“War Is a Racket” (1935) by Maj.Gen. Smedley Butler

May 12, 2019

Written by one of America’s most decorated combat soldiers and a candidate for the post of Commandant of the United States Marine Corp, War Is a Racket is a short book of only five chapters and forms an intriguing piece of history that warns of the dangers of American adventurism, the impeding disaster of the Second World War and of what became known of as the “Industrial-Military Complex” in later years.

The author, Maj.Gen. Smedley Butler, received the Medal of Honor twice for combat and the Marine Corps Brevet Medal, the only marine to ever achieve this combination. In 1930 he was a serious contender for the most senior position in the USMC, however his tendency to be uncompromising in his attitude, as well as his ability to thoroughly aggravate his superiors with his outspokenness, meant that he was passed over and retired from the Corps instead.

War Is a Racket sprang from his subsequent career as a public speaker, in which he savagely berates war profiteers, big business, banks and politicians for waging wars that are “…conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”

It would be tempting to write off Butler’s writings as the result of hard feelings over the way his career resolved, except for the prescience that he displays. For example, he warns of the increasingly hostile attitude being directed towards Japan, which he attributes to protecting private investments interests in China and the Philippines.

As he puts it: “…we would be all stirred up to hate Japan and go to war — a war that might well cost us tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives of Americans, and many more hundreds of thousands of physically maimed and mentally unbalanced men.

“Of course, for this loss, there would be a compensating profit — fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be piled up. By a few. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders. Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators. They would fare well.”

In short, Butler seems to have been remarkably accurate in his predictions of the costs of the future war that he was adamant would occur.

The book lists the levels of profits made from various items required for an army to function during World War One and the companies that benefited, castigating them for their exploitation of the situation whilst highlighting the cost in human terms.

It is difficult to treat the book as an accurate historical source in terms of these figure as Butler’s vitriol is all too abundant in his writing. But they probably should be given consideration by anyone looking at such a subject as a potential starting point in research.

Butler also goes on to list his suggestions as to how war could be prevented – “Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our munitions makers 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.”

Certainly an intriguing idea.

In these perhaps more cynical times, it is not unusual to find such an negative attitude towards war being expressed. But for such a highly decorated soldier to effectively write off his own career and service to his country as “…a high class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers…” during a time when isolationism was rising in the US whilst war clouds gathered over Europe and Asia, it is certainly an interesting perspective that would well resonate with many today.

War Is a Racket is available at time of publishing on Amazon.com for $0.99 on Kindle and $3.79 in paperback.

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