Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die
“The Charge of the Light Brigade”
Alfred Lord Tennyson
The implements of war have changed over the centuries, but the military, in some form or fashion, goes back as far as history’s earliest records of collective aggression and/or collective defense.
The hierarchical nature of the military allows for upward movement through the chain of command, but for those who remain at the bottom of the heap; disability is taken for granted. In fact, the military could not function without it.
For those not content to remain bottom feeders, status upgrades, in the form of promotions and medals, have always been available. As added motivation, chicks supposedly dig men in uniform and poets have oft been inspired by gallantry (in truth, a synonym for male disposability), as Tennyson was, even though the Charge of the Light Brigade (which took place during the Crimean War) was widely acknowledged to be a blunder.
Many men tacitly accept their disposability; indeed, they may look at putting their lives on the line as part and parcel of manhood. Having accepted one’s own disposability, it is not much of a stretch to look upon one’s fellow men as equally disposable. In the military, the higher one is in the chain of command, the more men at one’s disposal. Consequently, a general has almost godlike powers over his charges.
General Smedley Darlington Butler was one such god who eventually grew tired of being a deity. He came to the conclusion that wars were fought and funded by the masses for the benefit of the few. Soldiers, in a sense, were caught in the crossfire:
[V]isit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veteran’s hospitals in the United States. On a tour of the country, in the midst of which I am at the time of this writing , I have visited 18 government hospitals for veterans. In them are a total of about 50,000 destroyed men – men who were the pick of the nation 18 years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed at home.
Such bleeding heart sentiments are unusual for a military man, but Butler was an unusual fellow.
Born on July 30, 1881, Butler grew up in a Pennsylvania Quaker family whose presence in America dated back to the 17th Century. He left high school early to enlist in the Marine Corps during the Spanish-American War. By the time he retired in 1931, he was a Major General with experience in the Boxer Rebellion, various banana republic dustups, the Mexican Revolution, and World War I. He received not one but two Congressional Medals of Honor. Yet “Old Gimlet Eye” apparently had a change of heart after he retired in 1931. As he put it, “My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of the higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military.” Hence the jokes about military intelligence.
In 1935, Butler published a short book entitled War Is a Racket, in which he discussed how big business worked hand-in-glove with the military to further commercial interests. This allegation is hardly breaking news today, and even in Butler’s day, it was not new. During World War I, you could be damned as a socialist and charged with sedition for uttering such sentiments. By 1935, however, a highly decorated general like Butler was beyond suspicion. At that time, the U.S. was more concerned with battling the Depression than foreign dictators.
Concurrently with the publication of his book, Butler went on a lecture tour in which he dealt with war profiteering, imperialism, and creeping fascism at home. His outstanding military career gave him a credibility that other speakers might have lacked. Perhaps “the fighting Quaker” was trying to reconcile his upbringing with his experience:
There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes, and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.
Butler was not a strict pacifist, as he acknowledged that a military was necessary for “home defense purposes,” but the army “should never leave the territorial limits of our nation.” As he said in 1933, “I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else.” He drew a 200-mile limit for the Navy and a 500-mile limit for air reconnaissance. Granted, this was long before long-distance weapons and push-button warfare.
Nevertheless, someone who has experienced combat has more credibility than the armchair warrior rattling his virtual saber:
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried the bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?
No less a personage than Henry Kissinger once opined, “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” One suspects that he was not the only Secretary of State to hold such a view, just the only one to express it.
In the United States, the Constitution places the military under the control of the executive and legislative branches. Theoretically, this puts the military under civilian control, as the President and members of Congress are elected officials. Unfortunately, these elected officials continue to put troops in harm’s way for dubious reasons.
In today’s era of the all-volunteer military waging “perpetual war for perpetual peace” (a phrase coined by historian Charles A. Beard in 1947), it has become commonplace to thank members of the military for their service. Military discounts are ubiquitous and soldiers often show up and take a bow in cammies at sporting events. The P.A. announcer may ask active military personnel and veterans to stand up and be recognized. While this acknowledges the military, past and present, it also exposes those men who have never “served.” The stigma is unspoken yet undeniable.
During World War II the stigma was overt. Being classified 4-F was an act of emasculation, a real drop in class, though not the ultimate mucky bottom occupied by the draft dodgers. Since the draft did not go away after the end of the war, military service became a rite of passage for all able-bodied young men. If Elvis Presley could be drafted, no one was safe.
Serving your country didn’t necessarily have to be onerous. If you did your tour of duty during peacetime in Hawaii, you could truthfully say you had served, you could call yourself a veteran, and your manhood would not be called into question.
During wartime, however, the strategic use of shaming played a big part in recruiting. While the famed White Feather Girls were doing their thing in England during World War I, America took a different tack after entering the war. As General Butler put it:
In the World War [I], we used propaganda to make the boys accept conscription. They were made to feel ashamed if they didn’t join the Army.
So vicious was this war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions, our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill.
The nation’s graphic artists responded to the call with colorful posters. This was when the oft-reproduced poster of Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer and saying “I Want You for U.S. Army,” was introduced. My favorite is the one with a girl in a sailor suit with the caption, “Gee!! I wish I were a man. I’d join the navy.” Below that is the punchline: “Be a man and do it.” Subtext: if you don’t do it, you’re not a man. As Butler saw it:
Boys with a normal viewpoint were taken out of the fields and offices and factories and classrooms and put into the ranks. There they were remolded; they were made over; they were made to “about face”; to regard murder as the order of the day. They were put shoulder to shoulder and, through mass psychology, they were entirely changed. We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or of being killed.
The surviving veteran presents more problems than the dead soldier. The post-World War I disorientation Butler witnessed is disturbingly contemporary:
Then suddenly, we discharged them and told them to make another “about face”! This time, they had to do their own readjustment, sans mass psychology, sans officers’ aid and advice, sans nationwide propaganda. We didn’t need them anymore; Many, too many of these fine young boys are eventually destroyed, mentally, because they could not make that final “about face” alone.
For many young people today, enlisting in the military is a last resort in a time of economic decline. For someone who grew up in a military family, it may be an inevitability. Deep down some young men may realize they need external discipline or may want to challenge themselves physically.
When I was young, it was not unusual to hear someone opine that “the army will make a man out of you.” Given the increasing female presence in the military, such wording is no longer appropriate, but recruitment posters and public service announcements still convey this concept. Nevertheless, underlying it all is General Butler’s pronouncement:
War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.
Unfortunately, it is one racket that will never be prosecuted under the RICO law.