Blogs > HNN > Murray Polner reviews Howard Jablon's "David Shoup: A Warrior against War" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

Jan 5, 2006 5:16 pm

Murray Polner reviews Howard Jablon's "David Shoup: A Warrior against War" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

When Rep. John Murtha, the ex-Marine hawk who has always been close to senior Pentagon officers, spoke out against the war in Iraq and called for withdrawing the troops, he was in all likelihood echoing the doubts and objections of senior Pentagon officers. And when General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently 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 -- and deny--any differences between Rumsfeld and the top brass. Nevertheless, the two incidents—and obviously many others as well-- only underscore the fact that many in the military have serious private doubts about a war and occupation that has cost so much in lives and money, not to mention the 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 Donovan did criticize aspects of the Vietnam War. They weren’t doves but all recognized that the intervention in an Asian civil war had been a ghastly blunder. My own hunch is that once they’re out of uniform even more generals and colonels will be just as critical about Iraq.

All this by way of introduction to David M. Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps during part of the Vietnam era. Howard Jablon’s all-too-brief intelligent 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 is a professor of History at Purdue University North Central and author of Crossroads of Decision, which dealt with the State Department during FDR’s presidency.

So why should a marine who served in China in the twenties question his country’s motives in chaotic and war-torn China and, as Jablon puts it, become seriously “skeptical about American intentions in China and other countries in the Far East?”

His two tours there led him to read and think extensively about what he was doing and why his country was involved. 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.

Shoup was no pacifist, but his China experiences and the Second World War ultimately led to his sharp denunciations of the American invasion of Vietnam and its myopic involvement in another Asian civil war. Long before Vietnam, in 1961, when Kennedy administration hawks and a conformist mass media sought to present Laos—yes, landlocked, rural, impoverished Laos—as a crucial link in the cold war against the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia he spoke up when some military and civilian hawks were prepared to use nuclear bombs. Shoup would not be silent. “Whosever 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 target presented.”

After he retired, Shoup became a public dissenter. On May 14, 1966, he spoke 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.” In the April 1969 issue of Atlantic Monthly he and marine Col. Donovan denounced U.S. foreign policy, which, in Jablon’s words, had become “a militaristic and aggressive society.” 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 Pentagon careerists and the prowar crowd in the White House and both political parties. Still, he had his defenders, such as Stuart Symington and William Fulbright. Naturally, LBJ and Nixon despised him and his views and Jablon reports that they put J. Edgar Hoover on his trail, the better to add to the vast number of Americans being 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 who were installed inside the Pentagon) will have anything to say one day about what went wrong and why in Iraq and perhaps in future wars now being dreamed up in Washington’s hawkish circles.

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