Review: War Is a Racket

“War Is a Racket” by Smedley ButlerSmedley Butler knew a thing or two about war. In 1898, a little over a month before his seventeenth birthday, he lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, which directly commissioned him a second lieutenant. After completing training, he was sent to Cuba, arriving shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War. Upon returning home, he was promoted to first lieutenant and sent to the Philippines as part of the American garrison. There, he led Marines in combat against Filipino rebels. In 1900 he was deployed to China during the Boxer Rebellion and was wounded in the Gaselee Expedition, being promoted to captain for his bravery.

He then served in the “Banana Wars” in Central America and the Caribbean. In 1914, during a conflict in Mexico, he carried out an undercover mission in support of a planned U.S. intervention. For his command in the battle of Veracruz, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Next, he was sent to Haiti, where he commanded Marines and Navy troops in an attack on Fort Rivière in November 1915. For this action, he won a second Medal of Honor. To this day, he is only one of nineteen people to have twice won the Medal of Honor.

In World War I he did not receive a combat command, but for his work in commanding the debarkation camp in France for American troops, he was awarded both the Army and Navy Distinguished Service Medals. Returning to the U.S. after the armistice, he became commanding general of the Marine training base at Quantico, Virginia. Between 1927 and 1929 he commanded the Marine Expeditionary Force in China, and returning to Quantico in 1929, he was promoted to Major General, then the highest rank available in the Marine Corps (which was subordinate to the Navy), becoming the youngest person in the Corps to attain that rank. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1931.

In this slim pamphlet (just 21 pages in the Kindle edition I read), Butler demolishes the argument that the U.S. military actions in which he took part in his 33 years as a Marine had anything whatsoever to do with the defence of the United States. Instead, he saw lives and fortune squandered on foreign adventures largely in the interest of U.S. business interests, with those funding and supplying the military banking large profits from the operation. With the introduction of conscription in World War I, the cynical exploitation of young men reached a zenith with draftees paid US$30 a month, with half taken out to support dependants, and another bite for mandatory insurance, leaving less than US$9 per month for putting their lives on the line. And then, in a final insult, there was powerful coercion to “invest” this paltry sum in “Liberty Bonds” which, after the war, were repaid well below the price of purchase and/or in dollars which had lost half their purchasing power.

Want to put an end to endless, futile, and tragic wars? Forget disarmament conferences and idealistic initiatives, Butler says,

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nations [sic] manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation—it must conscript capital and industry. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted—to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

Let the workers in these plants get the same wages—all the workers, all presidents, all directors, all managers, all bankers—yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders—everyone in the nation be restricted to a total monthly income not to exceed that paid to the soldier in the trenches!

Let all these kings and tycoons and masters of business and all those workers in industry and all our senators and governors and majors [I think “mayors” was intended —JW] pay half their monthly $30 wage to their families and pay war risk insurance and buy Liberty Bonds.

Why shouldn’t they?

Butler goes on to recommend that any declaration of war require approval by a national plebiscite in which voting would be restricted to those subject to conscription in a military conflict. (Writing in 1935, he never foresaw that young men and women would be sent into combat without so much as a declaration of war being voted by Congress.) Further, he would restrict all use of military force to genuine defence of the nation, in particular, limiting the Navy to operating no more than 200 miles (320 km) from the coastline.

This is an impassioned plea against the folly of foreign wars by a man whose career was as a warrior. One can argue that there is a legitimate interest in, say assuring freedom of navigation in international waters, but looking back on the results of U.S. foreign wars in the 21st century, it is difficult to argue they can be justified any more than the “Banana Wars” Butler fought in his time.

Butler, Smedley D. War Is a Racket. San Diego, CA: Dauphin Publications, [1935] 2018. ISBN 978-1-939438-58-4.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

6 thoughts on “Review: War Is a Racket

  1. John Walker:
    Want to put an end to endless, futile, and tragic wars?

    I’m going to answer this strictly based on my view of WWII.

    70-85 million lives could have been saved if pantywaists Chamberlain and Roosevelt would have stepped in after Sudetenland and certainly  after Czechoslovakia.

    I wonder if  “appeasement” isn’t the bigger racket. I’ll use GHW Bush as an example here for leaving Saddam in power after the Gulf War.

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  2. EThompson:
    70-85 million lives could have been saved if pantywaists Chamberlain and Roosevelt would have stepped in after Sudetenland and certainly  after Czechoslovakia.

    The problem is that there was no popular consensus or congressional/parliamentary majority in either the U.S. or the U.K. for going to war over Czechoslovakia (either the original partition agreed to at Munich or the subsequent invasion).  Chamberlain’s agreement in Munich was overwhelmingly popular and widely supported.  There is no remote possibility that Roosevelt would have attempted to intervene or would have had support for declaration of war (or, even if he had, that the U.S. would have had forces able to intervene at that point).

    Further, Butler would argue that redrawing the map of central Europe was no business of the U.S. and did not remotely pose a threat to the U.S.  It was much more of a threat to the Soviet Union, and it remained silent.

    Looking back in retrospect after the end of a global conflict doesn’t necessarily give a perspective on how people before it happened evaluated things.

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  3. John Walker:
    The problem is that there was no popular consensus or congressional/parliamentary majority in either the U.S. or the U.K. for going to war over Czechoslovakia (either the original partition agree to a Munich or the subsequent invasion).  Chamberlain’s agreement in Munich was overwhelmingly popular and widely supported

    Agree completely and have read enough history to understand the antipathy against involvement after WWI.

    Still, great leaders have vision and Churchill understood exactly what Hitler and later Stalin would do at the very beginning. I consider FDR one of our worst presidents ever because he was an intellectual lightweight and a political coward.

    One of the reasons I so appreciate Trump is that he understands where the Chinese are headed and is willing to risk his political future to stop them. This takes enormous insight and courage because even as a devoted Trumpster, I was getting p***** off last week with the reaction of the market.

    He stood firm however and I admire that.

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  4. While I’m sympathetic to Butler’s general point, it’s not clear that his proposes solutions are practical or effective. Industrialists and bankers may be into war for the money but senior military staff are not. Likewise, workers in the war factories are hardly reaping great rewards from the war effort. Cutting their pay to sub-minimum wage hardly seems appropriate, especially given that the lads in the trenches are provided with the necessities.

    Regarding the plebiscite, I’m skeptical of direct democracy for all the usual reasons. Restricting the decision to those eligible to conscription is unreasonable since others have a stake in it, though not one as direct. A better solution is the Heinlein approach in Starship Troopers: restrict the full rights of citizenship to those who have enlisted and served.

    Finally, there is a paradox in Butler’s story. He made a career of serving in these pointless wars, mostly in the role of commanding the lads in the trenches. If he’s so against these adventures, why did he continue to lead them? I assume he was also happy to accept the remuneration and honors that accompanied his service. Presumably he was well compensated as the very model of a modern major general.

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