the small island on December 7, 1975. Of course, Chile’s population was only 10-12 million at the time, and in comparison to our loss of 3,000 people on 09/11/2001, it would be like losing 80-90,000 U.S. citizens. The Chileans had no such recourse against us for aiding General Augusto Pinochet in his torture and murder of thousands of his people, which we supported. Nor have the East Timorese, or the dozens of other poor nations we have assisted in the repression and/or destruction of, been given the right to retaliate against us. Government documents detailing the U.S. involvement in the Chilean coup and the genocide of East Timor are provided in full text on the National Security Archive’s website, supported by George Washington University: http://www.hfni.gsehd.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/.
Even though there is overwhelming proof of what we did to Chile and East Timor (not to mention the dozens of other nations we have intervened in) why do we not know about their dates of infamy, each of which our government had an enormous role in? Does our lack of knowledge about these dates mean anything? The fact that the public knows little of them demonstrates that we are doomed to repeat history. I am disappointed that we are collectively blind to these dates precisely because the dates in which atrocities were perpetrated against us are days “that will live in infamy”, which the media and government have and will forever use as rallying cries to promote the nationalism that will ultimately lead to more deaths in the developing world, as well as on our own soil. Moreover, the atrocities in East Timor and Chile are but a drop in the bucket in comparison to the perhaps 8 million others we have helped kill over the past fifty seven years in the name of national security. The question is, if we are oblivious to the horrible atrocities our government has committed on such America-significant days of “infamy”, how will we prevent our government from committing such atrocities in the future? How will we prevent the continuation of the “racket” so notorious in Smedley Butler’s and our time, which will inevitably come back to bite us again?
CHRIS WHITE is an ex-Marine infantryman who is currently working on his doctorate in history at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He served from 1994-98, in Diego Garcia, Camp Pendleton, CA, Okinawa, Japan, and Doha, Qatar. He is also a member of Veterans for Peace. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org