Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire
Jonathan M. Katz. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 432 pp. Map. Photos. Biblio. Notes. Index. $29.99.
Reviewed by Major Brian A. Kerg, U.S. Marine Corps
“Pacifist, hell. I’m a pacifist, but I always have a club behind my back.”
This statement by Major General Smedley Butler, one of the Marine Corps’ most decorated officers, appears confounding. And yet it expresses the essence of both Butler the man and Jonathan M. Katz’s book, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire.
Using Butler’s life as a touchstone, Katz leads readers through the rise and decline of American imperialism across the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Katz explores the locales where Butler served, connecting past and present in countries such as Cuba, the Philippines, China, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. As he revisits each location where Butler used military force to advance U.S. policy, Katz demonstrates how the effects of American interventionism more than a century ago still reverberate within these nations today.
The casual reader of U.S. military history might have passing familiarity with Butler, but Gangsters of Capitalism details his life, exploits, and tribulations with such intimacy as to humanize Butler in new ways. Drawing on the prolific correspondence of the Butler family, Katz offers fresh insight into Butler’s deepest reflections as he struggled to reconcile his personal beliefs with his role as a blunt instrument of U.S. foreign policy.
Initially enlisting in the Marine Corps to liberate Cuba from Spanish oppression, Butler found himself time and again serving as the enforcer of exploitative American opportunism, at one point dissolving the Haitian parliament at the end of a gun. Throughout the book, Butler’s acts of physical courage and combat leadership of the highest order are intermixed with frequent requirements to repress local populations in numerous small wars and military interventions.
As a result of this personal conflict, Butler clearly suffered from moral injury and endured post-traumatic stress disorder, at one point receiving an eight-month leave of absence to recover from what was diagnosed at the time as dyspepsia nervosa. Katz’s exploration of Butler’s internal struggle is a salve to veterans who wrestle with the same, illustrating that even the Marine Corps’ most vaunted heroes are as human as the rest of us.
As his career progressed and his realism cemented, Butler found himself identifying ultimately with the troops who fought, suffered, and died to secure the ambitions of American investors abroad. After his retirement, Butler became a frequent speaker at rallies critical of government policy. Confronted with the rise of fascism, he also was a frequent speaker at antiwar rallies. This culminated in the publication of his most famous work, War Is a Racket, which compiled the essence of his most requested speech.
Katz skillfully intertwines the conflicting facets of Butler’s lived experience with the heavy hand of American interventionism in this period. The author’s method of using a travelogue that follows the life of Butler is a useful medium to show the consequences of the past for the present. And this is far more than a history book: The excellent selected bibliography, endnotes, and index make this book a necessary addition to scholars specializing in any of this book’s interrelated subjects.
Gangsters of Capitalism is a clear-eyed assessment of the United States’ experiment with empire and its legacy, as well as a journey through the life of a celebrated military leader. Despite blemishes of U.S. policy, Smedley Butler supported his country while preserving his integrity. Readers will agree with the inscription on the plaque commemorating Butler’s stint as Philadelphia’s police chief in the 1920s, which reads: “He enforced the law impartially. He defended it courageously. He proved incorruptible.”
Major Kerg is a prior-enlisted mortarman, communications officer, and nonresident fellow with Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare. He is currently a student at the School of Advanced Warfighting in Quantico, Virginia.
Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate
M. E. Sarotte. Yale. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 568 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $35.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Shane Halton, U.S. Navy
On 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian armed forces into Ukraine, escalating and enlarging an eight-year conflict that began with Russia’s February 2014 seizure of Crimea. The invasion brought condemnation of Russia’s actions by the West and almost instantaneously changed the geopolitical landscape of Europe for the foreseeable future. Within days, the United States, Europe, Australia, and Japan announced sanctions against Russia on a scale never before applied to a G20 country. Germany announced plans to rearm itself and to break its decades-long commitment to not send arms into war zones by supplying Ukraine with military equipment. Sweden and Finland began openly discussing the possibility of joining NATO to defend themselves against Russian aggression.
At the time of this writing it is unclear when and how the conflict will end, but it is never too early to ask “How did we get here?” Thankfully, M. E. Sarotte—in what must be one of the most propitiously timed book launches in history—has provided a great primer on the era that defines Russia–NATO relations today. Not One Inch picks up almost immediately where Sarotte’s last book, The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall (Basic Books, 2014), leaves off—with the fall of the Berlin Wall—and continues to the end of the 1990s. In Not One Inch, Sarotte shifts her narrative focus from events in Germany to the international relations drama that unfolded as it became increasingly clear that first the Warsaw Pact and then the Soviet Union were destined for the dustbin of history.
Policy makers in the U.S., European, and Soviet (now Russian) governments were shocked by the rapid end of the Cold War and were forced to improvise policy solutions to a multiplying set of crises in the early 1990s. What would happen to Soviet troops stationed in former Warsaw Pact countries? Could and should Germany reunify? Who would control the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed outside of Russia? Could former Warsaw Pact nations join NATO?
And, finally, what should be done about Ukraine, which, at the end of the Cold War, was the world’s third-largest nuclear power? Western leaders acknowledged early on that Ukraine, regardless of any aspirations its people had for joining the West, was a special case, owing to both its geography and its large ethnic Russian population.
Even without being made suddenly relevant by world events, this book would have stood out as one of the best history books of the year. Sarotte deftly moves readers along the roller coaster of the immediate optimistic post–Cold War period to the chilling of relations between Washington and Moscow in the mid-1990s to the Clinton administration’s decision to back NATO expansion, culminating in the 1999 Washington Summit when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland formally joined the alliance. In the final chapter, Sarotte introduces the up and coming political operative Vladimir Putin and the terrorist Osama Bin Laden, who she darkly notes “would also do much to shape the twenty-first century.” Here’s hoping she makes this series a trilogy and eventually gives us a book covering Russia–NATO relations from 2000–22.
Lieutenant Commander Halton is an intelligence officer currently serving on exchange with the Royal Australian Navy. He has previously served as the AF-PAK team lead at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization and as a requirements officer at the Navy’s Digital Warfare Office.
The Blue Age
Gregg Easterbrook. New York: PublicAffairs, 2021. 291 pp. Notes. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Blake Herzinger, U.S. Navy Reserve
There is an art to selling sea power, even to its greatest beneficiaries. It is easy to convince taxpayers and political actors to fund a navy when the seas are battlegrounds and allotted funds have clear effect on the outcome of ongoing conflict. But, when in the U.S. Navy’s position at the end of the Cold War’s long lee, helping the average American understand the value and critical importance of their navy it becomes simultaneously more difficult and more important. The naval services are struggling to tell this story in a compelling way without relying on jargon or technical language and seem largely content to allow others to try making the case for them.
Gregg Easterbrook’s The Blue Age
is an ambitious attempt to bring home the critical arguments for maintaining the U.S. position in the maritime domain, but it is, unfortunately, inadequate to the task. Taken as a whole, the book is unlikely to satisfy the informed professional and would leave the layman with a skewed and incomplete view of U.S. sea power and its place in this maritime era. This is not to say, however, that the book is entirely unmoored from reality. Easterbrook does correctly identify the correlation between the Navy, good order at sea, and American prosperity. And any reader will quickly grasp the author’s confidence that sea power lies at the center of geopolitics and geoeconomics both now and in the foreseeable future.
It is difficult for career naval professionals to distill voluminous topics such as maritime operations and strategy into something for general consumption. But in just under 300 pages, Easterbrook takes on those subjects, and many more, without restricting himself to the realms of fact and reality. The author strays from contending that Mahan’s ideas were almost all wrong to engaging in odd diatribes about nations needing to walk a mile in China’s shoes before judging Beijing’s actions. His choice to pepper the entire monologue with strange personal anecdotes and jabs at politicians, think tanks, and others dilutes the book’s central premise.
What The Blue Age does get right is that peaceful seas enabled the global system of trade that has lifted millions from poverty and created the world in which we live. It took strong navies to create that peace and keep it, and a robust civilian maritime industry to take advantage of it. The United States has taken that for granted since the end of the Cold War and ceded the commanding heights to its greatest competitor, China, which seems to have internalized those lessons. Seven of the world’s ten largest container ports are in China. Of the top 50 ports in the world, 17 are Chinese, and some of those 33 outside China are leased or owned outright by Chinese consortiums operating abroad. By comparison, the United States ranks a dismal 17th, and only 4 of its ports fall within the top 50. China also now has a larger navy than the United States, and the average age of its ships is much younger. Admittedly, the United States still maintains an edge in tonnage, but whether that represents a meaningful advantage is debatable.
Easterbrook posits a future in which the United States and China join forces to secure the maritime commons and ensure continued security and economic growth, but while this might be desirable, it is unrealistic. China’s concerted efforts at revisionism and its deleterious activities are apparent across the world’s oceans, and Beijing seems disinclined to live up to even its existing commitments within the current order, let alone a new power-sharing architecture for maritime governance.
The Blue Age offers a warning that bears consideration by any reader—that the future is not guaranteed. The long peace and unprecedented prosperity the United States has enjoyed is imperiled by sea-blindness, whether exhibited by policy makers or those who elect them. This is a critical narrative and one that the naval services should be prepared to address in any forum, from the halls of Congress to town halls. Easterbrook’s The Blue Age is an effort to do something the naval services should be doing for themselves, or at least fostering within the community of those committed to U.S. sea power. For that attempt, the book may be applauded, but the final product leaves much to be desired.
ν Lieutenant Commander Herzinger supports Commander, Naval Forces Korea, and is a nonresident fellow at the Pacific Forum. His last active-duty assignment was as an intelligence officer based in Singapore, where he has spent the past eight years. In his civilian capacity he conducts security cooperation activities in support of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative. He has been a Life Member of the Naval Institute since 2018.
Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare
Seth G. Jones. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2021. Notes. Images. Index. 276 pp. $27.95.
Reviewed by Chief Warrant Officer Jason Gambill, U.S. Army
Seth Jones presents an interesting and well-executed argument that claims irregular warfare, not conventional warfare, will define international politics and conflict in the decades to come. Jones provides a contemporary and thorough overview of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese irregular warfare that readily serves as a primer for students and professionals interested in security studies, including both military and government agency members.
Jones explains that despite Russia, Iran, and China’s near-continuous use of irregular warfare in global competition, the United States has not invested enough resources or effort into irregular warfare. He argues that despite Cold War successes, the United States has failed to leverage its ideological instruments of power, “which clearly affirms the superiority of U.S. and Western values of individual dignity and freedom.”
Throughout the book, several prominent members of the intelligence community and Department of Defense support his argument. Retired Army General Michael Nagata offered that the United States is “building a military for the struggle we want to have. We are not building a military for the struggle we are going to have—and we are having right now.” As demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jones accurately claims “there are limits to what the United States can and should do overseas, particularly with military force.” Jones does not recommend irregular warfare over conventional deterrence or warfighting; rather, he argues that the United States should better balance the two.
Jones provides a unique perspective on how and why Russia, Iran, and China devote tremendous resources and effort to irregular warfare. Though there already is a significant body of academic literature representing their nontraditional employment of national power, Jones tells the story through the lives of their prominent irregular warfare practitioners: Russia’s General Valery Gerasimov, Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani, and China’s General Zhang Youxia. An impressive percentage of this content originates from translated literature from each country. Jones’s analysis highlights a commonality that Gerasimov, Soleimani, and Zhang studied the United States’ successes and failures, thus realizing that irregular warfare is the best tool to combat its hegemony.
Though he recommends a more appropriate balance between the two, Jones misses an opportunity to convince critics that irregular warfare has a synergistic effect on traditional deterrence and conventional warfare. The current conflict in Ukraine is an excellent example of this, as Russia’s military and its civilian population are negatively affected by its adversaries’ information operations. This was demonstrated early in the war when large numbers of Russian soldiers abandoned their vehicles and surrendered. Ukraine’s successful irregular warfare operations significantly reduced Putin’s ability to achieve his political and military objectives. Despite never directly identifying this opportunity, Jones’s positions and conclusions are difficult to dispute or deny.
Three Dangerous Men is an excellent book that will easily keep the attention of most readers.
Chief Warrant Officer Gambill has a master of science degree from the Naval Postgraduate School’s Defense Analysis Department. He has served more than two decades in Army Special Forces and is assigned to the 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne) Headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.