Warrior for Peace

By Stooksbury, Clark | The American Conservative, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Warrior for Peace


Stooksbury, Clark, The American Conservative


Warrior for Peace [Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America, David Talbot, Simon 6 Schuster, ISl pages]

SMEDLEY BUTLER was a real hero of the Old Republic. He served with distinction in the Marine Corps for more than 30 years, rose to the rank of major general, was awarded the Medal of Honor twice. He strove to be in the midst of the action, and he frequently succeeded. But as compelling as his service record is, Butler's career after the Marines is what makes his story so fascinating: in retirement, Butler became a populist firebrand and antiwar activist.

With Devil Dog, David Talbot gives the old general the treatment he deserves. The book is the first in a Une of what its publisher calls "pulp history." It is a brief biography of the general with iUustrations by radical underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez. Devil Dog doesn't purport to be comprehensive, but it is an appropriate treatment for a man whose life appears to have been ripped right out of pulp fiction.

Butler faced danger many times in his career. Talbot describes a 1912 incident in Nicaragua that made him a Marine legend. While attempting to guide a train through a dangerous area, Butler was confronted by a rebel leader who threatened to shoot if the cars moved. "The World stopped ... if he backed down, he would humiliate his beloved Marine Corps. ... In a flash, Butler made a grab for the rebel's gun, snatching it from the shocked man's grip. Then for a theatrical flourish, the marine emptied the cartridges onto the ground. There was stunned silence. And, suddenly, hundreds of men - Nicaraguans and Americans - aU burst into laughter. The death speU had been broken."

Butler was decades away from becoming an antiwar activist, but he was already trouble by his mission in Nicaragua, which was to shore up U.S. banking interests. He wrote to his wife, "it is terrible that we should be losing so many men, all because Brown Bros, have some money down here."

The Marine Corps' fateful occupation of Haiti added to Butler's notoriety. The Marines landed on the dirty streets of Port au Prince in July 1915, and the occupation continued until 1934, three years after Butler retired. Woodrow Wilson was president when it began, and U.S. occupations were supposed to be based on high-minded ideals, not the needs of Wall Street. Wilson wanted the other countries in the hemisphere to join the United States "upon those great heights where there shines, unobstructed, the light of the justice of God." Butler had seen enough in his years of service to question Wilson's rhetoric and characterized the Marines' role in Haiti as "glorified bill collectors" for the National City Bank of New York.

Yet Butler effectively became Haiti's ruler. He dissolved the Haitian National Assembly to keep it from ratifying a constitution detrimental to U.S. business interests and established a gendarmerie of Haitian "chocolate soldiers" to maintain order. Butler also received a Medal of Honor in Haiti: he and two of his men charged through a drainage tunnel into a fort against direct fire from Haitian rebels, creating an opportunity for their f eUow Marines to come in and defeat the undisciplined Haitians.

The Haitian adventure would become a source of irritation for Butler. His role there effectively kept him out of action during World War I, though he eventually made it to France. Later, a Senate investigation of the occupation threatened to bring opprobrium on Butler's cherished Marine Corps. Marines had employed torture and used slave labor to buUd and repair roads. Butler, Talbot writes, "took a pugnacious attitude toward the proceedings. Though the worst abuses occurred after he left, he felt that the honor of his beloved USMC was at stake. The marines were being used as scapegoats for Washington's controversial Haiti poücy."

Though Butler didn't make it to the trenches, he would still manage to distinguish himself while in France. …

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