Review: An imperialist repents in his book “Gangs of Capitalism”

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This cover photo published by St. Martin’s Press shows “Gangs of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, Marines, and the Making and Disintegration of America’s Empire” by Jonathan M. Katz. (St. Martin’s Press via The Associated Press)

AP

“Gangs of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, Marines, and the Formation and Disintegration of America’s Empire” by Jonathan M. Katz (St. Martin’s Press)

Many American veterans of the nation’s “eternal wars” in the 21st century—men and women who lost companions and limbs to roadside bombs and suffer psychological scars—struggle to understand why. Some ask: were they instruments of less than noble imperial adventures?

A century ago, a seasoned Marine who took part in every American empire-building expedition — in Cuba, the Philippines, Panama, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Haiti — asked himself the same question. His answer: “Yes.” Smedley Butler was the spearhead in the invasions and occupations that thwarted democracy beginning in 1898, and his beneficiaries included bankers J.P. Morgan and Standard Oil.

Jonathan M. Katz’s lively and profound book “Gangs of Capitalism” traces the search for three decades of the foreign invasion of Butler. The 344-page autobiography follows the bloodstained transformation of Butler, a member of the main Philadelphia Quaker community and the son of a congressman, from tool capitalist to penitent anti-war activist. Why haven’t we heard of Butler before? Perhaps because there is not much to glorify here.

The book combines history, scholarship and travel. Katz visited nine countries to report on this, including China, where Butler was wounded while trying to put down the Boxer Rebellion, to help understand how the United States got to where it is now. Perhaps not surprisingly, a defeated president was able to muster a violent mob to storm the US Capitol a year ago and nearly thwart what had long been considered a stable democracy.

“Gangsters in Capitalism” is set in the context of a number of recent histories – a category we used to call “revisionist” – that expose the brutality and racism of American expansionism and cast doubt on the often-repeated claim of American exceptionalism. These include Greg Grandin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning film The End of the Myth and Vincent Bivens’ The Jakarta Method.

Katz’s catchy style brings history alive. A veteran foreign correspondent for the Associated Press was working in Haiti when he learned how Butler and Marines stormed its parliament in 1917, dissolving it at gunpoint for resisting a US-drafted constitution giving foreigners property rights in the black Caribbean nation founded by former slaves. It’s just one of a series of violent power games that Butler orchestrated even while admitting their moral bankruptcy in Letters to Home.

Among the deeds that weighed heavily on Butler in his later years was how he helped create local Praetorian “guardians nacionales” in countries such as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic that were later used by ruthless strongmen as shock troops.

Katz’s first book, The Big Truck That Passed By, recounted how relief that was supposed to help Haitians recover from the terrible 2010 earthquake instead enriched aid workers, military contractors, and foreign investors who set up shop to exploit cheap Haitian labor.

The “gangsters of capitalism” attempt to compute how a highly decorated American soldier – a butler reaching the rank of brigadier general – could act blatantly anti-democratic while abroad, orchestrating extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and election fraud, and then working on Trying to prevent America from sending its youth to die in foreign wars.

There is no evidence that Butler materially gained him from being a “capitalist blackmailer” – in his words – who “helped usurp half a dozen Central American republics for Wall Street”. His only reward seems to have been the appreciation of fellow veterans and veterans who fought for their pension rights during the Depression. Perhaps to teach us a lesson.

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