It is both truism and cliché that “no one hates war more than the soldiers who fight.” Many historians have demonstrated that political causes are often quickly discarded among the mud, bullets, and blood of war. Even commanders that have led great armies on important crusades have often stated their desire for peace over war. Ulysses S. Grant campaigned for the presidency in 1868 on the slogan “Let Us Have Peace.” Another warrior-president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, once requested that a statue depict him in civilian clothes instead of his Army uniform because he wanted to be remembered as a man of peace, not war. However, few military veterans have tried to distance themselves from war as drastically as Major General Smedley Darlington Butler.
Born near Philadelphia in 1881, Butler left school at age sixteen to join the United States Marine Corps during the Spanish-American War. Over the next thirty-three years, he fought in nearly every conflict in which the United States was engaged, including the Philippine-American War, the Boxer Rebellion, the so-called “Banana Wars,” the Mexican Revolution, and World War I. He is one of just nineteen Americans to receive the Medal of Honor for valor in action twice. He retired in 1933 as a major general, then the highest rank authorized for Marines. Smedley Butler, however, did not go gently into that good night.
More than three decades of leading Marines and watching them bleed and die for questionable causes made Butler a vocal anti-war critic. He began giving speeches decrying war profiteering soon after his retirement, but moved far to the left politically after an unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate from his native Pennsylvania in 1932. That same year, he went to Washington, D.C. to express his support for the World War I veterans known as the Bonus Army. He told them they had as much right as any corporation to demand action from the U.S. Congress.
Butler continued to agitate, saying in one speech that he believed in “taking Wall Street by the throat and shaking it up.” His master stroke, however, came in 1935, when he published the book War is a Racket. In it, he called war “possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious” scam of all. He suggested three steps to curb the appeal of war to politicians and financiers: making war unprofitable; allowing the soldiers who will fight to vote on whether or not the war is worth fighting; and limiting militaries to self-defense capabilities only.
When addressing the real cost of war, Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it.” Who would know and understand the true “butcher’s bill” better than one who had fought and bled for the United States for over three decades? Smedley Butler had seen more war than anyone.
Needless to say, the United States government did not heed Butler’s advice, and he faced intense criticism from American political and media figures for his controversial views. He died of what was likely stomach cancer on June 21, 1940. He was only 58 years old.
Smedley Darlington Butler had a long and, despite his own view, honorable career as a U.S. Marine. He demonstrated unfathomable courage under fire many times. Perhaps his greatest act of courage, though, was simply to tell the truth as he saw it after he took off his nation’s uniform.