Last week, the two-time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler was brought up as an unassailable hero who minced no words, and told the truth, especially about war. In his classic anti-war pamphlet “War is a Racket,” he explains that war profits only a small few, while many others pay the ultimate price.
There’s a quote that is easily found online, and in it, Butler sums up things quite well:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
There is no question – war is a racket, and a dirty business indeed. There may be times when going to war is the absolute and unfortunate last resort, but too many times it is the first thing that comes to mind, especially for people who don’t have to do the fighting. Smedley Butler isn’t the only who who thought warlust wasn’t a brilliant idea; General William Tecumseh Sherman (of the ‘scorched earth’ March To The Sea) fame wrote:
I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me for sons, husbands and fathers … tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.
Coincidentally, after writing about Smedley Butler last week, two people made it known to me that they’d never seen the classic film “The Godfather.” Now, if you have any better than passing knowledge of organized crime, that movie bears the same relation to the criminal underworld as Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” has with the US Senate. Read the World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime for a sometimes gruesome description of the folks who inhabit that world.
“The Godfather” saga is a moral tale, and it had an enormous impact on moviemaking (and on the Mob, interestingly enough), but the more real-to-life version is more like “Goodfellas” or “The Sopranos”; mundane, messy, and filled with horrific and nasty things. There is one scene in the movie, however, which captures a hint of the “war is a racket” mentality:
Michael Corleone:I’m working for my father now Kay. He’s been sick, very sick.
Kay Adams:But you’re not like him Michael. I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father. That’s what you told me.
Michael Corleone: My father is no different than any other powerful man, any man who is responsible for other people, like a senator or a president.
Kay Adams:You know how naive you sound?
Kay Adams: Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
Michael Corleone: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?
This last line sums up a great deal of truth, and is one of the most illuminating quotes from the film. Powerful people do get others killed, either directly or indirectly, and it is naive to think otherwise. Because of Westphalian sovereignty and the monopoly of violence, the people who do these things (the “pezzonovante”, the “.90 calibers”, the “big shots”) rarely are punished for these actions. Various transgressions, such as the drumming up of support for the Iraq war under false pretenses, and then executing an illegal invasion might be opposed by the international community, but nothing happens to those who commit their nation to the warpath.
- “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” are both fascinating and well regarded films, and tell of either idealized or graphically realistic versions of a particular subculture. What pair of films do the same for art, war, sport, or academia?
- There are many films which show the horrors of war; which ones show the behind-the-scenes machinations which lead to these atrocities?
- “The Godfather” had a huge impact on Hollywood, but ironically, on the Mob as well. Are there any films that have changed, guided, or influenced the subculture that they’ve tried to portray? Could this effect be used for good?
- After our high tech and interconnected society starts to falter (either quickly or slowly), the chance of violence to affect us personally will probably go up significantly. It may only be then when people start to realize how that violence is not trivial, and is not something you’d wish on anyone. The nature of the modern world, where things such as violence, hunger, and pollution have been mostly abstracted away, disconnects us from reality. Is it possible to prepare for these eventualities, and reconnect with reality? Can it be done without experiencing them directly?