Smedley Butler’s oft-cited War is a Racket, based on a speech he gave to veterans at the 1932 Bonus March, has become almost a cliché in the world of antiwar activism. Yet, his incisive critique of perpetual war is still as good an indictment of our times as any.
Butler served in a variety of combat roles in the U.S. Marine Corps over his 34-year career, which spanned the period from the Spanish-American War to World War I. He earned the Medal of Honor twice. Upon retirement, he wasted little time putting his participation in imperialist violence behind him, saying, “I was a gangster for capitalism.”
In 1932, while Herbert Hoover repressed the Bonus Army—a movement of disgruntled WWI vets, afflicted by the Great Depression, who marched on the White House to demand payments owed by the Federal Government—it was Butler who met them and said:
“I never saw such fine Americanism as is exhibited by you people. You have just as much right to have a lobby here as any steel corporation. Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ’18.”
Butler, the most decorated Marine of his day, became an outspoken critic of war after his retirement. In his book, he asserts that war has in fact always been a racket, one that, “is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
I would quibble with some aspects of this formulation, given that the U.S. Civil War assuredly represented an anti-slavery struggle, as historians like Andrew Zimmerman or Eric Foner would attest, but Butler’s sentiments still ring true today. Now more than ever. Indeed, there are few things more convincing of the inequities of war than a decorated Marine Corps general testifying to its futility.
Of course, the only way to excavate the true potency of such a moral indictment requires not ceding any ground to the militarist perspective itself. That is, if we are to truly condemn the latest iteration of perpetual U.S. imperialism, we must condemn it from a position that sees the existing political and economic structures of the United States as the foundation on which the military-industrial complex is based.
Even though he inspired many, we need not fetishize Butler or project our own politics back onto him. While he expressed socialist sympathies, and called for the end of U.S. wars of aggression, he never fully rejected Americanism. Where does that leave us now, in an era of “forever wars”? While we indeed can draw inspiration from his firsthand account of the immense profits and resource extraction wrought by U.S. imperialism, we must take this analysis further. As a student of the writings of Stan Goff, I echo his sentiment that it’s crucial to overcome the idealized notion of being a veteran itself.
Butler identified in later life as a socialist, and voted for Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas. To be a socialist is to be an anti-imperialist. Thus, any framing of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere that does not condemn such militarism rings hollow. All too often, there arises—even among us—a creeping liberalism that attempts to criticize the so-called Global War on Terrorism from the perspective of it being a “failure,” “poor strategy,” or some other non-moral basis. This is playing the military’s game.
In this surreal Trump presidency, we now have generals seen as “rational” by contrast, perhaps because vast swaths of the antiwar movement of the mid-2000s were subsumed by Obama-era liberalism.
We must remember Butler’s key thesis: “[War] 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.” While only a few ultimately benefit from the destruction wrought by imperialist war, the profits of those few continue to grow. And that often includes the wars’ commanders: Many high-ranking brass, following their military career, often find themselves on the executive board of some of the most notorious war profiteers, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, or Northrop-Grumman. Indeed, the brass’s internalization of their status as professionals is what is their driving force, as Butler observed in that flagship speech:
“The professional soldiers and sailors don’t want to disarm. No admiral wants to be without a ship. No general wants to be without a command. Both mean men without jobs. They are not for disarmament. They cannot be for limitations of arms.”
Thus, we see that this profit motive of war of exists alongside a power relation, both of which reinforce the perpetuation of the global U.S. military presence. But, one must also recognize that history is a dynamic, contingent force—nothing is ever certain. And, ultimately, the true subject of history remains the international working class. The fact that we are living in a moment of renewed socialist politics testifies to this ever-growing revolutionary horizon. Our relationship to the U.S. military, and how to dismantle its very functioning consists of one pillar of our political struggle. To destroy the military-industrial complex is to have solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and so many other places that have suffered under the heel of U.S. militarism, either directly or indirectly. How do we do this?
One thing Butler perhaps did not anticipate was the dawn of the All-Volunteer Force, which coincided incidentally with the rise of neoliberal economic policies. Speaking as someone whose consciousness shifted while in the military, I maintain that there exists a field of struggle within the ranks too.
The notion that we ought to abandon those who volunteered for military service as potential socialist organizers is strategically unsound. I understand the impulse: We live in a time where the civic religion of patriotism is as obnoxious as ever. We are all profoundly alienated. So, why even try to do the work, when our organizing capacities are stretched far too thin? I propose that this is where veterans can best do their part, whatever that may be, from counter-recruiting, speaking out publicly, or just engaging with members of the military who seem to express doubt.
We do so recognizing that our service in the military was to serve the interests of empire. Full stop. That being said, we also know the landscape of that organization. Thus, we know how to speak to the specific forms of frustration that service members might be going through. But the key thing is not to relate to them as a soldier, but as a human being. To resist the pressures of military service is to affirm your humanity in the face of an organization that relies on your very dehumanization to function.
There are resources and organizations out there, from the G.I. Rights Hotline, to Courage to Resist, to About Face: Veterans Against the War, that are eager to assist in further in-ranks resistance and defection. My biggest point of emphasis here is that the very notion of “veteran,” as some mystical category that offers us greater insights, must be cast aside. Our knowledge of the military is no different than any other form of experiential knowledge from a past job. The only way the U.S. military can continue to function is if those inhabiting its ranks continue to follow orders.
It is our moral and ethical responsibility to continually inspire soldiers to dissent, to undermine military propaganda, and to call for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces worldwide. Smedley Butler testified in 1935, yet his words did little to prevent the coming atrocities of the Second World War. What we must do is to seemingly demand the impossible—that is, the destruction and dismantling of the U.S. military, and the radical transformation of existing social relations in the U.S. itself. When War is a Racket no longer offers any resonance for our current age, only then will we know we have accomplished this task.