Official publicity surrounding the Iraq War gives no indication that military people might harbor dissenting views or be reluctant to obey orders. But the voices of soldiers who said “no” crop up in the historical record.
In 1898, the U.S. government extended its imperialist reach to foreign venues, and joining the Marines in Cuba in 1898 was an eager 16-year-old volunteer from Philadelphia, Smedley Darlington Butler, the son of a future congressman. Not only would Smedley become a superb military leader, a major general and recipient of two Medals of Honor, but his hard work and egalitarianism gained him the devotion of his troops. He was inclined occasionally to leave the insignia of his rank behind, or carry the packs of lagging soldiers.
He chafed against the military bureaucracies. Advocating for efficiency and his troops’ safety, he took little guff from military superiors and became the target of reprimands and penalties. With U.S. troops in the vanguard of a commercial empire spreading through the world, Smedley Butler, obeying orders, led troops in China, Haiti, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and in France during World War I. But he began to question the rationale for poorly paid U.S. troops risking their lives overseas. And when he learned who got rich from all his campaigns, he spoke out.
He gave a speech in 1929 while on active duty in which he told about rigging a Nicaraguan election in 1912 at the orders of the State Department. At the time, the Senate was investigating military bullying in Latin America. In early 1931, while still on active duty, he told an uncomplimentary story about Mussolini during a speech in Philadelphia. He was arrested for offending a foreign leader. Later that year, not yet retired, he reviewed his career before an American Legion convention. “I was a racketeer for capitalism,” he said, and then went on to give the specifics.
What discourages U.S. soldiers from speaking out against today’s expanded version of U.S. imperialism? The huge military establishment demands loyalty, and preaches the ideology of capitalist virtue. In this context, the Nuremberg prescription for refusing wrongful orders may seem quaint or impossible. And the U.S. imperial job description now seems unchallengeable to many. In Smedley Butler’s day, the question of a republic versus an empire was still an open one. An empire is now upon us, and its soldiers serve as functionaries rather than as citizens.
General Butler learned that the high priests of capitalism stop at nothing. In 1933, a group of bankers, investors, and lawyers asked him through an intermediary to assume command of half a million adoring veterans. He was to take over national leadership from a despised, said-to-be ailing, President Franklin Roosevelt. The plotters admired Hitler and Mussolini and longed for order and the gold standard. Butler heard them out long enough to learn the particulars of a proposed fascist coup and then spilled the beans in testimony before a House committee headed by Rep. John McCormick.
It looks like the extreme right wing again may be inclined to stop at nothing. Among the straws in the wind are these: a stolen presidential election, falsehoods presented as intelligence, preemptive war, tactical nuclear weapons, intelligence on terrorism disregarded, violations of individual rights, future generations burdened with debt, subversion of the United Nations, and international treaties down the drain. One waits for military people in the know to speak out and cast light on dark places. These would be the ones for whom the ideal of citizenship in a democracy is not dead. One hopes a latter-day Smedley Butler may yet come to the fore.
W. T. Whitney Jr. is a part-time pediatrician in rural Maine. He can be reached at
(To learn more about Smedley Butler, read Jules Archer, The Plot to Seize the White House, Hawthorn Books, NY, 1973.)