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I went through Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in the summer of 1966. We learned all sorts of things that summer, but one thing we learned was the names of the two Marines who had each won not one, but two Medals of Honor: Dan Daly and Smedley Butler.

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But our drill instructors didn’t tell us about the book Butler wrote called War Is a Racket. And they didn’t teach us what Butler came to believe about himself:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

I only began to learn the whole story of Smedley Darlington Butler’s remarkable life during the Reagan Wars in Central America in 1980s, a part of the world where Butler had spent much of his career in the first 30 years of the 20th century.

After Smedley Butler retired from the Corps in the early 1930s, he began speaking out against what he saw as unjustifiable foreign interventions and what today we would call “the military-industrial complex.

Butler, it turns out, was an 1898 graduate of the Haverford School for Boys, then known as the Haverford College Grammar School. And as chance would have it, I was hired in January 2001 to teach at the Haverford School (THS) by then-headmaster and retired 30-year US Army colonel Dr. Joe Cox.

Ten years into my 18-year stay, Joe got an e-mail from a 1969 graduate named Fred Housel who had been a “Lifer” at THS. Fred asked Joe, “How could I spend 13 years at Haverford and never have heard a word about Smedley Butler?” Joe’s reply was, “You should talk to Bill Ehrhart. He’s a big Butler fan.”

The answer to Fred’s question was easy: after Butler retired from the Corps in the early 1930s, when he began speaking out against what he saw as unjustifiable foreign interventions and what today we would call “the military-industrial complex,” the then rich white Republican Philadelphia Main Line clientele of the Haverford School deemed Butler a traitor to “his class,” and wrote him out of the school’s history. He simply ceased to be.

Fred, however, took umbrage with this, and made a substantial donation to the school in return for resurrecting Butler’s connection to the school. My classroom was dedicated to Butler, and bore a plaque attesting to this. An oil painting of Butler in uniform, painted by a student, now hangs just outside the upper school admissions office. And on the campus, circling one of the trees, is the Smedley Butler Bench, which carries six brass plates reading:

Panel 1

Smedley Darlington Butler
1881 – 1940
The Haverford School Class of 1898
Husband of Ethel Conway Peters Butler
Father of Ethel, Smedley, Jr., & Thomas
Incorruptible Outspoken Patriot
His was a life of Courage, Respect & Honesty

Panel 2

A native of West Chester, Pennsylvania,
the son of a Congressman,
Butler was captain of the Haverford School’s
baseball team and quarterback of the football team.
Not yet 17, he enlisted in the Marines in 1898
without waiting for graduation,
but was nevertheless awarded his diploma.

Panel 3

During a career spanning over 33 years,
Butler rose from 2nd lieutenant to major general.
He served in the U.S., the Philippines, China,
Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti,
Cuba, the Dominican Republic and France,
earning not one but two Medals of Honor,
the Marine Corps Brevet Medal,
and both the Army and Navy
Distinguished Service Medals.

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Panel 4

From January 1924 through December 1925,
Butler took a leave of absence from the Corps
to serve as Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety.
Charged with enforcing prohibition
and rooting out municipal corruption,
he later said: “Cleaning up Philadelphia
was worse than any battle I was ever in.”

Panel 5

After retiring from the Corps in 1931,
Butler became an advocate for veterans
and a critic of American military adventurism.
In 1932, he supported the Great War “Bonus Marchers.”
In a 1935 essay he titled War Is a Racket,
he described himself as having been
“a muscleman for Big Business,”
“a racketeer,” and “a gangster for capitalism.”

Panel 6

Nicknamed variously the Maverick Marine,
the Fighting Quaker,
the Fighting Devil of the Devil Dogs,
the Fighting Hell-Devil Marine,
the Stormy Petrel of the Marine Corps,
General Duckboard & Old Gimlet Eye,
Butler himself concluded, “To Hell with War!”

Butler was not without his warts and blemishes. He loved the adrenalin rush of combat. As a young lieutenant, he complained in letters to his congressman father that the policies he was enforcing were corrupt and immoral, yet he continued his career in the Corps for nearly three more decades. He began to speak out only after he’d gotten too old and too far up the hierarchy to engage in actual combat because he loved fighting, the sheer challenge and excitement of it.

But once he began to speak out, he would not be silenced. Even while still in the Corps, he publicly criticized Benito Mussolini, calling fascist Italy a “mad-dog nation.” Later, in 1932, he vocally supported the Great War Bonus Marchers, visiting the encampment and speaking to them from the roof of a car, and was scathingly critical of Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur’s attack against the men who MacArthur himself had commanded in France fifteen years earlier.

When approached by wealthy Republican financiers and industrialists interested in persuading Butler to lead what would have amounted to a “veterans’ coup d’etat” against Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, Butler instead informed FDR of the plot, putting an end to it.

Butler, by then, had become deeply isolationist, insisting that “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.” We’ll never know how Butler would have responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor since Butler died in 1940. We do know that he didn’t think we should have military bases outside the continental US in the first place, but it’s hard to imagine Butler not taking umbrage at what FDR called this “dastardly attack.”

It’s not hard to imagine how Butler would feel about the situation in our country today, however, some 80 years after his death. In a speech to the Philadelphia Contemporary Club in January 1931, Butler argued that "mad-dog nations" could not be trusted to honor disarmament agreements. Donald Trump is unilaterally withdrawing the US from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that has been honored by five former US presidents. Donald Trump has unilaterally withdrawn from the nuclear arms treaty with Iran, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

And it is not hard to imagine what two-time Medal of Honor winner and Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler would think of Cadet Donald Bone Spur, who avoided military service with a highly suspect medical deferment while stating that he "always felt that I was in the military" because he had once attended a military boarding school, adding later, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart."

As Thomas Paine once wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” I would only add, “and women’s, too.”

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W.D. Ehrhart

W.D. Ehrhart served in the US Marine Corps, 1966-69, including service in Vietnam, achieving the rank of sergeant, and receiving the Purple Heart Medal, Navy Combat Action Ribbon, and a 1st Marine Division Commanding General’s Commendation. He is author of Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (McFarland, 1983) and Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems (McFarland, 2019).