An 'Interview' With Smedley Butler


Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, one of the most colorful officers in the Marine Corps, was one of two Marines to receive two Congressional Medals of Honor for separate acts of outstanding heroism. General Butler was born in 1881 and raised as a Quaker. He was still in his teens when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant for the war with Spain and served in the Philippines, China, Puerto Rico, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France, and, after a stint as Director of Public Safety in Philadelphia, in China again. General Butler died at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia on 21 June 1940. At the time of his death he was the most decorated marine in U.S. history. General Butler has had a naval destroyer, a military base and a chapter of Veterans for Peace (the ‘Smed Butts’) named for him. He is loved and quoted not only in the United States but around the world. We are fortunate to have General Butler with us for this “interview” conducted by Don Bacon, who founded the Smedley Butler Society several years ago to perpetuate the memory of this masterful maverick Marine.

General Butler is no longer with us in body but his spirit and his popularity live on. He left us a legacy in deeds and words which we have used to construct this imaginary interview that includes his verbatim words and paraphrased quotations. Much of what follows comes from General Butler’s book War Is a Racket.

Q: General Butler, the United States military is currently bogged down in Iraq. What are your thoughts?

General Butler: When our forefathers planned this government, they saw no necessity for foreign wars, for wars that didn’t concern us. As a matter of fact, after we got our independence our army and navy were eliminated. The Constitution states that the Congress has the power to provide for the common defense, and has the power to raise and support armies, but it also states that such forces can’t be funded for more than two years. It says nothing about foreign wars. We had a militia, that is each state had a militia, but this was the only armed force at the time and was not to be used beyond the territorial limits of the United States. If you look into history, you will find that during the War of 1812 a certain regiment of militia marched northward toward Canada, but they refused to cross the border and went home. The militia was for home defense only. That’s what our armed forces should be. Home defenders, ready and able to defend our homes, to defend us against attack, and that’s all.

Q: What do you think of the recent militarization of US foreign policy, with all this emphasis on force. And do you think it’s fun to shoot people as Marine Corps General Mattis once said?

General Butler: Well, I served in the Marine Corps for thirty-three years, and of course my military philosophy evolved. As a seventeen-year-old second lieutenant in the Boxer rebellion, and then as a field grade officer in Central America and Haiti, I conducted myself with a certain flair. Later, as a brigadier general commanding troops in China again, I had a different, and I think more successful, way of dealing with the differences of opinion that normally occur in the course of human events. We had some interests in China at the time, and some Americans were just hoopin’ and hollerin’ for military action. I, however, felt that they all had personal axes to grind. They were just trouble makers and not problem solvers. If you took them seriously and tried to listen to everything that they said, you’d be hopelessly mixed up. I felt that the local people should settle, among themselves, their own form of government and their own ruler. Our job was to make sure they didn’t molest our people, that’s all. As long as I was commander, we weren’t going to do what we did in the Banana Wars. We weren’t going to cause a lot of violence and take over their banks and run things the way we did in Central America, which I unfortunately had a hand in. I felt that the millions of dollars in American capital in China was nothing compared to the taxes Americans would have to pay for the battleships and Marines to protect them. At the time, we were known as "the Marines who wouldn’t fight" which was fine with me. My views haven’t changed.

Q: What do you think of the current political situation in Washington, with warmongers in control of the government and their talk of continuous war?

General Butler: Back in my day we had similar people. In Italy there was Benito Mussolini, who said: “Fascism . . . believes neither in the possibility or the utility of perpetual peace . . . War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy.” I didn’t like this fascist, or any fascist, but the US media loved him. As you may know, I was put under arrest and threatened with court-martial for criticizing Mussolini at the time. Later on, I stopped the bankers’ putsch against Roosevelt. See, some Wall Street big shots wanted to topple President Roosevelt and the New Deal. I was a life-long Republican, and they knew that I was a soldier’s general, so they approached me and wanted me to lead an army of five hundred thousand veterans to overthrow the government. We’d do the whole thing from Civilian Conservation Corps camps, which were already set up. If I refused, they were going to get MacArthur. Well, I blew the whistle on them. I always sided with the underdog against the rich and powerful with their damnable wars, and I’d do it again.

I spent 33 years and 4 months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force – the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from second lieutenant to Major General. And during that period 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 for capitalism. I suspected I was part of a racket all the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all members of the military profession I never had an original thought until I left the service.

Q: Getting back to the Iraq war, many reports say that the troops are being treated poorly, that they have their service extended, that their equipment and medical care are substandard and that their lack of financial support is punitive and insulting. We don’t hear of a soldier’s general these days; how did you operate differently?

General Butler: If you take care of the troops, they’ll take care of you. Some military people are just careerists, and you can’t expect civilians who never served to understand soldiers. In 1917, when I commanded the training base at Quantico, I opposed elevating the Corps Commandant to lieutenant general so long as the soldiers were getting no extra reward for doing the heavy work in the trenches. When I was sent to France, we had a situation where we were building up to a million men but our camp was knee-deep in eternal mud and supply requisitions weren’t working. So one afternoon I marched down to the docks with seven thousand men, confiscated fifty thousand sections of duckboards, which were wooden slats to be used in trenches, plus some shovels and kettles that we needed, and we carried them back to camp. Since I too carried a duckboard up the hill, I became known as General Duckboard. Hell, I’ve been called worse names than that.

I’ve been called a devil-dog, the bad boy of the marines, maverick Marine, old gimlet eye – I didn’t much care for that – and, by Teddy Roosevelt, the ideal American soldier. I liked that one.

Anyhow, years later, in 1932, when President Hoover and the Congress had denied these brave men their bonus, these same wonderful men I had served with in France, and twenty thousand of them gathered in Washington, I urged them to stick it out. You’ve heard of the bonus marchers? I got up on this rickety stand they had built and said: “You hear folks call you fellows tramps, but they didn’t call you that in ’17 and ’18. I never saw such fine soldiers. I never saw such discipline . . . You have as much right to lobby here as the United States Steel Corporation.” If I were around today I’d be up on that stand again, believe me. Then General MacArthur came through and cleaned ’em out. I have no comment on that.

Q: There has been a lot of evidence of corporate profiteering on this current war, extending to the highest levels. What’s you view?

General Butler: War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of the war a few people make huge fortunes. New millionaires and billionaires are created in a war. How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle? Out of war, nations acquire additional territory. They just take it. This newly acquired territory is exploited by the few – the self-same few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations. Truly, war is a racket.

Q: What do you suggest Americans do to stop this war?

General Butler: The Government declares war. To say helplessly: As individuals we have nothing to do with it, can’t prevent it. But who are we? Well, “we” right now are the mothers and fathers of every able-bodied boy of military age in the United States. “We” are also you young men of voting age and over, that they’ll use for cannon fodder. And “we” can prevent it. Now – you mothers, particularly. The only way you can resist all this war hysteria and beating tomtoms is by hanging onto the love you bear your boys. When you listen to some well-worded, well-delivered speech, just remember that it’s nothing but sound. It’s your boy that matters. And no amount of sound can make up to you for the loss of your boy. After you’ve heard one of those speeches and your blood’s all hot and you want to bite somebody like Hitler – go upstairs to where your boy’s asleep. . . . Look at him. Put your hand on that spot on the back of his neck. The place you used to love to kiss when he was a baby. Just rub it a little. You won’t wake him up, he knows it’s just you. Just look at his strong, fine young body because only the best boys are chosen for war. Look at this splendid young creature who’s part of yourself, then close your eyes for a moment and I’ll tell you what can happen . . .

Somewhere – five thousand miles from home. Night. Darkness. Cold. A drizzling rain. The noise is terrific. All Hell has broken loose. A star shell burst in the air. Its unearthly flare lights up the muddy field. There’s a lot of tangled rusty barbed wires out there and a boy hanging over them – his stomach ripped out, and he’s feebly calling for help and water. His lips are white and drawn. He’s in agony.

There’s your boy. The same boy who’s lying in bed tonight. The same boy who trusts you. . . . Are you going to run out on him? Are you going to let someone beat a drum or blow a bugle and make him chase after it? Thank God, this is a democracy and by your voice and your vote you can save your boy. (from a 1939 broadcast)

Q: Finally, general, how do we end this war racket?

General Butler: Well, it’s a racket all right. A few profit, and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences, peace parlays in Geneva or well-meaning resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.

First, before the government can recruit or conscript young people for military service, they must conscript politicians and industry and labor. Pay them the same that the soldiers get. They aren’t running any risk of being killed or having their bodies mangled or their minds shattered, so why shouldn’t they?

Second, hold a limited plebiscite to determine whether war should be declared, not of all the voters, but merely those who would be called upon to do the fighting. Why have the old president of a munitions firm or the flat-footed head of a tank plant vote on a venture of high profit and no risk to them?

A third step in this business of smashing the war racket is to make certain that our military forces are truly forces for defense only. At each session of Congress the question of naval appropriations comes up. The swivel-chair admirals in Washington are very adroit lobbyists. And they are smart. They don’t shout: “We need a lot of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.” Oh no. First they say that our nation is menaced by a great naval power, poised to strike suddenly and annihilate our people. Next they cry for a larger navy, for defense purposes only, of course. Then, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Arabia, and any other place that’s blue on the globe. The countries that border on these waters will be pleased beyond expression to see these warships just off their shores, just as we would be pleased as punch to see, through the morning mist, Chinese warships playing at war games off Los Angeles. I have proposed a constitutional amendment to limit our military forces to home defense purposes only. Let’s pass all our suggested antiwar legislation, let’s attend all the peace and disarmament conferences, let’s have all the war protest meetings we can arrange, but if we really want to make war impossible, then let us by all means insist upon adding a Peace Amendment, such as the one which I have drafted, to the United States Constitution. That’s how we can smash the war racket.

(end of interview)

Comment: Nobody ever claimed that they didn’t understand General Butler, but a lot of people didn’t like to be spoken to as plainly and as clearly as he spoke. One said: “If he was as wise in speech as he was brave in war, he would not have lost the prestige he deserved.” Smedley Butler with lost prestige? Not on our watch. Be sure to read General Butler’s book War Is a Racket, and please do whatever you can do to keep General Butler alive.

May 9, 2008