When Rep. John Murtha, the ex-Marine hawk who has always been close to the Pentagon, spoke out recently against the war in Iraq and called for withdrawing the troops, he was in all likelihood echoing the private doubts and objections of senior military officers. When, for example, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contradicted Donald Rumsfeld about Iraqi forces’ harsh treatment of captives, he "won silent cheers from many senior uniformed officers by standing firm," as Eric Schmitt reported in the New York Times last December 30th. Pace had to back down as administration flacks moved quickly to soft-pedal any differences between Rumsfeld and the top brass.
Nevertheless, these two incidents — and obviously many other whispered conversations held among officers and their friends — only underscore the fact that some in the professional military have serious doubts about a war and occupation that has cost so much in lives, money and moral standing, not to mention the serious impact it has had on the military.
While civilian control of the professional military is an essential element of American democracy, Army generals Matthew Ridgeway, James Gavin and Robert L. Hughes, Marine Generals Hugh Hester and Samuel G. Griffith, Rear Admiral Arnold True and Marine colonels William Carson and James A. Donovan did criticize aspects of the Vietnam War. They weren’t doves or anti-war libertarians but all recognized that the military intervention in an Asian civil war had been a ghastly blunder. My own hunch is that once they’re out of uniform and safe from bureaucratic or political vendettas, even more generals and colonels will be just as critical about the colossal blunder the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld trinity and their neocon propagandists have created in Iraq and now threaten to repeat against Iran.
All this by way of introduction to General David M. Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps during part of the Vietnam era. Howard Jablon’s David Shoup: A Warrior Against War (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), an all-too-brief, intelligently written and sympathetic portrait of Shoup, tries to explain why a Marine lifer and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in WWII’s savage battle of Tarawa, became a fearless critic of the war in Southeast Asia. Jablon, incidentally, teaches history at Purdue University North Central.
So why should a marine who served in China in the twenties question his country’s motives in chaotic and war-torn China?
His two tours there led him to read and think extensively about what he was doing and why the U.S. was involved. He came away blaming the missionaries, businessmen and politicians who, to further their own interests, agitated for U.S. military participation in a conflict that had little or nothing to do with American national interests. In short, it was the U.S. involving itself once again in an economically-driven imperial adventure — much as it had against Mexico in the 19th Century, Spain and the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century, Haiti and Nicaragua time and again, Iran and Guatemala in the early fifties, and Chile, Central America and the Caribbean during the Reagan era.
Shoup was certainly no pacifist, but his China experiences ultimately helped lead him to question American strategy. In 1961, before American combat units arrived in force in Southeast Asia, Kennedy administration hawks and its sycophants in the mass media sought to present Laos — yes, impotent, impoverished, landlocked, rural, Laos — as a crucial link in the cold war against the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. After some military hawks proposed using nuclear bombs Shoup objected. "Whoever even thought that nuclear weapons should be used in Laos was very misinformed about what a proper target for a nuclear weapon consisted of," he said, "because in all the analysis that I remember, there was never any target presented."
After he retired, Shoup became a public dissenter. On May 14, 1966, he spoke out at Pierce College in California. "I don’t think the whole of Southeast Asia…is worth the life or limb of a single American" [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for." In the April 1969 issue of Atlantic Monthly ("The New American Militarism") he and fellow marine Colonel Donovan denounced the way the U.S. conducted its foreign policy. Later, in a foreword to Donovan’s book Militarism U.S.A., Shoup emphasized, quite rightly — as the Iraq morass has proven — that "there are limits of U.S. power and our capabilities to police the world."
Of course he had his critics, especially among erstwhile military friends and the pro-war crowd in the White House and in Washington’s political circles. "Shoup," writes Jablon, "paid dearly for his dissention. He was alienated from the Corps he loved." Still, he had his defenders, such as Senators Stuart Symington and William Fulbright. Naturally, LBJ and Nixon were appalled by his views and Jablon reports that they put J. Edgar Hoover on his trail, the better to add to the vast number of Americans spied upon because of their political opposition to the war.
"Praised or feared," Jablon concludes in his engrossing portrait of this intriguing marine who has been undeservedly forgotten, "Shoup added intelligence as well as nobility to the crusade to stop the war."
It will be interesting to see if any of today’s senior military officers (as opposed to the bellicose neocon civilians and careerist military bureaucrats inside the Pentagon) will have anything to say one day about what went wrong and why in Iraq and in the future wars now being dreamed up in Washington’s hawkish circles.
Murray Polner [send him mail] co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. This article originally appeared on the History News Network.