War is a Racket by Major General Smedley D. Butler of the US Marine Corp was first published in 1935. It is as the simple title states: a criticism of the bankers, industrialists and their associates who initiate wars for their own gain.
The book is short, the main body is approximately 60 pages. It is divided into five chapters, with three additional sections that in essence expand on his conclusions. Butler makes his point succinctly, balancing his presentation with facts, emotion and measured sarcasm. (In our opinion, those who he criticizes deserve a lot worse than a marine’s sarcasm.)
Butler introduces his thesis:
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.
In the second chapter, he lists the profits of some companies during World War I. Below is one example:
Well, the average earnings of the du Fonts for the period 1910 to 1914 was $6,000,000 a year. It wasn’t much, but the du Fonts managed to get along on it. Now let’s look at their average yearly profit during the war years, 1914 to 1918. Fifty-eight million dollars a year profit, we find! Nearly ten times that of normal times, and the profits of normal times were pretty good. An increase in profits of more than 950 per cent.
In the third chapter, he outlines those who pay the bill. In financial terms, obviously the population via taxation and, of course, the soldiers and their families in every other way, whether the former die on the battlefield or not. Regarding the young American men who went to war:
So, we gave them the large salary of $30 a month!
All they had to do for this munificent sum was to leave their dear ones behind, give up their jobs, lie in swampy trenches, eat canned willy (when they could get it) and kill and kill and kill… and be killed.
Half of that wage (just a little more in a month than a riveter in a shipyard or a laborer in a munitions factory safe at home made in a day) was promptly taken from him to support his dependents, so that they would not become a charge upon his community. Then we made him pay what amounted to accident insurance—something the employer pays for in an enlightened state—and that cost him $6 a month. He had less than $9 a month left.
Then, the most crowning insolence of all—he was virtually blackjacked into paying for his own ammunition, clothing, and food by being made to buy Liberty Bonds at $100 and then we bought them back—when they came back from the war and couldn’t find work—at $84 and $86. And the soldiers bought about $2,000,000,000 worth of those bonds!
Butler dedicates the last two chapters to the solution. He suggests that “all the workers, all presidents, all executives, all directors, all managers, all bankers—yes, and all generals and all admirals and all officers and all politicians and all government office holders” to not get paid more than the soldier since they are not the ones taking risks.
He also suggests to adopt a “limited plebiscite to determine whether war should be declared”. By “limited plebiscite” is meant only those who would be called upon “to do the fighting and the dying.”
Butler concludes by stating that the defense forces should truly be for defense only, that the forces should not move beyond a particular distance from the coastline.
Whilst the message is short and commonsensical, it is encouraging partly because it is commonsensical and partly because someone of Butler’s rank and experience had spoken out against senseless war and those who promote it as early as the 1930s. The numbers today may be different but his message still fundamentally applies.
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