Vital Signs

The Costs of War

I first learned of the improbably named Smedley Darlington Butler while attending Marine Corps boot camp in South Carolina.  At Parris Island, we were taught that Butler was, along with Dan Daly, one of two U.S. Marines to have been awarded the Medal of Honor twice.  Along with five-time Navy Cross recipient Louis B. “Chesty” Puller, they served as heroic examples of the warrior ethos.  Still, we never learned in any great detail about the lives or wartime experiences of any of them.

Butler was a prominent public figure in the early decades of the 20th century, well known for being a soldier’s soldier disdainful of military bureaucrats, a highly decorated war hero, and an advocate and enforcer of Prohibition in the 1920’s as Philadelphia’s Director of Public Safety.  From his position in the Marine Corps, Butler was an eyewitness to almost every imperial encounter of the United States in the first three decades of the 20th century—from the Philippines and China to Nicaragua, Mexico, and Haiti.  America has produced other martial heroes, but Smedley Butler’s views on the wisdom and virtues of these adventures, and the forcefulness with which he expressed them, set him apart from the ordinary war hero.

One of the issues that drove Butler to anger was the misuse of the Marine Corps for the benefit of specific business interests.  While intervening...

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