When Marines get to boot camp, Private First Class Filpo told me, one of the cadences they learn celebrates Marine Corps legends: “It” – the Marine Corps – “was good for Chesty Puller; it was good for Dan Daly; it was good for Smedley Butler and it’s good enough for me.” Puller is the most decorated Marine in history. Daly and Butler are the Marines’ only two-time recipients of the Medal of Honor for two, separate actions apiece.
Private First Class Filpo carries a sign with just Butler’s face on it at Occupy Wall Street (OWS) events. He said that if OWS had a “patron saint,” Butler would be it. Filpo marches wearing camouflage pants; a US Marine Corps T-shirt; his insignia-laden dress-blue shirt; and, of course, his cover. “It makes me feel like I’m a part of the moment,” he told me. “It’s been a long time coming that there’s this expression of discontent.”
We met on May Day. “It’s the usual suspects,” he said, “filthy rich Wall Street bankers who are sabotaging the economy and asset-stripping and taking away social and economic rights from the rest of the American people. It’s a completely exploitative relationship.”
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If he sounds to most people more like a hippie than a Marine, it is because most people don’t know about the Marine on Filpo’s poster. It was only a few years ago that Filpo learned more about Butler than what his boot camp cadences taught him, when he caught a television documentary about the White House plot, a little-known episode in American history.
In 1932, thousands of veterans, their lives demolished by Wall Street speculators, set up tent camps in Washington, DC, demanding the US pay them their bonuses due. Butler appeared at the camp and encouraged this so-called Bonus Army. Times being what they were, Hoover couldn’t afford any of Mayor Bloomberg’s eviction tact, so he had the camps destroyed by the Army cavalry. Four veterans were killed, more than 1,000 injured.
The next part is a bit hazy, largely due to official secrecy. It seems very likely that a number of men of extreme wealth, including Wall Street financiers, were toying with the idea of a large-scale fascist march on Washington – this to help organize veterans into a coup which they hoped would overthrow President Roosevelt. It also seems very likely that in 1934, Gerald C. MacGuire, a bond salesman and member of the right-wing American Legion, reached out to Butler, who was very influential among veterans – not least because of his presence with the Bonus Army – and encouraged him to lead the coup. Butler exposed this to the McCormack-Dickstein committee, which was the House Committee on Un-American Activities before the cold war turned its focus squarely to the Red Menace. Butler grew more and more outspokenly anti-war and anti-capitalist, publishing “War Is a Racket” (1935), an exposé on the profit motive propelling the American military’s imperial adventures, some of which he had led.
“He saved democracy,” Private First Class Filpo said, by turning in the coup plotters. He considers this event one of the turning points in American history, saying of Butler, “He should be as well known as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.” Now, Filpo essentially evangelizes the gospel of patron Saint Smedley at protests. When people recognize the photo and when they don’t and ask whose face it is, Filpo distributes oral biographies to protesters, passersby and the press.
After all, it was reading about the Bonus Army that drove Filpo to OWS. “After witnessing some scuffles between protesters and police, he vowed that he was going to go home, put on his dress blues and then show up at the next Wall Street rally. And suddenly, I got this idea like – Holy crap!”
“It’s my job, it’s my duty to my country to embrace my military background and use it as a vehicle for my participation in civic activities,” he said. “I always vote; I always go to jury duty and I participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement,” which he considers “among the highest civic priorities that I have.”
Private First Class Filpo went from Infantry Rifleman 0311 to corporal of the guard at Camp David, when he was a Marine. It would seem there is a military in-joke that, whatever rank anyone has attained, “once you become a civilian, you get promoted to the greatest rank of all: PFC.” Not to be confused with private first class, this rank indicates that Filpo is a “Private Fucking Citizen” in the “1st Civ Div,” or 1st Civilian Division where “your commanding officers are Captain Crunch and General Motors.” Returning to civilian life was like “being reborn” as a private first class of the 1st Civ Div, according to “Filpo,” his military nickname, a shorter version of his long last name.
His enlistment, which ended in late 1998, ironically felt to Filpo like a socialist utopia, compared with “the civilian world” where “it’s like we’re living in a sick society, where everybody is at each other’s throats.” Suddenly, in the military, “everybody from the lowliest recruit to the highest general – at least in theory – is subject to the same degree of military care and protection under military law.” This is not only imperfect in practice, but also skewed by who is allowed to, or targeted to, enlist. Nevertheless, “the lowest rank gets fed first, and the commanding officer of that unit gets fed last.”
Unit cohesion gave Filpo a taste of solidarity. Units must be properly equipped and trained for possible situations. “Translated into the civilian world, this to me means education, health care, some kind of safety net.” The term used for that in the military, he informs me, is “troop welfare.”
Occasionally, Marines on the street chide Private First Class Filpo for “disrespecting” the uniform he wears, but he has found other Marines and military personnel in the movement who have his back. One antagonist, said Filpo, was an on-duty New York police officer/Marine Corps reservist. “I thought there was going to be a fistfight,” Filpo told me, between the protester-Marine in his civvies who was with him and the officer. “The police officer’s supervisor had to come over and tell the officer to stand down, very sternly.” Private First Class Filpo is not conflict averse.
It was good for Smedley Butler, and it’s good enough for him.