Writing periodically about the closing of the West has me thinking about this transition time, when the 19th century bleeds into the 20th, the American Republic to the American Empire, tales of the frontier turn to tales of imperialist adventurism. At the start of the 20th century, with wars in Cuba and the Philippines, the instrument of the expanding United States turned from the trooper to the devil-dog- that is, from the cavalry to the Marine.
I recently came across Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America, part of the pulp history series by Salon founder David Talbot and former underground artist Spain Rodriquez. It is a fun and livid biography, filled with contemporary photos and Rodriguez's EC Comics-worthy illustrations. With the unlikely name of Smedly Butler, the subject of the book moves the subject of the book moves from a teenage Marine lieutenant in the Spanish-American War, to a witness to the siege and rape of Beijing, suppressor of revolutions in Central America, potentate of Haiti, crimebuster-extraordinaire in Prohibition era Philadelphia, and (if the book is to be believed) foiler of a fascist style attempt by JP Morgan and the DuPonts to take over the United States government. Throughout his life Butler gradually sees his enemies as less foreign than domestic, realizing that it is businessmen and powerbrokers that feed off of the poor, the patriots, and soldiers.
Hardly a new sentiment. A perennial one, in fact. These are the sentiments that inspired Davy Crockett to run for Congress, only to be betrayed when Jacksonian Democrats turned against western squatters in favor of eastern absentee landowners. After years on the frontier as a lawman, gambler, and buffalo hunter, Bat Masterson spent his final days in New York City as a sports reporter and columnist. These were his final words, left on the typewriter he died across: "There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I'll swear I can't see it that way."
I’ve also been watching the descendants of Butler’s Devil Dogs in HBO’s Generation Kill ask these same questions, as they move from an enthusiastic and righteous invasion of Iraq to an uncertain and unknowing occupation. Times don’t change.
I have no answers to this. I am a well educated, well paid senior manager in a fortune 100 company, who seeks adventure for sport rather than necessity. I can sit on the sidelines of fruitless political verbal masturbation by my government and take some small comfort that we are not the stupidest government in the world, nor the most short sighted, but certain that history will not be kind to us.