The Hidden Costs of War

Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)
Agent Orange victims Nguyen and Hung Vuong Pham, ages 14 and 15, as captured by Brian Driscoll, photographer, in 2008.(Huffington Post, 2013, see link in article)

W.J. Astore

If you’re in the U.S. military or you’re a veteran, you probably know casualty figures, especially deaths, from America’s wars.  To cite one example, America lost more than 58,000 men in the Vietnam War.  Their names are inscribed on the “The Wall” in DC.  I’ve been there.  Seeing all those names is a devastating experience.

But “The Wall” undercounts the number of American dead from that war.  Just the other day, I was talking to a veteran, a graduate of West Point, about Vietnam.  He told me he had two classmates who became pilots and who worked with Agent Orange, a toxic chemical defoliant, in Vietnam.  They both died later of brain tumors from their exposure to the chemical. Their names are not on The Wall.

I shared this story with a colleague, and he wrote back that his father’s best friend flew Agent Orange around in the Pacific, relocating it after the war.  After being exposed to it day after day, he died of cancer in his early thirties.  His name is also not on The Wall.

Wars are not over for our veterans after the U.S. government says they are.  Consider the surge in veteran suicides, especially for those in their fifties and sixties.  Estimates vary as to how many Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives, but the number may be as high as 100,000.  PTSD, chronic pain, depression, alcohol and drug addiction, and many other conditions linked to war ultimately become an unbearable load for many of our veterans.

(And as I’ve written about elsewhere, the cost of war was much much higher for the Vietnamese people, to include the continuing costs of exposure to Agent Orange, as shown in this article at Huffington Post)

My point is this: As a country, we just don’t recognize fully the true costs of our wars.  It’s not enough to add up the billions spent or the number of combat deaths.  We need to reckon with the aftermath of our wars, the way that veterans keep suffering and dying from wounds they suffered, many of them hidden from view, but no less real for that reason.  And we need to reckon with the destruction we inflict on other peoples and countries, for the “American way of war” is profligate with firepower, from high explosive and napalm and cluster munitions to Willy Peter (white phosphorous) and depleted uranium.

And maybe, just maybe, if we ever truly reckon with the cost of war to ourselves and others, we’ll strive harder to avoid war in the future.

A coda: Can we ban forever the term “surgical strike”?  Can we ban forever the term “collateral damage”?  Can we ban these and similar weasel words that diminish the horrifying and murderous nature of war?

Betraying the military (and democracy) by loving indifference

A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see
A grim reality of military service that we often prefer not to see

W.J. Astore

Since the end of the Vietnam War, when it eliminated the draft, the United States has relied on an “all-volunteer military,” or AVM.  But that military, as one would expect, has not drawn equally from all segments of American society.  Its recruits have been more rural than urban, more Southern and Midwestern than from coastal regions, more conservative and evangelical than liberal and non-denominational, and certainly more working and middle class than from the affluent upper classes.

Is there a problem here?  Some would answer “no,” but today’s AVM is not the citizen-military of World War II, which drew in a fairly equitable way from all sectors of American society.  Today’s AVM defines itself as a breed apart, as separate from and superior to the masses who choose not to serve.  And in some sense it is a breed apart, because we have allowed it to become so.

This band of self-styled warriors is augmented increasingly by privatized military corporations, or mercenaries in plain speak.  (Indeed, some service members, when they leave the AVM, choose to join privatized military corporations, often doubling or tripling their salaries in the process.)  National Guard and Reserves complete the picture, units of which have been deployed to war zones far more frequently than anticipated since 9/11.

So, the U.S. military today is a curious amalgam.  An AVM or “professional” military, supported by privatized corporations/mercenaries and “weekend warriors,” deployed to foreign locations, acting to guard and sometimes to extend an imperial frontier, often celebrated by gushing politicians and a fawning media as “heroes” and as “the finest fighting force ever,” even as that military is connected less and less tangibly to the American citizenry.

And it’s that very decline in tangible connections that accounts for much of the military boosterism in America.  Most Americans lack any clear sense of what the military does; they certainly care less than they should; but what they are willing to do is to “salute” the troops by buying a beer in a red-white-and-blue can or putting a magnetic ribbon on their SUV as an expression of “support.”

A military that is not drawn equitably and broadly from the people is a military that is potentially corrosive to democracy.  Perhaps not surprisingly, today’s military is also one that is rarely sent on the people’s business in anything but name.  Instead, it is sent on the government’s business, a government riddled by special interests, a deeply compromised government.

Having served myself in the AVM for twenty years, I confess to respect aspects of it while increasingly being uneasy at its current composition and direction.  Why?  Because its composition is less than democratic, and its missions are even less so.  These hard facts are nothing new in history, even in America’s history, even when we had a draft.  Just read General Smedley Butler’s War Is A Racket. What’s new is our acquiescence as a people in the transformation of our military as warriors and mercenaries to well-heeled special interests.

Our nation has betrayed its troops in a strange way — by loving indifference.  Even as the military kills in our name, we choose to look away, sometimes in horror at the face of war, most often in lack of interest.  Even when we show interest, it’s the interest of cheerleaders jumping in celebration, or of fans enthusiastically or politely applauding from the sidelines.  The vast majority of Americans choose to have no real skin in the game.

What our military needs is not gushing cheerleaders or applauding fans but determined critics.  It needs to be challenged.  It needs a good ass-chewing, especially of its decision-makers at the top, the brass.  We sure as hell can’t wait for our “leaders” to do this.

Recent presidents have become cheerleaders-in-chief rather than commanders, nearly all of our Members of Congress have joined the pep squad, and the few critics who exist have been marginalized or attacked as being unpatriotic.

Even as our military becomes less democratic, less a representative sample of the people, we the people refuse to know our military.  We especially don’t want to know what it does in our name (especially the bad stuff, which is largely kept secret from us anyway).  So we end up worshiping a fantasy military, a manic pixie dream military, a figment of our imagination, an amalgam of films like Saving Private Ryan (WWII idealism), Top Gun (technological wargasm), and Act of Valor (Rambo/cowboy histrionics).

We refuse to know our military and what it does.  And if the people don’t know the military, and if the military is not drawn fairly from the people, you have a ripple, a rent, maybe even a fatal fault line, in the political and social life of the Republic.

We don’t know what kind of military we have, we don’t know what it does, but we worship it anyway.  That’s not democracy; that’s militarism as a national religion.

What the President Should Say to the Troops

vietnam

W.J. Astore

For George W. Bush, American troops were the greatest force for human freedom in the world.  For Barack Obama, the troops represented the world’s finest fighting force, not just in this moment, but in all of human history.  What is the reason for such hyperbolic, I’d even say unhinged, praise for our troops?  Well, presidents obviously think it is both politically popular with the heartland and personally expedient in making them seem thankful for the troops’ service.

But here’s the problem: We don’t need hyperbolic statements that our military is the “finest fighting force” ever or that our troops are the world’s liberators and bringers of freedom.  Such words are immoderate and boastful.  They’re also false, or at least unprovable.  They’re intended to win favor both with the troops and with the people back home, i.e. they’re politically calculated.  And in that sense they’re ill-advised and even dishonest; they’re basically nothing more than flattery.

If I were president, I’d say something like this: “I commend our troops for their dedication, their service, their commitment, their sacrifice.  They represent many of the best attributes of our country.  I’m proud to be their commander in chief.”

Our troops and most everyone else would be more than satisfied with that statement.  Our troops don’t need to hear they’re the best warriors in all of history.  At the same time, they don’t need to hear they’re the bringers of freedom (“a global force for good,” to use the U.S. Navy’s slogan, recently dropped as demotivating to sailors and Marines).  Let’s pause for a moment and compare those two statements.  The toughest warriors and the finest liberators?  Life-takers and widow-makers as well as freedom-bringers and world liberators?  You think there just might be some tension in that equation?

We need honesty, not immodesty, from America’s presidents.  Give me a president who is able to thank the troops without gushing over them.  Even more, give me a president who thanks the troops by not wasting their efforts in lost causes such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Give me a president who thanks the troops by downsizing our empire while fully funding benefits and health care for wounded veterans.

That’s the kind of thanks our troops really need – not empty flattery.

On Memorial Day, Is There Room to Honor Former Enemies?

sunset july 2014 006

W.J. Astore

Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business.  But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom.  Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.

As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.”  In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.

Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided.  But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric.  America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C.  We visit that wall and weep for our dead.

But what about the Vietnamese dead?  Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million.  The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.  Do we weep for their dead?

Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA.  The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.

So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?

Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy.  War is the enemy.  A will to destruction is the enemy.  And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.

Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors.  Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.

Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others?  Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?

Yes, there are necessary wars.  I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika.  But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare.  For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on.  The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.

A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.

 

Ann Jones on the Horrendous Costs of War to Our Veterans

wallatnight1
Veterans Day has become a day of sales and promotions instead of a time of reflection about the costs of war and the sacrifices of our troops.  The great virtue of Ann Jones’s new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story is that it truly makes us confront the painful realities of war, which is (or should be) a large part of what Veterans Day is all about.

You don’t thank a veteran because he or she dons a uniform and salutes smartly.  You thank a veteran because he or she volunteered (or was drafted in past days) for a life of sacrifice.  In the military, one’s freedoms are abridged in the name of defending freedom, a paradox that is justifiable when the cause is just.  But even when the cause is just, the sacrifices our troops make and the wounds they bear are often as horrendous to them as they are hidden from the rest of us.

That’s the virtue of Ann Jones’s new book.  She makes us reckon with the true costs of America’s “long war” on terror, a reckoning that’s much needed in Veterans Day ceremonies that often involve far too much vapid consumerism and not enough honest reflection. W.J. Astore

They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into: The Cost of War American-Style 
By Ann Jones

(Used by permission of TomDispatch.com)

The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody.  They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.

It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage.  They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski.  They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.

They were so unlike themselves. Or rather, unlike the American soldiers I had first seen in that country. Then, fired up by 9/11, they moved with the aggressive confidence of men high on their macho training and their own advance publicity.

I remember the very first American soldiers I saw in Afghanistan.  It must have been in 2002.  In those days, very few American troops were on the ground in that country — most were being readied for Iraq to fulfill the vainglorious dreams of George W. Bush and Co. — and they were not stationed in Kabul, the Afghan capital, but in the countryside, still supposedly searching for Osama bin Laden.

I was in the north, at the historic Dasht-i Shadian stadium near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, watching an afternoon of buzkashi, the traditional Afghan sport in which mounted men, mostly farmers, vie for possession of a dead calf.  The stadium was famous not only for the most fiercely contested buzkashi games in the country, but also for a day during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan when local people invited 50 Soviet soldiers to enjoy the spectacle at Dasht-i Shadian and slaughtered them on the spot.

I was seated with Afghan friends in the bleachers when a squad of Americans in full battle gear barged into the dignitaries’ box and interrupted play. Some of them insisted on riding the horses.  At a sign from the local warlord presiding over the games, Afghan riders helped the Americans mount.  They may also have cued their horses to bolt, race away, and dump them in the dirt.

A little stiffly, the soldiers hiked back to the grandstand, took up their rifles, and made a great show of laughing off the incident — of being loud and boisterous “good sports.” But a large audience of poker-faced Afghan men had taken their measure.  A friend said something to me that I never forgot in years after as I watched the “progress” of the war unfold: “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”

The next day, I spotted another squad of American soldiers in the city’s central bazaar.  In the midst of busy shops, they had fanned out in full battle gear in front of a well-known carpet store, dropped to one knee, and assumed the firing position. They aimed their assault rifles at women shoppers clad in the white burqas of Mazar and frozen in place like frightened ghosts.  The Americans were protecting their lieutenant who was inside the store, shopping for a souvenir of his sojourn in this foreign land.

I can’t say exactly when the U.S. military brought that swagger to Kabul. But by 2004 the Americans were there behind the walls of fortified urban bases, behind concrete barriers and gigantic sandbags at armed checkpoints, blocking traffic, and closing thoroughfares. Their convoys were racing at top speed through city streets with machine-gunners on alert in the turrets of their armored vehicles.  Women half-blind under their burqas brought their children to guide them across suddenly dangerous streets.

Enter the Warriors

I had come to Afghanistan to work for those women and children.  In 2002, I started spending winters there, traveling the country but settling in Kabul. Schools long closed by the Taliban were reopening, and I volunteered to help English teachers revive memories of the language they had studied and taught in those schools before the wars swept so much away. I also worked with Afghan women and other internationals — few in number then — to start up organizations and services for women and girls brutalized by war and stunned by long confinement to their homes.  They were emerging silently, like sleepwalkers, to find life as they had once known it long gone. Most of Kabul was gone too, a landscape of rubble left from years of civil war followed by Taliban neglect and then American bombs.

After the Taliban fled those bombs, the first soldiers to patrol the ruined streets of Kabul were members of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force established by the U.N. to safeguard the capital.  Turks, Spaniards, Brits, and others strolled around downtown, wearing berets or caps — no helmets or armor — and walked into shops like casual tourists.  They parked their military vehicles and let kids climb all over them. Afghans seemed to welcome the ISAF soldiers as an inconspicuous but friendly and reassuring presence.

Then they were supplanted by the aggressive Americans. The teachers in my English classes began to ask for help in writing letters to the U.S. military to claim compensation for friends or neighbors whose children had been run over by speeding soldiers.  A teacher asked, “Why do Americans act in this way?”  I had, at the time, no answer for her.

In my work, I found myself embroiled ever more often with those soldiers as I tried to get compensation, if not justice, for Afghans.  As a reporter, I also occasionally felt duty-bound to attend press briefings concocted by Washington’s militarized theorists of a future American-dominated world of global free markets, spreading democracy, and perfect security in the oddly rebranded “homeland.”

The Pentagon prepared PowerPoint presentations cluttered with charts and arrows indicating how everything was ultimately connected to everything else in an insulated circularity of hokum.  Subordinates based in Kabul delivered those talks to American journalists who dutifully took notes and submitted soon-familiar stories about new strategies and tactics, each guaranteed to bring success to Washington’s Afghan War, even as commanding generals came and went year after year.

To American officials back in that homeland, war was clearly a theoretical construct, and victory a matter of dreaming up those winning new strategies, or choosing some from past wars — Iraq, for example, or Vietnam — and then sending in the brash kids I would see in that stadium near Mazar-i-Sharif to carry them out. War was, in short, a business plan encoded in visual graphics.  To Afghans, whose land had already served as the playing field for more than 20 years of Washington’s devastating modern wars, it wasn’t like that at all.

Frankly, I didn’t like the U.S. soldiers I met in those years.  Unlike the ISAF troops, who appeared to be real people in uniforms, the Americans acted like PowerPoint Soldiers (with a capital S), or, as they preferred to be called, Warriors (with a capital W).  What they seldom acted like was real people.  For one thing, they seemed to have been trained to invade the space of any hapless civilian.  They snapped to attention in your face and spat out sentences that splashed your flesh, something they hadn’t learned from their mothers.

In time, though, their canned — and fearful — aggressiveness stirred my sympathy and my curiosity to know something about who they really were, or had been.  So much so that in the summer of 2010, I borrowed body armor from a friend and applied to embed with U.S. soldiers.  At the time, General Stanley McChrystal was massing troops (and journalists) in the Taliban heartland of Helmand Province in southwestern Afghanistan for a well-advertised “decisive” showdown with the insurgency.  I, on the other hand, was permitted to go to a forward operating base in northeast Afghanistan on the Pakistani border where, it was said, nothing was going on.  In fact, American soldiers were “falling” there at a rate that took their commanders by surprise and troubled them.

By the time I arrived, those commanders had become secretive, cloistering themselves behind closed doors — no more PowerPoint presentations offering the press (me) straight-faced assessments of “progress.”

For TomDispatch, I wrote a piece about that base and included one fact that brought me a deluge of outraged email from wives and girlfriends of the Warriors.  It wasn’t my description of the deaths of soldiers that upset them, but my noting that the most common disabling injury on that base was a sprained ankle — the result of jogging in the rocky high-desert terrain. How dare I say such a thing, the women demanded.  It demeaned our nation’s great Warriors. It was an insult to all patriotic Americans.

I learned a lesson from that.  America’s soldiers, when deployed, may no longer be “real people” even to their loved ones.  To girlfriends and wives, left alone at home with bills to pay and kids to raise, they evidently had to be mythic Warriors of historic importance saving the nation even at the sacrifice of their own lives.  Otherwise, what was the point?

Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

And that may be the point: that there wasn’t one, not to this war of choice and revenge, or the one in Iraq either.  There were only kids in uniform, most of whom by that time knew that they hadn’t known what they were getting into, and now were struggling to keep their illusions and themselves alive.  They walked the streets of the base, two by two, battle buddies heading for the DFAC (mess hall), the laundry, the latrine, the gym. They hung out on the Internet and the international phones, in the war and out of it at the same time, until orders came down from somewhere: Washington, Kabul, Bagram, or the map-lined room behind the closed door of the base commander’s office.  As a result, every day while I was on that base, patrols were ordered to drive or walk out into the surrounding mountains where Taliban flags flew. Very often they returned with men missing.

What had happened to those boys who had been there at breakfast in the DFAC? Dead or torn up by a sniper or a roadside bomb, they had been whisked off by helicopters and then… what?

They lodged in my memory.  Unable to forget them, almost a year later, when I was officially not a nosy journalist but a research fellow at a leading university, I again applied for permission to embed in the military.  This time, I asked to follow casualties from that high desert “battle space” to the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, onto a C-17 with the medical teams that accompanied the wounded soldiers to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany — the biggest American hospital outside the United States — then back onto a C-17 to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and in some cases, all the way home.

Over the years, more and more of America’s kids made that medevac journey back to the States. Costsofwar.com has tallied 106,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan or evacuated from those war zones because of accident or disease.  Because so many so-called “invisible wounds” are not diagnosed until after soldiers return home, the true number of wounded must be much higher. Witness the fact that, as of June 2012, 247,000 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, and as of May 31, 2012, more than 745,000 veterans of those wars had filed disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA).  Taxpayers have already spent $135 billion on medical and disability payments for the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the long-term medical and disability costs are expected to peak at about midcentury, at an estimated $754 billion.

Then there were the “fallen,” the dead, shipped to Dover Air Base in metal “transfer cases” aboard standard cargo planes. They were transferred to the official military mortuary in ceremonies from which the media, and thus the public, were until 2009 excluded — at least 6,656 of them from Iraq and Afghanistan by February of this year. At least 3,000 private contractors have also been killed in both wars. Add to this list the toll of post-deployment suicides, and soldiers or veterans hooked on addictive opioids pushed by Big Pharma and prescribed by military doctors or VA psychiatrists either to keep them on the job or, after they break down, to “cure” them of their war experiences.

The first veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq returned to the United States 10 years ago in 2003, yet I’ve never spoken to a damaged soldier or a soldier’s family members who thought the care he or she received from the Veterans Administration was anything like appropriate or enough.  By the VA’s own admission, the time it takes to reach a decision on a veteran’s benefits, or simply to offer an appointment, is so long that some vets die while waiting.

So it is that, since their return, untold numbers of soldiers have been looked after by their parents.  I visited a home on the Great Plains where a veteran has lain in his childhood bed, in his mother’s care, for most of the last decade, and another home in New England where a veteran spent the last evening before he took his own life sitting on his father’s lap.

As I followed the sad trail of damaged veterans to write my new book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — the Untold Story, I came to see how much they and their families have suffered, like Afghans, from the delusions of this nation’s leaders — many running counter to international law — and of other influential Americans, in and out of the military, more powerful and less accountable than themselves.

Like the soldiers, the country has changed.  Muted now is the braggadocio of the bring-‘em-on decider who started the preemptive process that ate the children of the poor and patriotic.  Now, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, Washington scrambles to make the exit look less like a defeat — or worse, pointless waste.  Most Americans no longer ask what the wars were for.

“Follow the money,” a furious Army officer, near the end of his career, instructed me. I had spent my time with poor kids in search of an honorable future who do the grunt work of America’s military.  They are part of the nation’s lowliest 1%. But as that angry career officer told me, “They only follow orders.” It’s the other 1% at the top who are served by war, the great American engine that powers the transfer of wealth from the public treasury upward and into their pockets. Following that money trail reveals the real point of the chosen conflicts. As that disillusioned officer put it to me, the wars have made those profiteers “monu-fuckin’-mentally rich.” It’s the soldiers and their families who lost out.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

Copyright Ann Jones 2013.

War is a Racket

The business of wars and weapons sales is booming, with the United States leading the pack as the world’s foremost “merchant of death,” as Michael Klare notes in this article on the global arms trade for TomDispatch.com.

But why should we be surprised?  War has always been a racket.  And if you don’t believe me that forever war is forever profitable – for some, I recommend that you read War Is A Racket (1935), a classic polemic written by U.S. Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler.  Twice awarded the Medal of Honor, Major General Butler turned against military adventurism in the 1930s as he saw how his efforts and those of his men were exploited by elites to expand corporate wealth and power, even as they exempted themselves from the hardships and dangers of combat.

Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler.  Photo by author.
Plaque in Philly in Honor of Smedley Butler. Photo by author.

As Butler put it in War Is A Racket:

“How many of the war millionaires shouldered a rifle [during World War I]?  How many of them dug a trench?  How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out?  How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets?  How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy?  How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”

Not many.  Butler knew who really paid war’s high bills:

“Yes, the soldier pays the greater part of the bill.  His family pays too.  They pay it in the same heart-break that he does.  As he suffers, they suffer.  At nights, as he lay in the trenches and watched shrapnel burst about him, they lay home in their beds and tossed sleeplessly … And even now the families of the wounded men and of the mentally broken and those who never were able to readjust themselves are still suffering and still paying.”

And Butler knew how best to put an end to the racket of war.  He was blunt – and right:

“We must take the profit out of war.”

“We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be war.”

“We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.”

Tragically, since the end of World War II Butler’s sage advice has been completely ignored.  War is more profitable now than ever.  We permit our youth to have no say in whether there should be a war.  (Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.)  And today as a country we equate “home defense” with the world’s strongest military, configured for global reach, global power, boasting of “full-spectrum dominance.”

Unless we heed Butler’s advice, debilitating wars will continue.  They will continue because perpetual war is simply too profitable.  In the racket of war, the chief racketeers are easy to identify.  As Butler knew, just follow the money.

W. J. Astore