In early 2017, U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, who first stumbled upon TomDispatch while on duty in Afghanistan in 2011, wrote to the site wondering if he might do a piece for it. He got in touch, in part, because a former Army colonel, Andrew Bacevich, whom he admired, was already regularly featured here, as were other former U.S. military officers like retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore. TomDispatch had, in fact, been one of the earliest places to highlight the work of former military officers critical of this country's forever wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (After all, or so it then seemed to me, who could have grasped those disasters better?)
That February, when Sjursen wrote his first article for TomDispatch on the wars that had begun in 2001 and then (as now) had "no end in sight," something struck me about the new administration of President Donald Trump. He had just filled key positions around him with generals from those very wars (all of whom are now gone from his administration). From James Mattis to John Kelly to H.R. McMaster, all of them were visibly wedded to those very never-ending conflicts. So, in introducing Sjursen's inaugural piece, I wrote, "Under the circumstances, it's good to know that, even if not at the highest ranks of the U.S. military, there are officers who have been able to take in what they experienced up close and personal in Iraq and Afghanistan and make some new -- not desperately old -- sense of it."
Today, in his 26th piece for this site, Sjursen takes up that very subject: in a military that certainly has critics and dissidents in its lower ranks and its officer corps who have grasped the disastrous nature of almost 19 years of losing wars across large swaths of the planet, why are there no critical generals (or admirals) around? As he points out, the system that produces those flag officers is not set up to allow for the rise of anyone unwilling to buy in big time to the American way of war as it now exists across far too much of the planet. Tom
Where Have You Gone, Smedley Butler?
A Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to (Someone Like) You...
By Danny Sjursen
There once lived an odd little man -- five feet nine inches tall and barely 140 pounds sopping wet -- who rocked the lecture circuit and the nation itself. For all but a few activist insiders and scholars, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler is now lost to history. Yet more than a century ago, this strange contradiction of a man would become a national war hero, celebrated in pulp adventure novels, and then, 30 years later, as one of this country's most prominent antiwar and anti-imperialist dissidents.
Raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and educated in Quaker (pacifist) schools, the son of an influential congressman, he would end up serving in nearly all of America's "Banana Wars" from 1898 to 1931. Wounded in combat and a rare recipient of two Congressional Medals of Honor, he would retire as the youngest, most decorated major general in the Marines.
A teenage officer and a certified hero during an international intervention in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, he would later become a constabulary leader of the Haitian gendarme, the police chief of Philadelphia (while on an approved absence from the military), and a proponent of Marine Corps football. In more standard fashion, he would serve in battle as well as in what might today be labeled peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and advise-and-assist missions in Cuba, China, the Philippines, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France, and China (again). While he showed early signs of skepticism about some of those imperial campaigns or, as they were sardonically called by critics at the time, "Dollar Diplomacy" operations -- that is, military campaigns waged on behalf of U.S. corporate business interests -- until he retired he remained the prototypical loyal Marine.
But after retirement, Smedley Butler changed his tune. He began to blast the imperialist foreign policy and interventionist bullying in which he'd only recently played such a prominent part. Eventually, in 1935 during the Great Depression, in what became a classic passage in his memoir, which he titled "War Is a Racket," he wrote: "I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service... And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers."
Seemingly overnight, the famous war hero transformed himself into an equally acclaimed antiwar speaker and activist in a politically turbulent era. Those were, admittedly, uncommonly anti-interventionist years, in which veterans and politicians alike promoted what (for America, at least) had been fringe ideas. This was, after all, the height of what later pro-war interventionists would pejoratively label American "isolationism."
Nonetheless, Butler was unique (for that moment and certainly for our own) in his unapologetic amenability to left-wing domestic politics and materialist critiques of American militarism. In the last years of his life, he would face increasing criticism from his former admirer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the military establishment, and the interventionist press. This was particularly true after Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded Poland and later France. Given the severity of the Nazi threat to mankind, hindsight undoubtedly proved Butler's virulent opposition to U.S. intervention in World War II wrong.
Nevertheless, the long-term erasure of his decade of antiwar and anti-imperialist activism and the assumption that all his assertions were irrelevant has proven historically deeply misguided. In the wake of America's brief but bloody entry into the First World War, the skepticism of Butler (and a significant part of an entire generation of veterans) about intervention in a new European bloodbath should have been understandable. Above all, however, his critique of American militarism of an earlier imperial era in the Pacific and in Latin America remains prescient and all too timely today, especially coming as it did from one of the most decorated and high-ranking general officers of his time. (In the era of the never-ending war on terror, such a phenomenon is quite literally inconceivable.)
Smedley Butler's Marine Corps and the military of his day was, in certain ways, a different sort of organization than today's highly professionalized armed forces. History rarely repeats itself, not in a literal sense anyway. Still, there are some disturbing similarities between the careers of Butler and today's generation of forever-war fighters. All of them served repeated tours of duty in (mostly) unsanctioned wars around the world. Butler's conflicts may have stretched west from Haiti across the oceans to China, whereas today's generals mostly lead missions from West Africa east to Central Asia, but both sets of conflicts seemed perpetual in their day and were motivated by barely concealed economic and imperial interests.
Nonetheless, whereas this country's imperial campaigns of the first third of the twentieth century generated a Smedley Butler, the hyper-interventionism of the first decades of this century hasn't produced a single even faintly comparable figure. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Why that is matters and illustrates much about the U.S. military establishment and contemporary national culture, none of it particularly encouraging.
Why No Antiwar Generals
When Smedley Butler retired in 1931, he was one of three Marine Corps major generals holding a rank just below that of only the Marine commandant and the Army chief of staff. Today, with about 900 generals and admirals currently serving on active duty, including 24 major generals in the Marine Corps alone, and with scores of flag officers retiring annually, not a single one has offered genuine public opposition to almost 19 years worth of ill-advised, remarkably unsuccessful American wars. As for the most senior officers, the 40 four-star generals and admirals whose vocal antimilitarism might make the biggest splash, there are more of them today than there were even at the height of the Vietnam War, although the active military is now about half the size it was then. Adulated as many of them may be, however, not one qualifies as a public critic of today's failing wars.