by Steven Monacelli
War is a racket. We’ve been told this for decades by people who would know. After participating in the imperialist Banana Wars in Latin America and serving in France during World War I, Major General Smedley Butler toured the country giving the eponymous speech, War is a Racket, in the early 1930s. The speech is summarized in a 1935 published edition as follows:
War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious… It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.
Replete with all forms of profiteers—contractors, weapons manufacturers, think tanks, and lobbyists—war remains to this day a lucrative business. The products are meant to destroyed. The losses are socialized, while the gains remain private. President Eisenhower, who served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, warned us of this growing force in his 1961 farewell speech:
[W]e must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist… Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Neither of these men were radicals, but many socialists agreed with their warnings against warmongering, the importance of an informed populace, and the need to push back against the influence of war profiteers. And yet it seems that socialists and those to their left are some of the only reliable anti-war activists we have remaining in the heart of the empire. What the hell happened?
War is a racket in a secondary sense. It tends to make a lot of noise and trouble, to put it lightly. It inspires anger in its victims, in those who are sent off to fight, in those who lose their loved ones to the fighting. If it goes on too long, people start to ask what the hell is going on. Those of us who do not profit from it would rather not have it in the first place. It is an ugly, immoral business that gives rise to wails of pain.
But for those who seek to expand war to make a buck, it is essential to keep the racket of war as quiet as possible. As George Roeder, Jr. discusses in his book, The Censored War, government and media actors have manipulated audio, visual imagery, and text reports coming out of war to “to control the nation’s perception of war and to understate war’s complexities” since at least as early as World War I. This practice continued well into the Korean War.
Vietnam was the first war in which journalists were given free rein to report. It was, and still is, an exception to the rule, an anomaly.
Vietnam was the first war in which journalists were given free rein to report. It was, and still is, an exception to the rule, an anomaly. All journalistic reporting in all prior wars was subject to mandatory review by public affairs officers in the Department of Defense. For the first time, the American public read reports, heard sounds, and watched images of unfiltered brutality on a daily basis. This unprecedented loosening of censorship regulations, combined with advancements in media technology which empowered journalists to report more vividly than ever before, contributed to why we all learned about the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. With the cost of war on full display, anger was not in short supply, and a radical anti-war movement kicked into gear as a response.
These days, instead of graphic footage and photos of caskets, we’re shown tightly cropped photo ops—Mission Accomplished. When there is noise, it is mainly the drums of war beating louder and faster. Forever war has been made into something everyday. War has been the norm throughout my lifetime. It is the background hum of the churning imperialist machine. On a daily basis, we’re fed pro-war propaganda, with journalistic access tightly controlled and reports vetted by government insiders. The historic fanfare of the Vietnam anti-war movement’s success drowns out its quiet failure to destroy the underlying machinery of war.
After Vietnam, war didn’t stop being a racket. Recently, the collective net worth of the military-industrial complex soared at the announcement of a potential war with Iran. It is larger than it has ever been, at upwards of $760 billion in annual revenue. And yet, the resistance to war seems quieter. This is in part because censorship has returned with a vengeance in the post-Vietnam era. The reintroduction of the mandatory review process and a tightening of journalistic access to war zones has has muted the noise of war once again.
Another dampener to anger at home is that modern conflicts kill fewer American soldiers. In a sense, war has been dehumanized. The Vietnam anti-war movement helped bring an end to mandatory conscription, which transformed our military into a volunteer force, the recruitment of which is fueled by a wide-ranging propaganda effort: high school recruitment drives, military displays at sports events, and the support of pro-military movies and video games, to name a few. In parallel, the Department of Defense has heavily invested in automation, leading to the increasing use of drone strikes. These developments, combined with an ongoing willingness to cause collateral damage, shield the American populace from much of the brutality which inspired so much anger in the past. They also further separated the capacity of our government to wage violence from the political power needed to sustain it. As Hannah Arendt said in her essay On Violence, “only the development of robot soldiers […] would eliminate the human factor completely, and, conceivably, permit one man with a pushbutton at his disposal to destroy whomever he pleases.” Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani is only the most recent example.
Even when the noise of war breaks through—which it is bound to in an era of ubiquitous recording devices, social media, and Wikileaks—it is drowned out by the din of everything else. The endless cacophony of 24-hour news, social media, and endless content streaming runs interference, sublimating the clamor into a flashy, Disney-fied narrative that has set deep into the American psyche: that somehow, we are the Rebel Alliance and not The Empire.
Even when the noise of war breaks through—which it is bound to in an era of ubiquitous recording devices, social media, and Wikileaks—it is drowned out by the din of everything else.
Neither political party is a reliable source of anti-war sentiment; they haven’t been for decades. Both have been increasingly willing to destroy whomever they please by robotic means, and in the words of Arendt, “change the fundamental ascendancy of power over violence.” Recent history demonstrates that time and time again, when it comes to matters of the American Empire, the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats in office are all too willing to increase the defense budget, expand the surveillance state, look the other way on torture, and sign off on new military interventions. The mainstream media establishment too, is deeply complicit. Immediately following the strike in Iran, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all pumped out pro-war puff pieces, while FOX and CNN brought out a parade of national security “experts” to prime us for a new deployment into another oil rich nation. This manufacturing of consent for war is nothing new (1, 2, 3, 4).
In order to stop this racket, we need to disempower the dampeners and turn up the noise. A vigorous anti-war movement will be difficult to mobilize and sustain unless there is enough media attention; a large network of independent media actors and organizations is required to report on the true human cost of war. It is vital that independent anti-war media operations and groundbreaking investigative journalists are supported, and when their efforts lead them to a jail cell at the hands of a corrupt regime, it is vital that solidarity be expressed and calls made for their release. In tandem, it is essential that we demand of our political leaders an end to the overreach of war censorship and mandatory review of war reporting that is essential for an informed populace to decide on the true cost of war.
It is also vital that we call for actors of conscience to, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways… and be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.” Dr. King’s words sounded radical at the time he spoke them, on April 4, 1967, a year before he was assassinated by the state. They still sound radical today, and their implications have largely remained the same.
Civil disobedience need not be toothless or entirely passive. An analysis of King’s Birmingham Campaign included elements of violence, and even the original popularizer of the term, Henry David Thoreau, wrote A Plea for Captain John Brown in favor of the radical abolitionist. What this means is that an entire chorus of civil disobedience, composed of varied groups and tactics, is not only acceptable but is in fact necessary. The Vietnam anti-war movement and other Civil Rights-era efforts provide a wide range of exemplary tactics: letter writing campaigns, marches, protests, sit-ins, disinvestment, strikes, riots, desertions, and leaking classified government information: namely, the Pentagon Papers.
Likewise, today a wide range of organizations can be joined and tactics pursued. Whether it’s through a national or local antiwar group, your local chapter of the Democratic Socialists, or even just a small group of friends, there are plenty of opportunities to participate in some sort of anti-war organizing or action. Marching in a big protest isn’t the only way, or even the best way, to join the anti-war effort, and our individual abilities to impact the war machine vary. But no matter our position, there are ways we can speak up: in local and state government meetings, outside recruitment offices and weapons manufacturer, or wherever the war machine gathers its power.
Although tensions with Iran have somewhat settled for now, the recent assassination serves as a reminder of the sheer scope of American empire, our capacity for military intervention, and the rapidity with which our leadership can stoke new conflict without the meaningful consent of the American people. At the time of this publishing, the United States maintains somewhere near 800 military bases globally, while Britain, France, and Russian have less than 40 combined. Even a cursory examination of our presence in the Middle East places tensions in new relief. American military bases surround Iran on all sides. United States military forces are still deeply engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most commonly known conflicts, but are simultaneously active in conflicts across Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa.
Thousands upon thousands suffer meaningless deaths while Lockheed Martin lobbyists wine and dine policymakers at the Capitol Grille. Hundreds of billions of dollars are poured into the defense industry every year, and almost every year, it seems like there is new cause for conflict. This warmongering and profiteering is framed as nationalism, patriotism, in defense of our own interests. To question it is unpatriotic, seditious, un-American. But let’s reject that for what it is: noise to distract us from the war racket. Let’s not wait until it is too late to stop another conflict. As my colleague Mel wrote in the first essay in our Against the Forever War series, we must take action with gloves off and earplugs out.
To put an end to the quiet racket, we’re going to have to make a little noise of our own.
Steven Monacelli is the founder and publisher of Protean Magazine.
This essay is part of an urgent series, Against the Forever War: Conversations on U.S. Imperialism from Inside the Empire. If you would like to contribute an essay, poetry, or fiction to this series, send pitches or full drafts to Mel G. at email@example.com