Smedley Darlington Butler was born in West Chester, Pa., on July 30, 1881. Following a privileged upbringing (his father was a long-serving U.S. representative), Butler was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1898. He rose to the rank of major general, retiring in 1931.
During his military career, Butler saw extensive combat, including fighting in American expeditions to Cuba, China, Nicaragua, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Haiti. He was twice awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But Butler is better remembered for a short book written after he retired.
Titled “War is a Racket,” the work is less than 50 pages. However, its timeless content speaks volumes about war. Butler’s words are as relevant today as they were when penned in 1935.
A speech he delivered in 1933, prior to the publication of his book, provides insight into Butler’s thinking. He said: “War is just a racket. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”
During the same speech, Butler went on to describe his military career in extremely unflattering terms: “I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. 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.”
“War is a Racket” is an indictment of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex. In a speech given in 1961, Eisenhower warned, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Eisenhower warned against allowing industrial giants to gain too much influence over government policies. Today, his terminology has morphed into the broader military-industrial-congressional complex, in recognition of the U.S. Congress’ key role in the war racket.
Butler’s book should be mandatory reading for every registered voter in America, because the problems he described have grown considerably larger today.
Defense contractor contributions to congressional races are at all-time highs. According to a September 2012 article in DefenseNews.com, the so-called “big five” defense contractors (Lockheed, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman) had donated nearly $10 million to influence the 2012 congressional races. The donations were fairly evenly distributed between Republican and Democrat candidates.
One way defense contractors buy political influence is by creating jobs in key congressional districts. Take the F-35 joint strike fighter, which has been plagued by cost overruns and technical problems. According to prime contractor Lockheed Martin, the production of the F-35 is spread across more than 1,400 suppliers in 46 states. This arrangement makes it difficult for many members of Congress to oppose the F-35 program, regardless of their actual opinions.
This congressional must-support mindset opens the door to corruption, where members of Congress grant de facto most-favored status to certain defense contractors in their respective districts – contractors who, in most cases, are also loyal financial contributors to their re-election campaigns.
Typically, such contractors are rewarded with lucrative defense contracts. Many of said contractors develop entitlement mindsets and fancy themselves above the law. Specific examples in the Johnstown area include Coherent Systems and Kuchera Defense Systems. These now-defunct defense contractors were strong supporters of the late Congressman John Murtha. A number of the companies’ senior executives were convicted of defrauding the Department of Defense.
Sustaining the war racket described by Butler requires the United States to have enemies – whether legitimate or fabricated. These enemies are used by politicians to persuade American voters to support the war du jour.
It is now clear that President George W. Bush’s war against Iraq, purportedly waged because of the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, was bogus. Iraq had no viable weapons of mass destruction program.
After more than a decade of fighting the Taliban and other evil doers in Afghanistan, the U.S. war machine has worn out its welcome, with Afghans and the American public.
With the war in Iraq over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, American politicians need new a new enemy to help sustain the military-industrial-congressional complex. Enter North Korea and Iran.
These countries have purportedly dangerous nuclear weapons posing threats to the United States. In reality, either might be able to lob a nuclear missile toward the United States sometime in the future. Whether their missiles could hit a specific target is questionable. Whether either country would survive such folly is certain – it would assure their destruction by a U.S. nuclear retaliatory attack. In case these threats are insufficient to sway American voters, Syria has recently attained enemy status.
Although President Obama has announced his intentions to reduce the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, Fox News military analyst and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane was stressing the need to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal.
Voters beware. The war racket called out by Butler some 80 years ago is alive and well in American politics.
Zachary Hubbard, formerly of Johnstown, is a retired Army officer and freelance writer residing in the Greater Pittsburgh area.