Rep. John Murtha, the ex-Marine hawk who has always been close to the
Pentagon, spoke out recently against the war in Iraq and called for drawing
down the number of American troops, he was in all likelihood echoing the
private doubts and objections of senior military officers. When, for
example, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, contradicted Donald Rumsfeld about Iraqi forces’ harsh treatment
of captives, he “won silent cheers from many senior uniformed officers
by standing firm,” as Eric Schmitt reported in the New York Times
last December 30th. Pace had to back down as administration flacks moved
quickly to soft-pedal any differences between Rumsfeld and the top brass.
Nevertheless, these two
incidents -- and obviously many other whispered conversations held among
officers and their friends -- only underscore the fact that some in the
professional military have serious doubts about a war and occupation that
has cost so much in lives, money and moral standing, not to mention the
serious impact it has had on the military.
While civilian control of the professional military is an essential
element of American democracy, Army generals Matthew Ridgeway, James Gavin
and Robert L. Hughes, Marine Generals Hugh Hester and Samuel G. Griffith,
Rear Admiral Arnold True and Marine colonels William Carson and James A.
Donovan did criticize aspects of the Vietnam War. They weren’t doves or
anti-war libertarians but all recognized that the military intervention in
an Asian civil war had been a ghastly blunder. My own hunch is that once
they’re out of uniform and safe from bureaucratic or political vendettas,
even more generals and colonels will be just as critical about the colossal
blunder the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld trinity and their neocon propagandists have
created in Iraq and now threaten to repeat against Iran.
All this by way of introduction to General David M. Shoup, Commandant of the
Marine Corps during part of the Vietnam era, Howard Jablon’s David Shoup:
A Warrior against War (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), an
all-too-brief, intelligently written and sympathetic portrait of Shoup,
tries to explain why a Marine lifer and recipient of the Congressional Medal
of Honor for his role in WWII’s savage battle of Tarawa, became a fearless
critic of the war in Southeast Asia. Jablon, incidentally, teaches history
at Purdue University North Central.
So why should a marine who served in China in the twenties question
his country’s motives in chaotic and war-torn China?
His two tours there led him to read and think extensively about what he
was doing and why the U.S. was involved. Much like USMC Major General
Smedley Butler’s self-published 1935 book War is a Racket, he came away
blaming the missionaries, businessmen and politicians who, to further their
own interests, agitated for U.S. military participation in a conflict that
had little or nothing to do with American national interests. In short, it
was the U.S. involving itself once again in an economically-driven imperial
adventure -- much as it had against Mexico in the 19th Century, Spain and
the Philippines at the turn of the 20th Century, Haiti and Nicaragua time
and again, Iran and Guatemala in the early fifties, and Chile, Central
America and the Caribbean during the Reagan era.
Shoup was certainly no pacifist, but his China experiences ultimately
helped lead him to question American strategy. In 1961, before American
combat units arrived in force in Southeast Asia, Kennedy administration
hawks and its sycophants in the mass media sought to present Laos -- yes,
impotent, impoverished, landlocked, rural, Laos -- as a crucial link in the
cold war against the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. After
some military hawks proposed using nuclear bombs Shoup objected. “Whoever
even thought that nuclear weapons should be used in Laos was very
misinformed about what a proper target for a nuclear weapon consisted of,”
he said, “because in all the analysis that I remember, there was never any
After he retired, Shoup became a public dissenter. On May 14, 1966, he spoke
out at Pierce College in California. “I don’t think the whole of Southeast
Asia … is worth the life or limb of a single American” [and] I believe that
if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar crooked fingers out of the
business of these nations so full of depressed exploited people, they will
arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work
for.” In the April 1969 issue of Atlantic Monthly (“The New
American Militarism”) he and fellow marine Colonel Donovan denounced the way
the U.S. conducted its foreign policy. Later, in a foreword to Donovan’s
book Militarism U.S.A., Shoup emphasized, quite rightly -- as the
Iraq morass has proven -- that “there are limits of U.S. power and our
capabilities to police the world.”
Of course he had his critics, especially among erstwhile military
friends and the pro-war crowd in the White House and in Washington’s
political circles. “Shoup”, writes Jablon, “paid dearly for his dissention.
He was alienated from the Corps he loved.” Still, he had his defenders,
such as Senators Stuart Symington and William Fulbright. Naturally, LBJ and
Nixon were appalled by his views and Jablon reports that they put J. Edgar
Hoover on his trail, the better to add to the vast number of Americans spied
upon because of their political opposition to the war.
“Praised or feared,” Jablon concludes in his engrossing portrait of
this intriguing marine who has been undeservedly forgotten, “Shoup
added intelligence as well as nobility to the crusade to stop the war.”
It will be interesting to see if any of today’s senior military officers
(as opposed to the bellicose neocon civilians and careerist military
bureaucrats inside the Pentagon) will have anything to say one day about
what went wrong and why in Iraq and in the future wars now being dreamed up
in Washington’s hawkish circles.
Murray Polner co-authored
Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip
Berrigan and wrote
No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran.