Last weekend saw many a poignant ceremony marking Armistice Day.

Some sought to reflect the genuine celebrations that accompanied the real event a century ago, or were careful to emphasise it was a commemoration only.

Others classed it as a remembrance of those who'd haplessly embarked to gouge out Gallipoli trenches or flounder in Flanders fields; whose guileless faces now stare their implacable sepia stares out from the old family photos.

The New Zealand war historian Jane Tolerton remarked that an irresistible impetus for signing up was simply the element of "adventure".


Read more: Frank Greenall: Saying no to the Masters of War …
Frank Greenall: We could tap into Motunui
Frank Greenall: You just couldn't script it
Frank Greenall: Another savoury & sausage roll safari

In talking to a grandson of one of the diggers, milking cows like his grandfather, he'd said, "Well, if there was a war on and a trip to Europe, you'd go wouldn't you?" He could imagine his grandad stuck in the cowshed, too, then along came the prospect of action in lands afar, as per Denis Glover's lines from Sings Harry:

Then Uncle Jim was off to the wars
With a carbine at his saddle
And was killed in the Transvaal – I forget in just what battle.

An interesting character in America's military pantheon is a General Smedley Butler, who enlisted in the Marines in 1898, aged 17. Until 1931, he participated in virtually every American military incursion. At one time the most decorated Marine ever, he retired as the Marine Corps' senior ranking officer.

On retirement, the general had time for reflection. His ruminations probably surprised himself. Here's what he had to say in a 1935 speech titled "War is a Racket":

"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service…as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico … 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 benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might 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."

Fast forward a bit; here's what Naomi Klein has to say about the USA's 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq: "A year and a half into the Iraq occupation, the U.S. State Department launched a new branch: the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization… paying private contractors to draw up detailed plans to reconstruct twenty-five different countries that may… find themselves the target of U.S.-sponsored destruction, from Venezuela to Iran."

Ring any bells re a certain Mr Trump and his recent rhetoric?

By 2007, there were as many mainly American private contractors in Iraq as American troops - about 120,000. The same year, the UN's entire peacekeeping budget was $US 5.2 billion – less than a quarter of the sum garnered by the "energy services company", Halliburton, for services in Iraq. The then American vice-president, Dick Cheney, had previously been Halliburton's Chairman and CEO.


Early in WWI, Germany commandeered the coal fields and steel foundries in Briey, northern France. These supplied the iron for most of Germany's munitions needs for the entire Great War. Despite being well within Allied artillery range, orders from high command forbade any attempt to destroy them.

For the powerful French family who owned the Briey mines and foundries, and who continued to receive royalties, business was never better. Even General Smedley would have been gob-smacked.