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War Is (Still) A Racket

Even though Smedley Butler's seminal work was published almost a century ago, its critiques still apply today. Warfare continues to be driven by powerful, monied interests, and this destructive political-economy is just as dangerous now as it was in 1935.


Major General Smedley Butler wrote War Is A Racket (1935) as a protest against the impending Second World War. He identified the variety of American economic elites who had benefited from the last war and advocated for an end to the profiteering military-industrial complex—an integral part of the American empire. Butler also listed a number of corporations who benefited from the First World War and stated approximately how much each of them had profited. His work is an impassioned, genuine attempt at an apology, as Butler himself had participated as a soldier in US wars of expansion—he won two Medals of Honor for his participation in colonial struggles in Mexico and Haiti and a Distinguished Service Medal during World War I. Butler was no stranger to war, but 87 years ago he recognized that it is the economic interests of a few elites that drag the rest of us into it. As Butler wrote, “In [World War I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few -- the selfsame 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.”

One might criticize Butler’s work from a variety of perspectives and call it isolationist, oversimplified, or maybe even not radical enough, but what we can’t do is dismiss it as outdated or irrelevant. Butler defined a racket as “something that is not what it seems to the majority of the 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.” And the racket is still going strong. Most individuals and governments agree, at least in theory, that war is not a good thing, yet war continues. Even if they are not as official or clear cut as they were in Butler’s day, there are still atrocious conflicts across the world (as many as 134 of which the US was involved with in some manner as of 2014).

Why, if we can all agree that war is such an evil practice, do armed conflicts persist across the globe? Why does the supposedly peace-loving US continue to involve itself in armed conflicts instead of helping end them? Why is the CEO of a major hedge fund now openly encouraging the government to consider military intervention in Ukraine? Simply put, war continues because there’s still money in it. Politicians might sell the public some patriotic message, or, as in the case of Ukraine, run to the defense of the sovereignty of small countries, but those are just niceties when we look at the profit margin war yields for corporations and the elite of this country.

Let’s take a look at how much American companies are making off of war. First and most obviously, we have the “defense” contractors, the handful of corporations who brought in over $192 billion dollars in 2018 selling weapons to the US military ($136.64 billion) and foreign governments ($55.66 billion). Then we have the secondary profiteers, the vultures which pick apart the wreckage the American war machine leaves behind, like the American interests who pushed us to war in the Persian Gulf. The US extracts material and financial wealth from regions like the Middle East until it has sucked them dry, a modern iteration of the extractive processes which drove European colonization—leaving death and poverty in its wake. Military intervention is an extremely useful tool to secure wealth for American corporations, and the US government has used it liberally since 2001. With the “War on Terror” as a pretext to invade the Middle East, we have devastated Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and a number of other nations—ostensibly in the name of counter-terrorism, but really to expand and continue the flow of capital.

The American war machine won’t stop until we put an end to the profit incentives for weapons manufacturers and other corporations. The connection between industry and government is well documented, and it is clear that as long as there is money to be made, we will continue to go to war, wasting lives and resources on senseless violence. There will be the justifications, the appeals to “liberty” and “sovereignty,” but the truth is we are going to war so the CEOs of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin can afford new sports cars and third homes. Smedley Butler wrote about the corporations and elite individuals who reaped the benefits of what was then the bloodiest conflict in history. Until we establish a society that doesn’t give them the ability to do so, they will continue to push us into new wars, and innocent people will continue to pay Butler’s bill of death and violence.

Mason Binker is a freshman studying in the School of International Service. He is a Guest Contributor for the American Agora.

Image courtesy, Creative Commons.

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