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The Paradox of America’s Endless Wars

Roundup
tags: American Empire, military



A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He still keeps a small collection of U.S. airmail stamps. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

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When I was a kid, I loved to collect American stamps. I had a Minuteman stamp album, and since a stamp and coin dealer was within walking distance of my house, I’d regularly head off on missions to fill the pages of that album with affordable commemorative stamps. I especially liked ones linked to military history. Given the number of wars this country has fought, there were plenty of those to add to my album.

Consider, for instance, the stamps issued after the December 7, 1941, U.S. entry into World War II. Unsurprisingly, for a war that entailed mass mobilization and involved common sacrifice, many of them were meant to highlight the war in progress and what it was all about. So, for example, stamps were issued to remind Americans about subjects like: the countries overrun by Nazi Germany; Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation of their country; President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (FDR, too, was an avid stamp collector); and, as the tide turned, this country’s momentous victory against the Japanese on the island of Iwo Jima. Other stamps enjoined Americans to “win the war” and work “toward [a] United Nations.” These and similar stamps formed a tiny part of a vast war effort accepted by nearly all Americans as necessary and just. And when the war finally ended in August 1945, Americans rightfully celebrated.

Now, try to bring to mind stamps from America’s wars since then. If you’re old enough, try to recall ones you stuck on envelopes during the Korean War of the 1950s, the Vietnam War of the 1960s, or especially the war on terror of this century. How many of them celebrated momentous U.S. victories? How many hailed allies working in common cause with us? How many commemorated an end to such wars? 

I pay close attention to stamps. I still enjoy walking to my local post office and seeing the new commemoratives as they come out. And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that, in stamp terms, there’s simply nothing to commemorate in America’s recent wars. Shouldn’t that tell us something?

I’m not saying that there are no stamps whatsoever related to those wars. In 1985, for instance, 32 years after the signing of an armistice not-quite-ever-ending the Korean War, a stamp in honor of its veterans was issued and, in 2003, another for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington. Several stamps have similarly highlighted Vietnam veterans and Maya Lin’s iconic memorial to them. 

But stamps that told us what either of those wars were for or that sought to mobilize Americans in any way? Not a chance. Ditto when it comes to this century’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to the larger never-ending war on terror. Yes, a 2002 “Heroes USA” stamp featured firefighters raising the flag at the World Trade Center and was meant to provide money for injured first responders; and yes, there’s currently a “Healing PTSD” stamp for sale that raises money for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But as for stamps celebrating decisive victories in Kabul or Baghdad or Tripoli, you know the answer to that one as well as I do; nor, of course, were there any reminding us of the freedoms we were supposedly fighting to uphold in those wars.

In that context, let’s return to that FDR Four Freedoms stamp, which was very popular during World War II. Its message couldn’t have been more succinct. It read: “Freedom of speech and religion, from want and fear.” Of course, World War II was an atrocious war, as all wars are. But what (partially) redeemed it were its ideals, however imperfectly realized in the post-war world. 

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