On May 23, 2013, American president, Barack Obama, delivered a signal speech on the American “War on Terror.” Recognizing the ambiguity that this war has always possessed, Obama admitted early on in his speech: “America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror.” With that said, the president spent the next several minutes detailing threats posed to the nation and its people for over three decades in the context of the decline of the Cold war, the rise of new technology, and the general animosity particular groups/movements have toward the United States.
Much of the action the U.S. has taken during the period since 9/11 has fallen under an act passed by Congress on September 14, 2001 called the Authorization to Use Military Force. While not a formal declaration of war, the act clearly produced a culture of war, as Obama acknowledged: “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate,” he said. “And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”
So what will it look like when “this war” ends? Will it take the closing of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay? Or the removal of all troops from Afghanistan? Did it end in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden? Or will the use of drones prolong it indefinitely?
I have been somewhat fascinated by iconic images related to the end of wars for what they reveal and conceal about the efforts they depict. Considering images from other American wars, I am curious how readers see images emerging from this one.
Appomattox Court house in 1865, surrounded by Federal soldiers. The complete lack of death and destruction betrays the battles that raged for most of the war and, especially, the two that came at the very end of it. And it appears that the photo does not contain a single black American.
Undoubtedly iconic, this photo associated with V-J Day is also creepy. The “joyous” embrace of a nurse by a sailor is also quite apparently in conflict with the aggressiveness of the act itself. Was it a sign of things to come–the imposition of gender roles through behavior in part sanctioned by official America? It also contains eery echoes of the recent disclosure of disgraceful and violent behavior by military men against their female counterparts.
The simplicity of this sign betrays the ambivalence and complexity of the American relationship to the Korean War. If Obama wonders when we can declare an end to the War on Terror, I imagine millions of Koreans (and many thousands of Americans) continue to seek an end to the conflict on the Korean peninsula.
This photo continues to fascinate my students. Unlike most other iconic images of a war’s end, this one has what looks like people physically running to exit the war itself. The contested meaning of the Vietnam War inhabits the helicopter (an iconic transport) balancing precariously atop a small foreign structure while an American seems poised to both help and resist the faceless crowd of people seeking escape.
Among the most deceptive photos to end any war, this photo of the days surrounding the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, seemed to be the purest expression of a “good” end to a war we would likely ever get. And then the Balkans exploded.
Perhaps not coincidentally, President Obama’s address on how to end or wind down or transform the War on Terror coincided with Google announcing the winner of its doodle competition for 2013. This year Sabrina Brady, a high school student from Sparta, Wisconsin, won with an entry fitting (perhaps “all together fitting”) Memorial Day tributes. According to press coverage, Brady’s entry depicted the return home of her father after an 18-month deployment in Iraq. The scene is touching and the action nicely rendered but the drawing also suggests the localization of the moment–a single soldier returning home to his daughter. This war has, it seems to me, been comprised of local stories–the personal tribulations of soldiers and military personnel barely registers at a national level. Certainly their trials don’t seem ready for mythical reworking which took place with other wars in which collective sacrifice–even if for unpopular, ambivalent, and conflicted wars–had credence.