Where Is Smedley When We Need Him?

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My first name is my Irish grandmother’s family name. Over the years, I have run across the writings of a number of Butlers whose views of life seemed to parallel my own, leading me to wonder if there might be some genetic connection. Samuel Butler’s satirical political views along with his interest in a collective unconscious; the poetry of William Butler Yeats; and the Realpolitick of Smedley Butler, provide a few examples.

Smedley Butler is a name with which you may not be familiar, even though he twice won the Congressional Medal of Honor. If he were to appear on television today, he would be identified as "Maj. General Smedley Butler, USMC (ret.)" But even if he were still alive, he would not appear on any network television news shows because, late in life, he openly expressed his opposition to the war system. He went on to expose the symbiotic relationship existing between the institutional interests of corporate America and the state. Many former top generals and admirals have written memoirs around the theme "war is hell," but Gen. Butler went a step further, writing a book titled War Is a Racket.

Smedley defined a racket as "something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people." War, he goes on, "is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious" of rackets. Reflecting upon his own early 20th century career, he noted that, "I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." He related how he had helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests, Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank, a number of Central American countries more pleasant for Wall Street interests, the Dominican Republic more conducive to the sugar industry, and China more compatible with the interests of Standard Oil. Then, after observing how he had helped supply the coercive, deadly force to advance corporate interests throughout various parts of the world, Butler added: "I could 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." You can see that his book does for adults what The Emperor’s New Clothes does for children.

I have my doubts that we shall be hearing such candor anytime soon from the Bush administration’s appointed military ruler of Iraq, Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. I have seen far too many retired military officers on network television news and talk shows faithfully reciting the Establishment’s position on the necessity for, the success of, and the bright prospects for the American government’s military involvement in Iraq (and, perhaps, other Middle Eastern countries as well). The media — which has been eager to ferret out the economic or ideological interests of those who oppose administration policies — could demonstrate a bit of "truth-in-advertising" by identifying the defense industry interests for whom these various retired generals, admirals, and colonels now work!

American military academies have apparently expanded their curricula to include the training of future officers to become military occupiers of other countries. One West Point cadet expressed an awareness of the interconnected nature of her military training and the political domination of a nation. Contemplating her possible assignment to Iraq upon graduation, she pondered how she "might have to go over there and basically be mayor of a town." This young woman would be well advised to read Gen. Butler’s book!

Most Americans are uncomfortable contemplating that war is, and always has been, a system by which a few are able to direct the coercive machinery of the state to serve their economic interests, always at the expense of the many. Gen. Butler’s words have never been more apropos than in the current U.S. abomination in Iraq: "Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory is promptly exploited by the few . . . . The general public shoulders the bill," as do the soldiers and their families whose lives are sacrificed for the benefit of those who profit from war.

For those who doubt this assessment, I invite you to read Murray Rothbard’s excellent essay, Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy. Rothbard was always fond of asking the cui bono? question (i.e., "who benefits?"), an inquiry that almost always identifies the hidden interests of governmental policies. From at least the Civil War onward, economic interests have manipulated foreign policies, including wars, to serve the interests of major commercial, industrial, and financial institutions. In so doing, the institutional interests of the state have also been advanced.

A Civil War that was belatedly sold to a gullible public on the pretext of "freeing the slaves," was actually designed to preserve the American nation-state in order to advance Northern economic interests at the expense of the South. The Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cold War, had in common the purpose of furthering American corporate interests in other regions of the world. The avenging of the alleged attack on the battleship "Maine," "making the world safe for democracy," retaliating for the attack on Pearl Harbor, or preventing the "international communist conspiracy" from subduing the rest of the world through the collapse of "dominoes," have served only to enlist the gullible Americans in service to corporate-state interests. The bumper-sticker from the 1960s that read "war is good business: invest your son" had it right.

The problem that the Bush administration had in selling the Iraqi invasion to the public was in trying to find a rationale that would sound convincing to a not-too-discerning boobeoisie. But at each stage, the factual basis for the campaign failed. The "remember 9/11 and Al Qaeda" refrain collapsed for lack of evidence of any Iraqi involvement, as did the "weapons of mass destruction" song and dance. In desperation, the Bush leaguers opted for Iraqi "liberation," "freedom," and "democracy" as a justification for a war they were intent on conducting regardless of the facts or the opposition of the rest of the world.

Any notions that the fostering of "democracy" had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq were quickly dispelled by Donald Rumsfeld who, in responding to efforts of Shiites to exercise political power in Iraq, declared: "That isn’t going to happen." His comment reflects the vacuous meaning of "democracy," a concept grounded in the popular delusion that the citizenry controls the ruling class! Rumsfeld is telling us that the American political Establishment will select the candidates for leadership in Iraq, from which the Iraqis will be allowed to choose. After all, why should Iraq be any different from the United States?

Perhaps the last of the satirists, Tom Lehrer, summed up the essence of American foreign policy machinations in his song "Send the Marines." Addressing the interests of the ordinary people of Third World countries being colonized under a new class of nabobs, Lehrer tells us: "they’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til someone we like can get elected." Both Smedley Butler and Donald Rumsfeld would understand the meaning of these lyrics.

For those willing to pay close attention to events in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, there is an opportunity to discover how war is only the most violent expression of politics. War is politics, and politics is war. Political systems are grounded in the exercise of brute force in order to compel the ruled to remain obedient to the demands of their rulers. In a theocracy, the interests of the ruling class are centered around religious institutions and doctrines. In our modern corporate-state arrangement, a synthesis of economic and political interests dominate.

Smedley understood, and expressed, the realities of modern politics perfectly. He also appreciated the distinction that now differentiates the libertarian, free-market advocates (e.g., the Austrian school) from the conservative and liberal defenders of the so-called "mixed economy." Had he not died in 1940, he would surely have died laughing at the nonsense perpetrated by Ayn Rand in her essay "America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business."

The defense of a truly "free market" has never been on the agenda of either "big business" or the state. This is why mercantilism has long been attractive to the interests of both sets of institutions. There are many — Rothbard being the most visible example — who understand this quite well. If all of the business-sponsored laws, regulatory schemes, tariffs and taxation policies, and wars were suddenly eliminated, we would soon discover the free and creative nature of a stateless society.

The rest of the world is now being given a lesson in the realities of corporate-statism. At the uppermost level, one can see these interests manifesting themselves in the desire to dominate as much of the world’s political and economic decision-making as possible. This need for power over others is completely incompatible with free markets and individual liberty.

At a secondary level, one finds the efforts of individual firms to benefit their interests through state power. Even as the occupation of Iraq was being put together, handpicked firms with strong ties to the political establishment were being awarded — apparently without benefit of any process of bidding — lucrative contracts to "rebuild" Iraq. The analogy to American "urban renewal" programs immediately came to mind: municipalities condemning inner-city properties, destroying buildings and neighborhoods in the process, then turning the lands over to private developers — at lower-than-market prices — to construct middle- and upper-income housing. The same practice is going on in Iraq, with the Air Force bombing Baghdad to rubble, and the American government awarding contracts to well-connected firms to rebuild the city!

The nature of the Iraqi conquest was not lost on one cable TV news reporter who, in questioning a man who wanted the rebuilding process to be opened up to other nations than just the United States shrieked that the "French who wanted no part in the war now want to share in the spoils." When one checks a dictionary and discovers that "spoils" refers to "plunder taken from an enemy in war," and that a synonym is "loot," it is evident that even the media unwittingly express what is transpiring.

A few journalists and soldiers, apparently invoking thousands of years of human history, have allegedly undertaken more personal forms of looting. In trying to smuggle paintings, historic artifacts, and vast sums of confiscated money back into America, the alleged perpetrators bring to mind a practice going back centuries before the likes of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan turned it into an art form.

But such lone wolf methods are no longer acceptable in the institutionally centered world of the 21st century. If foreign nations are to be despoiled, it must be according to established procedures and due process of law. Like the practice of men wearing tuxedos to prizefights, brutality must be dignified by the trappings of social decorum. Thus, independent looters and other wildcatters are no longer welcome. If you wish to get in on the game, you must do so legally: you must incorporate, and make certain you maintain your ties to the state’s power structure. Smedley Butler would have expected nothing less.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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