The Beast

14 Oct

David Duckworth, Weapons.  Acrylic, 2012. Stencil executed by Philippe Barnoud on bridge near Paris University 8, Saint-Denis, for exhibition, Écritures en migration[s].

Reading about Smedley Butler in public can be quite engaging.  Some people notice the book in hand and smile.  Oh, Butler, the general who said no to war!  Indeed he was, once qualified.  As a military careerist, his decision to retire at age fifty from the Marine Corps in 1931 may have seemed a renunciation of war as it followed a highly publicized fracas with the State Department under President Herbert Hoover.  Butler had just given a speech in Philadelphia on the topic of the prevention of war, in which his second-hand anecdote regarding Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, running down a child with an automobile in the Italian countryside, was probably provocative, at best.  But, his stated conclusion that certain nations could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements, during the same speech, was surely incendiary in diplomatic circles.  For the speech, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson issued a formal apology to Mussolini; Hoover, in turn, ordered house arrest and court martial by the navy for Butler.

Hans Schmidt makes clear, though, that Butler was already considering early retirement before the Philadelphia engagement.  Schmidt, in his biography Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987; see pages 208-9 for the above account), emphasizes the issues at heart in Butler’s move to civilian life.  During Butler’s career the Marines served as a police force for the Navy.  It was during this era that the so-called gunboat diplomacy of the United States engaged the Navy in coercive intervention elsewhere in the world in order to support American business interests.  In 1898, Butler, at 16 years of age, volunteered for the Marine Corps in order to participate in the war against Spain in Cuba.  His father, Thomas S. Butler, who served continuously in Congress from 1896 to 1928, would follow the son’s interests as a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee for three decades.

In 1899, advancing to first lieutenant, Butler shipped to the Philippines where a guerrilla war based on Filipino resistance to the American colonial regime was heating up.  Not content to remain garrisoned in Cavité, Butler soon enough participated in direct fire against Filipino insurrectos in the field.  This fervor to prove his fighting mettle would characterize his service throughout his career.  Schmidt notes that with his “irrepressible zeal and warrior instincts, he was the ideal commander for colonial small wars where adept light infantry operations could be the critical factor in discouraging resistance and efficiently consolidating American domination” (38).  In 1900, he was a member of an international fleet intent on protecting interests in Tientsin and Peking in North China during the Boxer Rebellion, as Chinese peasant soldiers rose up against foreign control.  Butler assisted in toppling the Liberal dictator and nationalist José Santos Zelaya in Nicaragua (1909-12).  He was in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914, to assert American investments and oil prospects against General Victoriano Huerta’s revolutionary nationalism.  In 1915, Butler, by this time a major, engaged in expeditionary maneuvers from Cap Haitien against guerrilla fighters, or cacos, in the interior of Haiti.  With the establishment of a U.S.-sponsored client government and a period of martial law, Butler remained to supervise the formation of a native constabulary, all the while exhibiting the racist attitudes and employing the racist language of the day.  Under Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, Butler played a key role in forcing the National Assembly to accept a new American constitution so that Haiti’s prohibition against alien land ownership would end.

Butler continued to have a colorful career, at one point even, while on leave during 1924-25, becoming commissioner of police for the city of Philadelphia, intent on applying the restrictions of Prohibition equally to all parties and all classes of society.  The Marine came to despise the ascendency of an elite, college-trained, bureaucracy within the Corps.  Schmidt shows that the distinction between Butler’s “achievements as an enterprising leader of small combat units,” valued today in its professionalism, with a class of “staff officers, desk admirals, and war college intelligentsia,” does not account for Butler’s mass leadership skills and skillful employment of contemporary mass-media public relations, qualities which have since merged with the professionalism of today’s armed services (248).

Outside of military circles, Butler is remembered today for his rhetoric denouncing war.  During the 1930s, the ex-Marine was a frequent speaker at platforms in which intervention in a looming war between European powers was addressed.  Sharing podia with isolationists and pacifists, his speech was directed from an experience uniquely his own.  “War is a racket . . . ,” begins a text that was published in 1935 (see Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, War Is a Racket [Los Angeles: Feral House, 2003]).  He went on to write:

“. . . It always has been.  It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.  It is the only one international in scope.  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 war a few people make huge fortunes.” (23)

Munitions makers, ship builders, manufacturers, meat packers, and speculators were the few whom Butler identified to make a profit from a war in either Europe or Asia.  He was wise enough to link the escalation of national debt to participation in war, looking back to America’s advent in imperialist ambition, in 1898, through to the effect of political alliances during World War I.  While the war profiteers profited, the American people shouldered this debt: the du Ponts accruing fifty-eight million dollars profit yearly during 1914-18, or an increase of 950 percent, while the national debt soared to $52,000,000,000, or “$400 to every man, woman, and child” (27).  Or, Bethlehem Steel’s munition-making profitability of $49,000,000 per annum, over a peacetime annual income of $6,000,000.  His figures take in United States Steel, Anaconda, Utah Copper, Central Leather Company, General Chemical Company, International Nickel Company, American Sugar Refining Company, meat packers, cotton manufactures, garment makers, and coal producers.  Last, but not least, the bankers, whose “cream of the profits” were kept secret from the American public.  The waste that Butler accounted for was tremendous.  For instance, airplane and engine manufacturers received $1,000,000,000 from the Federal government for equipment that never left the ground.  Remember that $500 hammer that made headlines during the occupation of Iraq?  During World War I, there was the case of twelve dozen 48-inch wrenches that only worked with nuts specifically manufactured for turbines at Niagara Falls.  They never found a use here nor overseas; the nuts were never produced to fit the wrenches (27-31).  (For another citation of World War I corporate profiteering, see the post “Parade of Pain,” dated June 17, 2012).

Butler devoted himself to the cause of the soldier, citing the toll war takes on the average man, including, beyond the dead, “about 50,000 destroyed men” in the eighteen veterans’ hospitals which he had visited (33).  Butler’s prescription for smashing the war racket was to conscript all individuals involved in government and industry to receive the same monthly pay as the soldier, at that time $30 a month.  (During the Bonus March of 1932 he was in Washington, D.C. to booster the spirits of World War I veterans demanding back pay [see the post “The Gifting Society,” dated May 9, 2012, for further information on the March]).  Additionally, he proposed a plebiscite to determine a declaration of war comprised only of those who would actually serve as soldiers.  Thirdly, and this is where one must understand that Butler was not a pacifist, he proposed that military force only be used in defense of the nation.  (He did not live to see the bombing of Pearl Harbor, although he understood the long term tensions that had been building in Asia over regional control.)  Later, in 1936, he went further by proposing an Amendment for Peace, to the Constitution of the United States, which would restrict the movement of the members of the armed forces to within the continental limits of the United States and the Panama Canal Zone, and a proscribed number of miles outside the nation’s coastlines (first published in Woman’s Home Companion, September 1936, the text is reprinted in War Is a Racket).

While still a soldier, Butler advanced one trajectory of the armed forces that eventually came to be known as the military-industrial complex.  During the early 1920s, while serving at Quantico Marine Base, south of Washington on the Potomac, Butler promoted aviation and numerous innovations and improvements in war equipment.  Chinese nationalism brought the Marine back to the Peking-Tientsin region in 1927, where Butler capitalized on the use of an air force, with an airdrome in protective distance of a Standard Oil compound.  Thus, his later words regarding peace contrast sharply with his earlier career:

“The professional soldiers and sailors don’t want to disarm.  No admiral wants to be without a ship.  No general wants to be without a command.  Both mean men without jobs.  They are not for disarmament.  They cannot be for limitations of arms.  And at all these [disarmament] conferences, lurking in the background but all-powerful, just the same, are the sinister agents of those who profit by war.  They see to it that these conferences do not disarm or seriously limit armaments.” (44)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address on radio and television (January 17, 1961) warned the American people that they “must guard against unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex” (quoted in Richard F. Kaufman, “ ‘We Must Guard Against Unwarranted Influence By the Military-Industrial Complex’ ,” New York Times, June 22, 1969).  Having already engaged in intervention in Asia during the Korean War, the United States was actively involved in assisting the French government in suppressing revolution in Vietnam by the time of Eisenhower’s speech.  The expansion of that engagement soon included the commitment of ground troops for a prolonged and failed war against the Vietnamese people while the French exited their former colonial possession.  This was also an opportunity for the United States to expand its military arsenal.  One of the ways in which the U.S. deployed newer methods of destruction was through the use of chemical warfare.  During World War II, U.S. bombers first tested napalm against German soldiers occupying French civilian territory (see Howard Zinn, who was one of those bombers, in his testimony in the documentary film, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train).  In Vietnam, the Dow Chemical Company was the only manufacturer supplying the Defense Department with napalm B, a petroleum jelly that burns at 1000° F.  Its horrific propensity for sticking to whatever it burned, including human flesh, symbolized for the anti-war movement the scale of atrocity the architects of the war had devised (see Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? American Protest Against the Vietnam War, 1963-1975 [New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984], page 104).  Photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths’s 1971 book-length essay on the Vietnam War included the testimony of an informant, an American pilot from 1966, on the strategic value of this chemical:

“We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow.  The original product wasn’t so hot—if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off.  So the boys started adding polystyrene—now it sticks like shit to a blanket.  But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (WP—white phosphorous) so’s to make it burn better.  It’ll even burn under water now.  And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.” (Griffiths, Vietnam Inc. [London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2001; orig. pub. 1971], p. 210)

Sydney D. Rubbo remarked how chemical and biological warfare (C.B.W.), or “toxic warfare,” had so engaged public discourse internationally that “the sinister danger of nuclear warfare seems to be taking second place” (Rubbo, “The Lethal Knife—Chemical and Biological Warfare,” The Australian Quarterly [December 1968], page 22).  The two main units in the Western world producing biological weapons were Proton in England and Fort Detrick in the United States.  U.S. expenditure for research and development in C.B.W. rose from $35 million in 1959 to $150 million by 1964 (26).  Besides the use of napalm against human targets, the U.S. engaged in the massive use of defoliants against whole ecosystems and crop areas, with the express purpose of depriving North Vietnamese soldiers, or the Vietcong, from having access to shelter and supplies in South Vietnam.  This, of course, led in turn to depriving rural South Vietnamese from the same, forcing them to migrate or surrender to U.S.-sponsored relocation to shantytowns outside Saigon and other cities, termed “pacification” by U.S. civilian and military strategists at the time, creating a huge underclass of unemployed and underfed people without access to adequate medical care.

Kaufman outlined a U.S. Federal military budget that in 1968 accounted for 45 percent of all Federal expenditures, or $77.4-billion in Defense Department outlays, with “such related programs as military assistance to foreign countries, atomic energy and the Selective Service System rais[ing] the figure to $80.5-billion” (page SM10).  Procurement accounted for the single largest item in the 1968 budget, a term which covered “purchasing, renting or leasing supplies and services (and all the machinery for drawing up and administering the contracts under which these purchases and rentals are made)” (ibid).  About 22,000 prime contractors and 100,000 subcontractors were involved in this vast defense-oriented industrial complex, employing about four million people.  Of this, the largest share of procurement was among a “relative handful of major contractors,” the 100 largest defense suppliers receiving $26.2-billion in contracts (10-11).  Property holdings were extensive at the time, an “almost arbitrary and vastly underestimated” value of $202.5-billion in military real and personal property at the end of fiscal year 1968, of which supplies and plant equipment accounted for $55.6 billion.  Kaufman remarks upon the Pentagon’s stated value of $38.7-billion for 29 million acres of property it controlled by pointing to another $9-billion, or 9.7 million acres, under the Army Civil Works Division and $4.7-billion of unspecified additional property.  Acquisition cost ignored the cost of property acquired prior to the 1968 fiscal year, thus undervaluing property attained during a period of over 100 years (ibid).

By contrast, A.E. Lieberman attempted to counter Kaufman’s arguments outlining an active co-interest between private industry and the military in an article in which the author offered the following epitomization:

“. . . all of industry has a role in supplying defense requirements, whether as an active participant or on call.  Rather than conspiratorial gain, the element of indenture in industry’s responsibility suggests that major companies engaged in defense contracting may soon alter their business emphasis in favor of civilian markets and that the industry stake in D.O.D. [Department of Defense] as a market may soon become relatively smaller” (Lieberman, “Updating Impressions of the Military-Industry Complex,” California Management Review XI:4 [Summer 1969], page 51).

Lieberman was then Manager of Marketing Services with Dorne and Margolin and a former Manager, Market Planning and Analysis with Kollsman Instrument Company.  Thus, the immediate question arises as to Lieberman’s investment in promoting an alternative, public interest view of the matter in which military procurement contractors are characterized as good neighbor participants realizing relatively lower profit gains when compared to the profit they would receive from private industrial activity.  This is a sign along the road of what later critics would term a military-industrial-media complex.  Think the televised broadcasts of the invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Cold War ideology had driven our military prerogatives since the closing of World War II.  Surprisingly or not, ten years following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the U.S. defense budget at approximately $260-billion in 1998, William Greider examined a military-industrial complex that was still operating as if the Cold War had not ended (Greider, Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace [New York: PublicAffairs, 1999]).  With a political culture unwilling at the time to enlarge that budget and a shrinking market resulting in the loss of more than one million factory jobs, defense manufacturers continued to prosper:

“The dramatic consolidation of defense companies has left an impression that at least the industrial side of the military-industrial complex has been rationally restructured.  That belief is wildly mistaken . . . Despite a dramatic downsizing in employment, the structure of the defense industry remains enormously bloated with overcapacity—too many factories, with not enough sales to keep the factories busy.  The government pays for this surplus of productive capacity.” (xii-xiii)

Noam Chomsky identifies the U.S. invasion of Panama in December 1989 as “the first U.S. act of international violence in the post-World War II era that was not justified by the pretext of a Soviet threat” (Chomsky, Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era [Stirling, Scotland: AK Press, 1991], 19).  National consensus on the justification of this action involved, according to the State Department, both “conservatives” advocating “a violent and powerful state” and “liberals,” “who sometimes disagree with the ‘conservatives’ on tactical grounds” (20).  A rationale for military intervention developed alongside this consensus with variations in content.  For Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, actions “designed to succeed,” “vital to our national interest,” and taken as “a last resort” were appropriate.  Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis proposed his own standards for military intervention, failing peaceful means: “to deter aggression against its territory, to protect American citizens, to honor our treaty obligations and to take action against terrorists” (21).

The gunboat diplomacy that propelled Smedley Butler’s career was revealed by this 1989 invasion to be useful once again under familiar terminology, “protect American citizens” (read protect corporate interests, as in the American citizens at the Standard Oil compound at Tientsin in 1927), and newer terminology, “designed to succeed,” whereby the arrogance of the American past that all imperialist ventures into foreign territory, whether it was the Philippines or Haiti, would, without question, succeed, capitulates today to an uncertainty of success based on a world in which resistance could foil any positive assumptions, read the dragging of an American soldier’s body through the streets of Mogadishu or the burnt and hanging effigy of a transport work in Iraq.  Greider points to the invasion of Kosovo by NATO forces in the spring of 1999, with firepower principally from the United States, as an example of “the casualty-free war” (Greider, 187), where the use of industrialized, high-technology weaponry probably would have appalled the fighting instincts of a Smedley Butler (in this example, “airborne explosives delivered from a great distance” [ibid, 188]).  Today a soldier sits comfortably with hand on joystick thousands of miles away from where he directs a drone to fire its missiles at designated human targets in Afghanistan.

Understanding Greider’s text serves as a prelude to recognizing the advent of this country’s War On Terrorism for what it serves.  What better means to continue and expand a military-industrial complex, failing a clearly defined enemy such as the Red menace that was supposedly the reaching tentacles of Soviet Union and China, than to create an amorphous, non-nation state, continuous field of siting?  And what better way to deflect criticism from itself by removing the ability of the American body politic to perceive the nature of this reconstituted global beast.  Yet, in the newest incarnation of rhetorical posturing for the good of this military-industrial complex we hear a presidential candidate pounding his chest over  the nation state once again: Iran.  It would be interesting to pinpoint when “terrorism” entered the American lexicon, which I imagine has been attempted, if not by Chomsky, then by others.  Chomsky, though, observes that United States behavior during the Cold War era “has primarily been a history of worldwide subversion, aggression and state-run international terrorism . . . ,” entrenching the military-industrial complex “that was Eisenhower’s farewell warning,” or, essentially, “a smoothly functioning welfare state for the rich with a national security ideology for population control” (Chomsky, 24).

Here we are, without voice if we needed one, contemplating a withdrawal from Afghanistan and waiting for the ascendancy of our next target of aggression, unable to stop the internal beast that continues to terrorize the world.

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