Tag Archives: war

Is war a racket?

Screenshot 2015-08-27 14.40.11

Although considered at the time to be grandiose hearsay, General Smedley Butler’s testimony concerning the “Business Plot” to overthrow the Federal government was found credible in 1934 by a special McCormack-Dickstein congressional committee.

In his testimony before the McCormack-Dickstein committee, in which Butler accused many powerful business tycoons and politicians – such as DuPont, J.P. Morgan, even Prescott Bush (father to George H.W. Bush) – of attempting to persuade him to lead 500,000 soldiers in taking the reigns of government from FDR and his progressive proclivities. One year later, the Marine Corps major general wrote a 39-page treatise, “War is a Racket”.

Butler was a war hero. In fact, he was the most decorated Marine of his time, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor twice. So it may have been a shock for some Americans to hear their famed general accuse powerful people of treason, or the country of racketeering. Or to read sentiments such as this in magazines:

“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…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 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 in three districts. I operated on three continents.” (Common Sense, 1935)

In “War is a Racket”, Butler focuses mainly on the actions of the United States, but one of his main arguments is that all wars are rackets, in that all wars are “conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

But “the claim that American foreign policy is dictated by economic interests…is a vast over-simplification,” said Michael Morgan, professor of history at UNC at Chapel Hill. “If you say that the [U.S.] only goes to war to help American corporations, well then, that’s an exclusively materialist explanation of foreign policy. There are many more factors other than material interests that influence foreign policy,” he added.

If Morgan is correct, and Butler’s argument lacks nuance, it may have been because of the age in which the general lived. “General Butler’s military experience – Nicaragua, Honduras, Philippines, Mexico – was among the most politicized and aggressive uses of the military advancing U.S. foreign policy interests in U.S. history,” said William Braun, a professor at the U.S. Army War College. With “the exceptions being actual war,” he added.

Whatever the case, whether war is sometimes or always a racket, the fact remains that war has at times been a racket. It remains that the U.S. has used it in such a way, and is arguably still. Economic interest is not the only variable in U.S. foreign policy; however, it is one that is, sadly, lucrative even for the Americans who detest it.


The West’s forgotten war

WASHINGTON — As ISIS captures land and headlines and President Barack  Obama pivots toward the Pacific, it can seem understandable that the backwater state of Somalia has received less press than in years past.

As if to remind the United States —and the world— of the serious crisis still unfolding in the Horn of Africa, gunmen linked to the Islamist extremist al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab stormed a university in neighboring Kenya in early April, killing 147, after systematically determining which among the students were Christians.

It is the deadliest attack inside Kenya since the 1998 US embassy bombing carried out on the orders of Osama bin Laden, and one that has many analysts worrying about the power of Islamic extremists in this impoverished corner of the world.

Somalia has been considered a failed state since the early 1990s. Armed opposition to the rule of longtime Marxist strongman Mohamed Siad Barre eventually exploded into civil war in 1986; the situation was exacerbated by food and fuel shortages and famine, which killed hundreds of thousands. The presence of UN and African Union peacekeepers has been largely unable to quell the ongoing violence between various warlords and armed factions.

The failed nation has proved to be fertile ground for hardline Islamist groups like the Islamic Courts Union —which briefly controlled southern Somalia before being driven out by Ethiopian troops— and al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), a jihadist group founded by Soviet-Afghan War veteran Aden Hashi Farah in 2006.

Though Farah was killed by a US airstrike in 2008 —a fate shared by many of al-Shabaab’s “emirs”— the movement continues on. While no longer at the height of its power, the group continues to control wide swaths of the countryside in Somalia’s south. Recent operations —including the Westgate shopping center attack in Nairobi in 2013— indicate that even a weakened al-Shabaab is extremely dangerous.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, sees in al-Shabaab an increasingly dangerous and insidious threat.

“Compared to 2009, yes, Shabaab is weaker. But when I look at the issues in terms of security, it’s stagnating and at worst deteriorating,” she said.

Even though al-Shabaab no longer controls many major cities, Felbab-Brown said, the group’s influence is still widely felt. They control many small villages and roads and raise money by extorting travelers. Assassinations continue daily as al-Shabaab seeks to undermine confidence in the weak central government.

Asked about any potential links or similarities between a resurgent al-Shabaab and the more visible Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Felbab-Brown is quick to highlight their differences. While al-Shabaab and ISIS may share some superficial similarities, she says, the Somali group has more in common with the Taliban than the Islamic State. Afghanistan, like Somalia, is a deeply tribal society, and tribal affiliations give al-Shabaab the resources it needs to thrive. And like the Taliban, al-Shabaab practices a “politics of exclusion” meant to disempower certain clans and religious minorities, a practice that suggests a preoccupation with local politics, not global jihad.

While both al-Shabaab and ISIS operate like Islamic armies, their aims and ideologies are different. According to Felbab-Brown, al-Shabaab seems to limit its horizons to Somalia specifically. Unlike the Nigerian Boko Haram, the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah and the Filipino Abu Sayyaf, al-Shabaab has not pledged allegiance to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and shows little enthusiasm for a unified caliphate in their propaganda videos.

“They are struggling with the relationship they have with ISIS and al-Qaeda,” Felbab-Brown said.

Though there is some fear that foreign fighters trained by al-Shabaab may launch attacks in the West, such instances are few and far between, with most international jihadis flocking to ISIS. The real danger of al-Shabaab, Felbab-Brown said, is the possibility that the group will extend its reach. From bases inside Somalia, the jihadi group has ready access to East African countries —many of them US allies— that have so far been spared from the scourge of Islamist violence. Western embassies might also find themselves targeted.

As al-Shabaab regroups, the international community seeking to rebuild Somalia faces new challenges. Beside Islamic extremists, the UN and AU must contend with widespread corruption, an unpopular leadership, militant separatist groups, Ethiopian and Kenyan proxy forces and an unstable economy. For its part, the US has limited its involvement in Somalia as of late. Though the United States occasionally conducts drone strikes against al-Shabaab, fear of upsetting the delicate peace process and killing civilians means that drones are used less liberally there than in Yemen and Pakistan.

Experts like Felbab-Brown are urging the international community to take a new approach: hold Somalia accountable for governmental failures, even if that means confronting allies. Such steps are needed, they say, if ordinary Somalis are to see the government as a legitimate alternative to al-Shabaab.

“They [al-Shabaab] are not good governors. But Somalis often choose between the lesser of two evils,” Felbab-Brown said.

The Art of War: A novice reporter considers reporting on conflicts, terrorism and national security

Painting of shock and awe. “Baghdad Bombing”, from the Iraq Series: Shock and Awe I, by American painter Betty Herbert (b. 1929).

WASHINGTON—How would I begin to tell you about war?

If good journalism starts with asking good questions, I have to admit what little I know of the strategy behind the American-led wars of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaining a better understanding of how the military approaches war has armed me with some tools so that I can ask better questions and be more confident in reporting on national security, and also be a better-informed consumer of journalism on this topic.

When I think about my experience of America’s decade of post-9/11 wars, this is my first memory: I was seventeen and watching live images of American bombs bursting over Baghdad in a green glow. They were coming through on a snowy television signal on a March night; I was home from school for spring break and it was the beginning of wartime—whatever that means.

My reaction to war has often been confused and confusing—so how would I begin to try to report on one or the lives affected? I have no context for war in my own life, and so before taking the Covering Conflicts, Terrorism and National Security course at Medill, I found the topic too huge and abstract to approach.

The course has helped me to see why national security journalism is absolutely essential (a U.S. Senate panel just voted this week to authorize $631.4 billion in defense spending for the 2013 fiscal year!), and also as a reporting topic not too big for me to grasp. By learning the ways in which military, government and intelligence experts assess issues and develop strategies for handling them, they have become more accessible to me as reporting topics.

Is there a just war, and were these wars just? It is hard to know how to talk about war in a way that is not influenced by popular sentiment, political jargon or simply a default—that war is an atrocity, and as history has dictated, sometimes necessary.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be fought hard and fast, with little damage, American military officials said. But with war, ends have rarely, if ever, been achieved without brutal and costly means.

Understanding the tools military officials use to analyze war can help explain how these two wars were fought and why they worked, or didn’t. Like theory in the study of economics, war theory addresses an array of scenarios, decisions and outcomes. In an unpredictable field of possibilities, the strategy helps us to understand how our military leaders attempt to predict the unpredictable and make consequential decisions, at the most basic level, on assumptions.

The most subjective part (the why we went to war) is something that still remains up for debate. But that uncertainty is actually an assumption in the framework of war—a fact I actually found reassuring, because at least we can admit there is no right answer when it comes to war.

Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote his principal work “On War” in 1832, and it remains a must-read exploration for those seeking to understand the moral and political implications of war.

Clausewitz set forth certain truths about war.

Fog and friction are inevitable. Uncertainty and unpredictability when                         combined with danger, physical stress and human fallibility dominate war.

War is an act of force to compel the enemy to bend its will.

In war, the idea of combat is always present

War’s natural tendency is escalation…towards the maximum possible use             of force, and/or until total disarmament of the enemy.

The purpose of war is political and all wars are a products of the societies  that fought them.

Once at war, the point of “winning” eventually shifts. The sense of accomplishment comes in lives saved versus lost or getting home alive—at least that has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is tactic and strategy. But the greatest strategy in war was perhaps laid out in the The Art of War, a 6th Century B.C. Chinese military strategy book by Sun Tzu. One takeaway: The best way to win a war is to never start one.

For as long as the human record, we the human race have at no time not been at war somewhere. Most war is in some way futile, and all wars have outcomes.

To study and write about conflict I realized I would have to become grounded in my set of beliefs about war and develop my own standard for when using war is ever an acceptable or valid policy tool.

It is also hard to extract oneself from the reporting, even though all good journalists attempt to be fair in their analysis. For me, this starts with a personal assessment of what it means to me to coexist on this earth—Am I a fighter or a pacifist? A realist or an idealist? Do I think it is possible for one nation to use force to compel another nation into compliance and be successful? And if it’s possible, do I want it?

I do not want war. War may bring ends, but only through a process of destruction, which only continues the costly cycle of war amongst us. Now that I have some frameworks for analyzing the purpose of war, I feel confident that I can express that view with concrete examples of why my belief is valid.

As journalists, the premise of our work is simple: to ask good questions. While being better informed on a topic makes the reporting richer and more valuable, what I takeaway from this is course is that the questions do remain simple. What is the purpose of this war? What will it accomplish? What will it cost? What are the unknown costs? Military strategy adapts to national political aims. It is those aims that should change if we want to avoid war.