"War is a racket" (Repeat)

"War is a racket" by Major General Smedley D. Butler is an antiwar classic by a highly decorated U.S. Marine Cops officer. There's still a USMC base in Japan named for this officer.

One quote of this remarkable officer sums his experience up, but isn't from his "War is a racket" text itself:

MG Smedley D. Butler, USMC, 1920's
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.
The horrors of war, the unjustified profits of the war industry, the suffering at home, mutilated soldiers and especially his experience in many needless and corrupt small wars convinced MG Butler that war is a racket, evil. I read his book twice in the past years, and it's obviously applicable to our time as well as to the early and late 20th century.

He judged by his personal experience of his lifetime - the "Great War" and many small interventions against sovereign nations in Latin America.

He wrote "War is a racket" in 1935, in hindsight probably one of the worst times ever if you want to have lasting impact and fame for an anti-war work . The axis powers didn't allow peace for long any more (he warned only about Italy in his book) and showed that there are two kinds of war; those you can avoid and those you cannot avoid without submission.

This distinction is very important if we try to apply lessons learned from history for a better future.
Patriotism is a good thing if used to mobilize for unavoidable wars, and it's evil if it's exploited to reinforce support for needless wars.
Furthermore, the arguments of pacifists should not be dismissed completely, but considered for each and every war in detail - they apply to some wars and not so much to others.

Not only the understanding of patriotism should be influenced by past experiences - the whole approach to war needs to be checked. Are our societies really prepared to repel attempts to lure us into needless small or major wars in the future? Or will we fall prey to such attempts as the British did in 2003, when their head of government was able to participate in a war that the majority of the British didn't even want and that became a disaster?


P.S.: This is a modified and abridged repeat of a four year old post of mine. I think it deserved this repeat. After all, almost nobody read this blog four years ago any way.;)


  1. I think it comes down to the question if you believe in "Volksgemeinschaft" or not (and I don't want to answer that), as the whole construct of the Nation State is only justifiable when you believe in it. Otherwise it's a corrupted version of feudalism, one without the consent of the minions.

    Economic wars as those described by the General, and I would include the first world war here also, can be justified (not in a moral, but practical sense) as long as they benefit the broad population (aka Volksgemeinschaft), or enable a certain lifestyle for them (e.g. via the availability of cheap natural resources or by opening markets for their products). I mean, face it, all the successful Empires of the modern world are based on that business model. Why should the U.S., in the tradition of Venice, the Dutch, the British Empire, be any different?

    The problems start when the profits of the use of national resources, treasure and blood are going only to 0.5% of the population, as it the case today.

    Maybe today the General would write "the state is a racket", not just "war is a racket" ...

  2. if you looked hard enough, i'm sure you could find a former soldier convinced he'd spent his life fighting against crab people.

  3. We need more mavericks like Smedley. There are too many who go along with the crowd. But Butler was never one to keep quiet about his opinions, even when they were controversial. Hans Schmidt wrote a good biography of him.

  4. Interesting post, I think it's pretty much the natural way of things because in all decision making processes an organized minority can gain enough leverage to lobby an outcome in their own special interest (look at ancient Athens, the "birthplace" of democracy). The public is going to pay for these expenditures that disproportionally benefit a fraction of the population. In the case of Athens the often recalcitrant "allies" had to foot the bill. But that was on a far greater scale than current chequebook diplomacy footing US interventions.

    The idea of benefit to the Volksgemeinschaft is problematic because it would justify to rob other people in order to pay for your Kraft durch Freude vacation trip. Let's look at things from a different point of view, fair deals. These are deals that benefit both sides and both Volksgemeinschaften if want to call them like that, but i prefer the term population because it's non-exclusive. Volksgemeinschaften could in the be a bunch of aristocrats earning their dime on exploiting slave labour by people not considered Volksgemeinschaft. The problem remains as to what is a fair deal and what are unfair obstructions to a fair deal. This makes me think about the old story of Phoenician traders in Africa. The traders put their goods on the beach and signalled to the natives while going back to their ships. Afterwards the natives put there amounts of gold next to the goods. Each side did only take gold or goods if they agreed. That's a pretty nice story about fairness meaning respect for other peoples judgements. The racket employed derives from the concept that someone thinks he knows things better and other have to involuntary obey him for some benefit to whom? It should be pointed out that the Phoenicians weren't only nice guys, Carthage and others had lots of pirates stealing goods and abducting people against their will. So this fairness story above also contains elements of precaution for the personal liberty of partaking natives by limiting opportunities for involuntary abduction.
    In today's world you probably did a seemingly fair deal if you're recommended to other customers without your doing. You rarely need weapons for such deals other than fighting robbers who do nothin g but racketeer for their earnings.