Smedley Butler is one of America’s most distinguished yet least remembered war heroes. At the time of his death, in 1940, Butler was the most decorated U.S. Marine in history, having won 16 medals in a career spanning 34 years, with five of those medals being for conspicuous heroism. Butler is one of only 19 men to have won the Congressional Medal of Honor?.twice.
Yet what Butler should be most remembered for isn’t his combat record, but his willingness to put himself in the political crosshairs by exposing an egregious fraud being perpetrated on the American public. In 1935, having retired as a Major General, Butler wrote a controversial book called, “War is a Racket,” in which he accuses the military-industrial complex of being a manipulative and greedy death machine.
General Butler pulled no punches. Here is one of the more famous passages from his book:
“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. 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 [Chicago] districts. I operated on three continents.”
And people think Joe Biden speaks bluntly.
Mind you, this book was no personal vendetta. It was not some disgruntled ex-enlisted man looking to get even with the military brass. Butler was not only a career officer, he was a Major General; not only a brave soldier, but a gloriously decorated one. To win the Medal of Honor, you must demonstrate extraordinary valor. To win it twice, you’re off the chart; they have to invent a whole new definition of courage.
One wonders what Butler would think of today’s military. A defense behemoth that supports 865 military bases throughout the world (if we count the new bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s over 1,000), and a corporate conglomerate that spends?in war or peace, it makes no difference?more money on so-called “national defense” than the next 20 countries combined.
I approach this military bloat not from a moral or ethical point of view, but from a practical one. Specifically, as a former union goon, I approach it from the view of organized labor. If, as everyone says, those well-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector that once sustained the blue collar middle-class are gone forever, what’s to become of the workers? The jobs may have vanished but the workers haven’t.
It’s important not to deceive ourselves. In spite of all the optimistic rhetoric about the New Economy awaiting us?with its exciting, albeit yet-to-be-invented industries and technologies?those decent blue collar jobs may never come back. And if that’s the case, then we need to seek an alternative remedy. Looking to recapture a job-enriched past would not only be futile, it would be counterproductive.
Consider: What if superior jobs weren’t the answer? What if the criterion was income versus expenditures instead of superior jobs versus inferior jobs? Even if the economy (not to be confused with the stock market) never recovers, the average worker would remain relatively secure so long as such things as health care, paid maternity leave, free public education (including college) and child care were guaranteed.
If the main expenses for these workers were food, clothing, shelter and transportation, the economy would continue to chug along, and we wouldn’t have to sweat creating those $60,000 a year jobs. People could make it on $35,360 a year, which is what a full-time, 40-hour a week, 52-week a year worker earns at $17/hour. Or what two unskilled workers earning $8.50/hour make. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour)
Question: Could we afford these social programs? Answer: Yes. Question: Who would pay? Answer: The same taxpayers who currently underwrite America’s gargantuan defense budget. The same taxpayers who’ve already been ripped off for, literally, trillions of dollars, and who are being asked to support 1,000 military bases around the world for God knows what reason.
Common sense tells us that to learn about surgery, we ask a surgeon, not an insurance agent or hospital administrator. Accordingly, to learn about war, we ask a warrior, not a defense contractor or Pentagon lobbyist. Despite his career as a loyal, dedicated soldier, Butler saw war for what it was?a racket. And if that racket were eliminated, we’d have more live citizens, fewer dead soldiers, and more cash than we thought possible.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org