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.


  1. It seems that the powerful quote from Smedley about being a gangster for capitalism has been systematically deleted. Although the 'complete' text of War is a Racket is available online on various websites, all of them deleted that particular part. Even at the Veterans for Peace website, which perhaps once contained that particular part of the text in its 'complete' online version of War is a Racket, no where is Smedley's critique on capitalism found.

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