General Principles

by Whatsblem the Pro

General Wesley Clark (retired) - PHOTO: R.D. Ward

General Wesley Clark (retired) – PHOTO: R.D. Ward

The news spread far and wide: John Perry Barlow, of Grateful Dead and Electronic Frontier Foundation fame, tweeted to the world that he “spent much of the afternoon in conversation with Larry Harvey, Mayor of #BurningMan & Gen. Wesley Clark, who is here.”

Earlier today, my colleague Burnersxxx commented on Clark’s alleged presence. What Burnersxxx didn’t know was that as he was publishing that story, I was on the phone with John Perry Barlow, verifying his tweet heard ’round the world.

“It wasn’t a prank,” said Barlow directly to me, just hours ago. “It happened. Larry Harvey and I spent a perfectly lovely afternoon with him and his thirty-year-old Mongolian MIT graduate girlfriend.”

John Perry Barlow’s word is good enough for me. I have no doubts left about it: Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander of NATO and a 2004 Democratic Party nominee for President, did indeed attend Burning Man this year. . . but the question of whether or not General Clark (retired) really and truly attended Burning Man 2013 or not seems less interesting than asking what it means that he did.

I asked John Perry Barlow what he thought it meant, and his answer was short but sweet:

“What does it mean? That life is even weirder than you think. That Wesley Clark has no more or less reason to be there than anyone else. He liked it.”

John Perry Barlow - PHOTO: Bart Nagel

John Perry Barlow – PHOTO: Bart Nagel

For many people these days, one or two soundbites worth of information is enough on which to base an ironclad opinion. . . and the common view of the United States government being what it is among most artists and other people with a countercultural bent, the soundbite “retired general visits Burning Man” may be a disconcerting one. In service of our own best interests, however, we should perhaps take a closer look.

In the context of counterculture, the obvious connotation of Wesley Clark’s status as a former NATO Supreme Commander who prosecuted the war in Kosovo is that the man is a hawk, a war-head, and therefore an imperialist evildoer with blood on his hands who should not be trusted or tolerated.

It is, however, axiomatic that nobody on this Earth hates war with more passion than an experienced general. For those not aware of that fact, it may come as a surprise that some of the most vocal critics of war throughout history have been successful military leaders at the highest levels; in fact, Wesley Clark himself was vocally, visibly against George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. His dissent does not make him an outlier; historically speaking, he’s the rule and not the exception.

The strong distaste that generals develop for war goes back thousands of years. That most noble of Romans, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, did his duty with ruthless efficiency when called upon to serve Rome as temporary dictator; when the crises he was called upon to deal with had passed and he was covered in glory and the gratitude of his nation, the man was surprisingly quick to lay his cudgels down and go back to his plough. Cincinnatus, the strongman who brought the ferocious Aequi under the Roman yoke, the man who conquered the Sabines and the Voiscians, despised war and wanted nothing so much as the peace and quiet of his farm and home.

Historical quotes from war-hating generals abound; William Tecumseh Sherman is an especially rich source of such quotes, a fact that stands as testament to the particularly savage horror and cruelty that marked the American Civil War. “War is Hell,” said Sherman, often. Even the Saint-Gaudens statue of Sherman in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza bears that dire motto, in the form of a poem by Henry Van Dyke:

This is the soldier brave enough to tell
The glory-dazzled world that “war is Hell.”

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will,” said Sherman. “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace.”

Hardly the words of a war-mongering hawk, yet General Sherman had a demon’s reputation on the battlefield; he was feared and hated by the enemy for his bloody-handed ruthlessness, and even roundly criticized by his own side on occasion for his scorched earth policies. Where Sherman passed, nothing that might be of any value or use to the enemy remained.

General Sherman, the rigors of Hell etched into his face

General Sherman, the rigors of Hell etched into his face

More from William Tecumseh Sherman:

“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell.”

“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is Hell.”

On the other side of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee expressed a similar sentiment, famously saying that “it is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.”

In more recent times, General (and later President) Dwight David Eisenhower remarked that “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” Eisenhower went on to warn us, in his last speech as President, of the rise of the military-industrial complex, and of its thirst for endless warfare in pursuit of profit and power. His prescient wisdom has largely gone unheeded in America.

Perhaps the most poignant and dramatic example of war-hating military men in the service of the United States has been given to us by Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, who at the time of his death was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history. Butler capped off a brilliant military career that took him from the trenches of World War I to every American theater of operations of his time with speaking tours promoting his book, entitled WAR IS A RACKET. In his speeches and writings after his retirement from the Marines, Butler characterized his activities with the U.S. military as those of “a gangster for capitalism.”

“War is just a racket,” said Butler, who gave over 1,200 speeches on the topic in more than seven hundred American cities. “A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.”

Butler continues:

“I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.

“I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

Old Gimlet Eye: Smedley Butler denounced war as a racket

Old Gimlet Eye: Smedley Butler denounced war as a racket

“It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

“I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, 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 benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

“During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

It’s easy to dismiss Wesley Clark as an enemy and a tool of the worst elements of the Establishment, but his personal history and the history of warfare itself cast that perspective into serious question. Should we not welcome this visitor from Hell into our circle? Should we not show him our ways, demonstrate for him that we are not just a bunch of dirty hippies getting high in the desert, and introduce him to the nobler aspects of our culture, in the hopes that he’ll join us and be further encouraged to be vocal about his reservations regarding American military adventurism?

History shows us that nobody hates war like an old warrior; I for one would like to publicly give Wesley Clark the benefit of the doubt, and welcome him, burner to burner, to our world. . . provided he brings his own cup, of course.