Let me explain. In February 2003, millions of people took to the streets around the world to protest America’s march to war against Iraq. That mass movement failed. The administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had a radical plan for reshaping the Middle East and no protesters, no matter how principled or sensible or determined, were going to stop them in their march of folly.
The Iraq War soon joined the Afghan invasion of 2001 as a quagmire and disaster, yet the antiwar movement died down as U.S. leaders worked to isolate Americans from news about the casualties, costs, calamities, and crimes of what was by then called “the war on terror.”
And in that they succeeded. Even though the U.S. now lives in a state of perpetual war, for most Americans it’s a peculiar form of non-war. Most of the time, those overseas conflicts are literally out of sight (and largely out of mind). Meanwhile, whatever administration is in power assures us that our attention isn’t required, nor is our approval asked for, so we carry on with our lives as if no one is being murdered in our name.
War without dire consequences poses a conundrum. In a representative democracy, waging war should require the people’s informed consent as well as their concerted mobilization. But consent is something that America’s leaders no longer want or need and, with an all-volunteer military, there’s no need to mobilize the rest of us.
Back in 2009, I argued that our military was, in fact, becoming a quasi-foreign legion, detached from the people and ready to be dispatched globally on imperial escapades that meant little to ordinary Americans. That remains true today in a country most of whose citizens have been at pains to divorce themselves and their families from military service — and who can blame them, given the atrocious results of those wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa?
Yet that divorce has come at a considerable cost. It’s left our society in a state of low-grade war fever, while accelerating an everyday version of militarism that Americans now accept as normal. A striking illustration of this: President Trump’s recent State of the Union address, which was filled with bellicose boasts about spending trillions of dollars on wars and weaponry, assassinating foreign leaders, and embracing dubious political figures to mount illegal coups (in this case in Venezuela) in the name of oil and other resources.
The response: not opposition or even skepticism from the people’s representatives, but rare rapturous applause by members of both political parties, even as yet more troops were being deployed to the Middle East.
What a Youthful Hobby Has Taught Me About America’s Wars
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.
Still, when’s the last time the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp that so perfectly summed up “why we fight”? There are no such stamps today because our present wars have no higher purpose. It’s that simple.
We’re not supposed to notice that, since we’re not supposed to notice those wars to begin with, not in any visceral way at least. Even stamps like the recent PTSD one (with a 10-cent surcharge that goes to veterans) are an artful dodge. Should we really feel any better donating a few nickels or dimes to help veterans with their physical and mental struggles from wars made more horrendous because they were (and remain) so unnecessary?
Or thought of another way, why is the post office raising money for veterans’ health care? Perhaps because a staggering (and still rising) Pentagon budget only ensures that there will be more war — with more wounded veterans.
Looking Back, Yet Again, to World War II
I never miss the opening ceremonies to the Super Bowl. As an exercise in pure Americana, they have no equal. This year’s included the usual trappings: a military color guard, an oversized flag, and a flyover by combat jets, including the new F-35 stealth fighter, a trillion-dollar boondoggle of the military-industrial complex. Since 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the National Football League as well as the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the opening ceremony featured centenarian veterans of that war helping with the pre-game coin toss. It was heartwarming to see those redoubtable vets and recognize their service.
But I can tell when my emotions are being manipulated. Watching them, I knew I was supposed to get warm and fuzzy about military service and maybe feel better about the NFL as well. Yet my respect for them and “the good war” they fought (to use Studs Terkel’s ironic title for his oral history of World War II) didn’t stop me from wanting to shower hot wrath on the leaders who have lied us into so many bad wars since then.
Speaking of warm fuzzies, consider the long opening commercial for the NFL that kicked off this year’s ceremonies. It featured an African-American boy running with a football, dodging various obstacles on a transcontinental journey to the Super Bowl, during which he pauses, reverentially, before a statue of Pat Tillman, the safety for the Arizona Cardinals who famously gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist in the Army after 9/11. Tragically, he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, a fact the U.S. military attempted to cover up in a conspiracy that went as high as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Even though it was just a commercial, it was right for that young boy to honor Tillman’s memory. But to what end? To make the NFL look patriotic or perhaps to overcome any lingering taint from principled (yet widely misunderstood) take-a-knee protests by players like Colin Kaepernick?
An honest accounting of America’s recent wars by the NFL might reflect on the fact that no other players have ever joined Tillman in giving up millions to enlist in the war effort. In fact, no players from any major league sport, whether baseball, basketball, or hockey, have done so. Not even NASCAR drivers, supposedly the salt of the earth, have, as far as I know, exchanged race cars for Humvees.
Why should they? America’s recent wars might as well not exist for them — and, to be honest, for most of us as well.
I’m not calling for major sports stars to be drafted into the military as they were in World War II (though many athletes of that era volunteered first). What I’m suggesting is that, some 18-plus years later, they — like the rest of us — should begin paying real attention to America’s wars and what they’re about. Because that’s the only way, as a nation, we’ll ever come together and put a stop to them.
The answer to our collective apathy is not that war must become bloody awful here in the “homeland” before we finally do something to end it. Instead, it’s to listen to those who have seen the awfulness of war and the atrocious behaviors it enables and rewards.
Consider the words of E.B. Sledge, a Marine who fought at Peleliu and Okinawa in World War II’s Pacific island campaign against the Japanese. Nightmares haunted him for 25 years after the brutal fighting on those islands ended.
He described the war he experienced as an exercise in sheer terror, with grown men screaming in agony and sobbing in pain, with fighting so sustained that soldiers moved about like zombies, having been in the line of fire for days on end. Exhaustion bred murderous mistakes that too often were dismissed with a mind-numbing euphemism I’ve already succumbed to in this piece: “friendly fire.”
And that, mind you, was “the good war.”
So, while saluting those photogenic centenarian vets featured by the NFL, we should also remember those who didn’t come home and those who came home with radically altered lives. Sledge, for instance, recalled a buddy of his, Jim Day, who dreamed of running a horse ranch in California after the war. But as Sledge recounted in a talk in 1994, “At Peleliu, a Japanese machine gun shattered one of Jim’s legs.” All that was left was a stump with blood spurting out of it.
“Later, when Jim came to the First Marine Division reunions (maybe some of you can’t conceive of this), we would have to help him go to the bathroom,” he continued. “His wife had to do that at home. The poor man couldn’t handle it by himself, because of that stump of a leg cut off at the hip. He died a premature death after years of pain and back trouble.”
Sledge and his horrific nightmares, his friend Jim and his crippling injury, those are glimpses of the true face of even the least indefensible of wars (and America’s twenty-first-century versions of the same are, unfortunately, anything but defensible). The question is: why don’t more Americans react with genuine horror when a draft dodger like Donald Trump boasts of all those wonderful weapons this country is buying (and using and selling) that are proudly “Made in the USA”?
No longer should we permit the powerful to obfuscate war, to boast (as George W. Bush did) of “mission accomplished” or of game-changing “surges,” or of “turning corners.” Such lies serve only to distract us. Instead, Americans need to turn “eyes front” and face the ugly realities of permanent war.
Do that and we may well reinvigorate our democracy. If not, we may well kill what’s left of it.
This article was originally published by TomDispatch.