Book review: War is a Racket

War is a Racket by Smedley D. Butler.
My rating: four stars.

Occasionally it’s nice to read something written by a bona-fide badass.

War is a Racket, a book written by a guy who won the Medal of Honor twice, certainly fits the bill. It’s also breathtakingly candid about the waste of war, something remarkable given its author’s exploits in the name of his country.

WAR is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

Butler had served in a number of engagements for the US, including events which seemed to be fought more for the benefit of businesses than the public. He came to the conclusion that he’d been little more than a bully-boy for US industry, and eventually retired from the military following a fracas about gossip involving Mussolini. It’s quite a life.

(As an aside, Butler was known to sport a chest tattoo so entirely badass that it inspired G.I. Joe‘s Gung-Ho. He was someone tapped to lead a potential fascist overthrow of the government of the time, though he refused and gave evidence of the plot. He also earned the nicknames “Old Gimlet Eye” and “The Fighting Quaker”. This was a MAN with a STORY.)

The book is essentially an expanded version of a speech Butler toured in the early 1930s. As such, it’s written in a conversational style, underpinned by a sense of righteous anger. While there’s a couple of phrases which might seem a bit dated these days, the continual feed of fact and invective still burn white-hot. He critiques the profiteering, the cost in lives, and the inability of the military to return soldiers to everyday life without being broken.

The normal profits of a business concern in the United States are six, eight, ten, and sometimes even twelve per cent. But wartime profits—ah! that is another matter—twenty, sixty, one hundred, three hundred, and even eighteen hundred per cent—the sky is the limit. All that the traffic will bear. Uncle Sam has the money. Letʼs get it.

This edition contains a couple of other shorter pieces – a call for neutrality or isolationism (rather than the post-WWI expansionist policies pursued by the US); a mooted amendment to the Constitution which would limit military powers to defensive rather than offensive; and a collection of uncensored images from battlefields, providing corpse-heavy proof of the reality of military life. Though it’s the titular essay which demands most of the reader’s attention, these additional pieces help show how Butler’s thinking could be implemented at a governmental level.

The only way to smash this racket is to conscript capital and industry and labor before the nationʼs manhood can be conscripted. One month before the Government can conscript the young men of the nation—it must conscript capital and industry and labor. Let the officers and the directors and the high-powered executives of our armament factories and our steel companies and our munitions makers and our shipbuilders and our airplane builders and the manufacturers of all the other things that provide profit in war time as well as the bankers and the speculators, be conscripted—to get $30 a month, the same wage as the lads in the trenches get.

While the length of this book lands it more in the area of tract than tome, it certainly punches far above its weight. Though its author died before WWII began, his concerns are still relevant for military activity today.

War? It’s a fucking racket.

I’ve started to run only partial versions of my reviews on Goodreads. I’ve been a bit weirded out by the tenor of that site, and so I’m pretty keen to keep my stuff over this side of things. My profile is still there, but I’ll pretty much be using it solely for tracking and teasing full reviews. Why? Read this and see for yourself.


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