Ollie And Old Gimlet Eye

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As I write, the earnest image of Marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North has faded from our television screens, but a volume of his complete testimony in the Iran-contra hearings still tops the nonfiction paperback best-seller list, a video cassette of the highlights of his appearances has materialized on the shelf of my local rental store, two hundred thousand copies of an Oliver North coloring book have been shipped, and there is talk of an autobiography, even a mini-series.

Half a century ago another Marine was admired for many of the same qualities North seems to exemplify: plain speaking, aggression, impatience with channels. His name was Smedley Darlington Butler, and his politics became very different from North’s, but he, too, eventually found that the untrammeled zeal of the sort that lets Marines take a hill and bring back their dead under fire is often out of sync with civilian life.

Butler is the subject of a new biography by Hans Schmidt, Maverick Marine: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History; it is a sturdy, scholarly study, nowhere near as lively or colorful as its subject but instructive nonetheless.

Born a Quaker in 1881, the son of a Pennsylvania congressman, Butler volunteered for Cuba at sixteen, faced his first hostile fire in the Philippines—where, before setting a thatched village on fire, his battalion paused to sing a chorus of “America”—was shot in the chest during the Boxer Rebellion, landed with the Marines in Honduras, Santo Domingo, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, and France, and eventually was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor.

Thin and wire-tough, with a raptor’s nose and a glare so fierce his men called him “Old Gimlet Eye,” Butler led not one but three expeditions to Nicaragua between 1910 and 1912. His Marines helped overthrow the Liberal anti-American regime of José Santos Zelaya (which had dared execute two Yankee mercenaries caught fighting alongside rebels), intervened again to shore up Zelaya’s conservative successors, and helped establish the Guardia Nacional, the armed constabulary that much later pushed Anastasio Somoza into power. Butler was proud to call himself “the main ‘guy’ ” in these “Punic Wars.” Years after he had moved on, Nicaraguan mothers kept small children quiet by saying, “Hush, Major Butler will get you.”

 

He had little affection for the foreign civilians who came under his control. The poor Haitians whose destinies he directed after helping to seize their island were “savage monkeys” to him. “Those who wore shoes,” Butler said, “I considered a joke.” When he shared a room with Sudre Dartiguenave, the pliant politician he had personally picked to be Haiti’s president, Butler occupied the bed, and the head of the Haitian government slept on the floor.

Butler’s bravery was never questioned. In Haiti he led a Marine company against Fort Rivière, the final, hilltop redoubt of the cacos—“or bad niggers as we would call them at home,” who had chosen to resist. Butler, one private, and a sergeant named Ross L. lams together scrambled up the slope, bullets pecking into the ground around them, and reached the foot of the wall, to find that the only way in was a storm drain, through which the defenders kept up a steady fire. “I had never experienced a keener desire to be some place else,” Butler remembered. “My misery and an unconscious, helpless, pleading must have been written all over my face. Iams took one look at me and then said, ‘Oh, hell, I’m going through.’ ”

Sergeant lams shouldered his way into the drain with Butler and the private right behind him. The startled defenders somehow missed all three, and before they could reload, the Marines were among them. Fifty-one were shot dead: twenty-nine inside the fortress, the rest as they jumped from the parapet and tried to flee into the jungle. Total Marine injuries: two teeth knocked out by a hurled rock. No prisoners were taken; no Haitian survived.

“We were all imbued with the fact,” Butler wrote of the countries that he was ordered to “pacify,” “that we were trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors.” And he was entirely realistic about how far the American public could be counted on to support imperial ventures: “As long as we occupy these countries [he was writing of Nicaragua] without great uproar and particularly without the loss of our own men, little attention is paid to our movements....We may even kill a lot of natives of such countries without much comment...but, as soon as our losses begin to grow there is a big ‘hubbub,’...and the Corps comes in for unfavorable criticism.”

Theodore Roosevelt thought him “the finest fighting man in the armed forces,” and when TR’s young cousin Franklin toured the island as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he eagerly agreed, recommending Butler for his second Congressional Medal of Honor.

As commandant of Quantico after World War I, Butler liked restaging Civil War battles to keep his men in the headlines: at Gettysburg in 1922, five thousand men replayed Pickett’s Charge while President Warren Harding and other dignitaries enjoyed the spectacle—and a full case of illegal bourbon—from the shade of a sixteen-room temporary mansion Butler had ordered built for them of wood and canvas.