In the ever-increasing temperature of the climate of fear implemented by every administration in the U.S. and much of the West since 11 September 2001, the description “hero” is being applied to everything from charity runners to foodbank volunteers. It’s a simple formula; “heroes” occupy one end of a scale whose other end houses what news anchors and senior politicians increasingly refer to as “bad guys”.
As part of the hero/bad guy narrative, the Homeland Security frenzy ensures anyone who wears any kind of uniform is automatically the former. Police who murder innocent people are afforded media and public sympathy for doing a thankless job in enormously stressful conditions; from this viewpoint, trigger-happy white sheriffs daily perform the civilian equivalent of taking hills in Iwo Jima.
To the non-hysterical observer, however, wearing a uniform should no more define heroism than choosing the right church, flag or skin colour. A fairly recent illustration of this came late last century, when the excruciating self-immolation of Oliver North was too much to bear for all but those with the reddest of necks.
Deciding to do the heroic thing and fall on his sword, Lieutenant Colonel North carried the can for his bosses and held his hand up as the worst drug-dealer and middleman in the history of black ops. In this context, and under the spotlight of televised interrogation, hangdog Ollie’s uniform served only to shame him with every new admission of guilt.
Marks of Distinction
A little further back in time, Smedley Butler and Douglas MacArthur served to provide very different examples of what it might mean to be a hero.
Born within a year and a half of each other in not too dissimilar circumstances, Butler and MacArthur went on to become among the most decorated service personnel in U.S. history. Butler remains one of only two U.S. Marines to win the Medal of Honor twice for separate actions; MacArthur one of only five officers ever to become General of the Army.
These comparisons hide two very different characters, however. Butler’s time in the armed services imposing U.S. foreign policy from Cuba to China and many places in between led him the conclusion that he had actually been a hired thug in the pay of big business gangsters with politicians as frontmen. MacArthur, meanwhile, manipulated these politicians to achieve levels of self-promotion never seen before or since.
Neither man could be accused of being squeamish; their trajectories therefore seem to illustrate something other than simplistic notions of bravery or, indeed, heroism.
Butler and MacArthur’s paths crossed only once of note; their respective roles in the event instructive of their respective motivations as public figures.
In the summer of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, a mass occupation of Washington D.C. was carried out by 43,000 unemployed World War I veterans, their families and supporters. This movement, known as the ‘Bonus Army,’ formed to shame the U.S. government into redeeming the veterans’ service certificates in cash immediately rather than wait until their stated payment date of 1945.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Congress decisively rejected a Bill to allow early payment. Just as unsurprisingly, this decision led to anger and unrest among the thousands of protesters who had set up camps within the District of Columbia.
Butler had arrived at the camp to show his solidarity with the movement. He and his son spent the night with the protesters and Butler gave a speech to raise morale the next morning. President Hoover, meanwhile, had ordered the break-up of the camp; this was enforced initially by police and then the U.S. Army on the 28th of July.
After police efforts to dismantle the camps were met with resistance, General Douglas MacArthur led one infantry and one cavalry regiment into the mass of demonstrators. With bayonets fixed, using tear gas and supported by tanks commanded by a certain George S. Patton, MacArthur set fire to tents and forced the protesters to flee. At least two veterans died during the eviction.
Butler’s low opinion of his and MacArthur’s ultimte paymasters – the big businessmen who had caused the Great Depression in the first place – was confirmed the next year when he was approached by a representative of a group of them with a view to leading a coup d’etat against President Roosevelt.
Roosevelt beat Hoover in the 1932 Presidential election. While MacArthur had to make the best of this situation, in 1933 Butler received an offer from a Wall Street bond salesman to lead a 500,000 strong private army, financed by $3 million from J.P. Morgan, in an armed insurrection against the new President. Roosevelt was to be replaced by General Hugh S. Johnson.
Butler refused and reported the events to the government. In the resulting hearings in front of a special House of Representatives committee, witnesses were not called and the press ridiculed the very idea of a “Business Plot” as a figment of Butler’s imagination. The committee’s final report, however, backed his assertions and the press, especially the New York Times, was shown to be yet another willing stooge for Wall Street.
Having done Hoover’s dirty work in extinguishing the embarrassment of the Bonus Army, MacArthur then spent the early years of the much more liberal Roosevelt’s administration suing for defamation two journalists who had criticised his actions as at best unnecessarily heavy-handed. He was forced by these two slippery pressmen into a climbdown, however, when they threatened to expose his adultery with a Eurasian mistress called Isabel. MacArthur ended up $15,000 out of pocket in an out-of-court settlement.
Meanwhile, Butler, having seen his testimony to the House belittled, began work on a book which outlined his thoughts on, as it were, the whole shooting match; politics, the military, big business and the lackeys who make it all possible. In 1935, he produced a speech and a short book, both entitled “War Is a Racket”. Based on his extensive experience, especially in World War I, he vilifies the situation where private individuals and companies profit enormously from both public subsidy and industrial human slaughter.
Whether MacArthur had the time or the inclination to read Butler’s text is a moot point. In 1935, he was asked to form a Philippine Army by that newly semi-independnt country’s President, Manuel Quezon, an old friend of his father’s. Making himself Field Marshal, he also retained his U.S. Army rank of Major General.
What a hero.