Tuesday, 23 February 2010

“War Is A Racket”, by Smedley D. Butler (Feral House, 1935/2003)

Butler-WarIsARacket “The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier”

Smedley D. Butler took his Constitutional vows seriously, repelling threats to America both without and within. Shortly after retiring from a lauded career, the popular Marine brought down a Fascist plot to seize the White House. Concerned for the future of democracy, Butler began to speak out against the venal motives behind many of the country’s military actions.

Written during the Great Depression, War is a Racket pulls no punches against a corrupt military-industrial complex, eager to murder both foreign and native-born children for the sake of profit. This edition includes two other anti-intervention screeds written by Butler, in addition to a selection of powerful photographs taken from the 1932 antiwar book, The Horror of It.

Adam Porfrey’s introduction is interesting, if a little strangely written – his prose can be a little clunky, for example. Nonetheless, he provides some useful context for Butler’s writing, and also offers up some reactions to it. Porfrey also provides some information about the “corporatist Fascist Putsch” plot that supposedly tried to draft Butler’s help, and which he instead helped to destroy. But, Porfrey asks, how long did this blow to corporatism last? As further examples of corporate/Fascist influence in politics, Porfrey offers the following:

“In the 1960s, all four primary liberal leaders were assassinated. In the mid-90s, a so-called Democrat President turned back the Bill of Rights and Constitution with a multitude of crime bills. And in the year 2000, Jim Crow laws were revived, and a Presidential election was swayed by disallowing over 50,000 eligible African-Americans to vote in the state of Florida. Corporations will not be denied their sway and profit.”

It is clear from Butler’s writing that he is horrified by the conduct of war and the United States. “War is a racket... It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable... It is the only one in which profit are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” He rails against obscene war profits, the profiteers, and also the mentality that “Uncle Sam has the money. Let’s get it”, and the government’s complicity in the racket by not properly addressing it (or doing anything worthwhile to put a stop to it).

Butler comments on the jingoistic environment in the lead up to World War I:

“So vicious was the war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions, our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill... God is on our side... it is His will that the Germans be killed.”

The only way to bring the war racket to an end effectively is to take the profit out of war. His proposal, which would also make war less likely, is to conscript those who would normally profit from war – CEOs, tycoons, bankers, and so forth. They should “get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.” Butler goes further, proposing that “everyone in the nation... be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldiers in the trenches.”

This short book also illustrates Butler’s isolationist mentality, explaining how he believes it is essential that the government “make certain that our military forces are truly forces for defense only”, in the same chapter scoffing at the military and government’s reasons for performing “exercises” thousands of miles off the coast of the continental US. He also says that the US “should build an ironclad defense a rat couldn’t crawl through.” He died before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, so it’s unclear how this might have changed his worldview (it did, after all, light a fire under many the most fervent isolationists in the Senate and Congress).

Butler refers to the incredible costs of American adventurism, and how in 1898,

“our national debt was a little more than $1,000,000,000. Then we became ‘internationally minded’. We forgot, or shunted aside, the advice of the Father of our Country. We forgot Washington’s warning about ‘entangling alliances’. We went to war.”

Butler argues that, as a direct result of the US’s involvement in World War I, or its “fiddling in international affairs”, the nation’s national debt multiplied by a factor of twenty-five. “It would have been cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket... bring[s] fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people – who do not profit.”

Butler also shows a good sense for the future, and the future of warfare. He wrote about how “Secretly each nation is studying and perfecting newer and ghastlier means of annihilating its foes wholesale.” This won’t affect the war racket as such, as

“ships will continue to get built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits... guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits... the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturers must make their war profits too.”

What will change? Butler rightly argued that, in the future, “victory or defeat will be determined by the skill and ingenuity of our scientists.”

There is one problem with this book. This refers to two quotations, both very strong, that are claimed to be from War is a Racket, and yet do not appear in the book. This was disappointing, as they are by far the most potent indictments Butler ever made of corporatism and American foreign policy. The first is printed on the cover as a pull-quote:

“I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism.”

The second quotation is a longer explanation, complete with examples from his military service, and is reproduced in Porfrey’s introduction:

“I helped make Mexico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”

This is the extent of the quotation that Porfrey cites, however there is a little more to it:

“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 districts. I operated on three continents.”

Almost everywhere I search online, these quotations are included and attributed to War is a Racket, however I’ve searched through the book six times, and still cannot find them (it’s only 66 pages, it doesn’t long to search the whole text).

Ultimately, this is an interesting short text. It doesn’t do quite what it promises on the cover (though I imagine the original published texts for The New York Observer and Readers Digest would), but it is worth a read nonetheless. Given the missing quotations, however, I can’t help but think there’s a better, expanded version of War is a Racket that would have been a better purchase.

Monday, 8 February 2010

“Stuff White People Like”, by Christian Lander (Random House)

Lander-StuffWhitePeopleLike A “Definitive Guide” to what people like me are supposed to like…

Something a little lighter than normal fare for this site, I enjoyed reading this so much, so I thought I’d just write a quick review of it.

Filled with plenty of shrewd observations (of which all can be related to, if not me, then many people I know or went to school/university with), Stuff White People Like is an interesting read. Covering almost everything in many people’s lives, Lander has done an amusing job of dissecting the White psyche. Each bit of “stuff” builds on the other, with frequent cross-referencing. Filled with hilarious one-liners (though some might only be funny because they relate to the reader…), Stuff White People Like will tell you everything you need to know to either understand your white friends or yourself.

Here are some examples of what you will find in here, first on the subject of coffee (a subject oh-so dear to my heart):

“White people are given extra points for buying Fair Trade coffee, because the extra $2 means they are making a difference while their peers are drinking liquid oppression.”

A look at the Western obsession with yoga:

“yoga feels exotic and foreign. It has become sort of like a religion that prizes flexibility and expensive clothes. Also, deep down, white people feel that their participation makes up for years of colonial rule in India.”

Love affairs with Apple products (and the dichotomies involved):

“On the surface, you would ask yourself how white people could love a multibillion-dollar company with manufacturing plants in China and mass production, and that contributes to global pollution through the manufacture of consumer electronic[s]… The simple answer: Apple products tell the world you are creative and unique.”

Lander also mentions Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and how

“No Logo has been responsible for more white person ‘enlightenment’ than any book since the burning of the library at Alexandria. By reading this one magic book, white people are able to get a full grasp on the evils of multi-national corporations and then regurgitate it to friends and family.”

Never mind that No Logo is published by an imprint of Harper Collins, one of the largest publishing corporations on the planet.

On a personal note, as someone studying US domestic and foreign policy, the following line made me laugh a great deal (it’s from the section about Liberal Arts Degrees):

“It is important to note that a high percentage of white people also get degrees in Political Science, which is pretty much like Liberal Arts, and only seems to have the world ‘science’ in it to make white people feel better about themselves.”

It would be very easy to quote near-endlessly from Stuff White People Like (the whole segment about Conspiracy Theories, for example), but I’m sure the author would rather you bought the book, or at least headed over to the website, which has some Stuff not included in the book. (And there might be issues with copyright or fair usage laws, if I did quote as much as I’d like to…)

With tongue firmly lodged in cheek, Lander has written an amusing diversion.

“Race of a Lifetime”, by Mark Halperin & John Heilemann (Penguin/Viking)


One of the more revealing Election 2008 accounts, but with faults

The latest in a long line of Campaign 2008 books, journalists Halperin and Heilemann attempt to pull back the curtain on the campaigns and the personalities involved. Enjoying unprecedented access, and drawing on hundreds of interviews, emails, and other documentation, the authors have created an interesting account of the latest race for the White House.

The authors have tried to address some vital questions that were, they feel, either passed over or ignored by the mainstream media, including:

“How did Obama, a freshman Senator with few tangible political accomplishments, convince himself that he should be, and could be, America’s first African-American president? What role did Bill Clinton actually play in his wife’s campaign? Why did McCain pick the unknown and untested governor of Alaska as his running mate? And who is Sarah Palin, really?”

This book has been created quite a buzz in both the US and UK media around its release. Excerpts were published in many newspapers, online, and in newsmagazines. True, these samples tend to focus on the more sensational quotations and scenes Halperin and Heilemann were able to recreate or witness, but there is more to this book than sensationalism, and certainly more than the apparent wealth of material that is less-than-complimentary of Sarah Palin (excerpts the UK media seem to relish) and the Clintons.

The authors take us inside the Obama machine, where some staffers referred to him as “Black Jesus”. They unearth the quiet conspiracy in the US Senate to prod Obama into the race, driven in part by senior Democrats’ fears that Bill Clinton’s personal life might cripple Hillary’s presidential prospects. They expose the twisted tale of the affair that ruined John Edwards’s candidacy; the truth behind Rudy Giuliani’s downfall; and the doubts of Palin’s vetters about her readiness for the Republican ticket, as well as McCain campaign staffers’ worries about her general fitness for office.

Race of a Lifetime is a good read, for sure, but it is rather slow. For me, the long lead up to to the campaign for the general election was in some places annoying. I will freely admit that this is likely because I was somewhat obsessed during the election years, so have read almost every contemporary article written from at least 10 publications (I’m a news junkie), so this felt a little bit like retreading info I already had (surprises and detail aside). The election coverage was certainly more interesting, and the book improved a great deal (particularly the coverage of the McCain campaign).

If you haven’t read any books on the election, then this is a great one to start with. If you have read others, then you’ll get a fair bit out of this one, but don’t expect every page (or chapter, at that) to contain some startling or new revelation about the characters involved. The authors have a good style, and the prose are well constructed. Sometimes they go into more detail than feels necessary, which can disrupt the flow of the narrative, but it’s not too much of a problem.

Recommended, but with some small caveats.

Also try: Evan Thomas & Newsweek Staff, A Long Time Coming (2008); David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (2009)

Race of a Lifetime is also out now in the US, but titled Game Change and released through HarperCollins. Here’s the (rather bland) artwork:HalperinHeilemann-GameChange

[ Buy the Book: UK, US, Canada ]

“The Presidential Difference (3rd Edition)”, by Fred I. Greenstein (Princeton)


The latest edition of Greenstein’s classic appraisal of presidential leadership style

For a quarter-century, Fred I. Greenstein has been one of our keenest observers of the modern presidency. Here, he provides an instructive account of the qualities that have served well and poorly in the Oval Office, beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt's first hundred days. Newly expanded, this edition now covers the momentous events of George W. Bush's administration – from his handling of the events of September 11 to the war with Iraq, and also a short chapter on President Barack Obama.

Throughout, Greenstein offers a series of bottom-line judgments on each of his subjects and a bold new explanation of why presidents succeed or fail. He surveys each president’s record in public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence – and argues that the last is the most important in predicting presidential success.

As a short introduction to the presidencies since FDR, this is an indispensible book. Each chapter is clearly laid out and structured, providing background for each President before delving into the analysis of their approach to leading.

“The United States is said to have a government of laws and institutions rather than individuals, but… it is one in which the matter of who occupies the nation’s highest office can have profound repercussions.”

For anyone familiar with the subjects of the book, you might not find too much original material, but Greenstein has managed to write a very accessible book, filled with key facts and events. His analysis of presidential style is always interesting and valuable, and the examples he uses to illustrate and support his positions are all very well selected and presented.

“A president’s effectiveness is a function of more than his political prowess and mental health… and there is much to be learned by considering the full sweep of the modern presidential experience.”

“a president’s actions are a function not only of the intensity of his passions, but also of his capacity to channel them and prevent them form confounding his official responsibilities”

The book’s not too long, and I think it would be interesting to read a longer, more substantial volume on this topic (Greenstein kindly offers a good “further reading” section), but this is certainly a good place to start. If any lecturer needed to set or recommend one short, single-volume introduction to the presidency, there are few better than this.


Further Reading: Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power & The Modern Presidency (1991); Peter W. Rodman, Presidential Command (2009); Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (2004)