Graphic T-Shirts: Remembering the Cost of Wars as the Survivors Perish

In the current fashion cycle colorful t-shirts claim space in casual wardrobes across many demographics. Sometimes they have nature-oriented artwork while other times they hail a sporting team’s victory. Some advertise a brand name preference, a favored musical group, or an institutional alliance. The writing could be good-natured, quirky or simply intended to bring attention to the wearers themselves. Occasionally rhinestone-encrusted, cultish or confusing , the clothing is always making a statement, intended or not.

Yet traveling between gates at a U.S. airport, I observed a teenager wearing a t-shirt with a large faded American flag and the phrase “Back-to-Back World War Champs” surrounding the graphic. The patriotic boast viscerally stunned me and my emotions moved from astonishment to shock and then disbelief.   Over the next hour it transformed into dismay as it seemed disharmonious with the upcoming anniversaries marking the end of wars.

July 4th gives birth to the United States of America (Independence Day) and celebrates the freedoms won after the eight years of bitter, guerilla-style civil war within Great Britain’s claimed territory.  (April 19, 1775 – September 3, 1783.)  This is followed on November 7th with Armistice Day, also called Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, which marks the end of World War I and more than four years of trench warfare.

The disharmony stemmed from unstated teachings in my youth that a war’s end is not a prideful bragging contest. Celebrations on Independence Day tend to focus on American values articulated within the Declaration of Independence. I do not recall ceremonies invoking inflammatory language— “Dear Mum, We sure stuck it to you! Love, Uncle Sam” —as one might witness in drunken brawls between rivals after a game.

The Instruments of Surrender in both the European and Pacific theater—and the resulting treaties and agreements—followed suit and pointedly avoided the inflammatory, draconian concessions and punitive terms the winning Allies forced after World War I with the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919). These prizes extracted by the war’s victors were among the contributing factors to the unrest which bred World War II.

Maybe that was why the t-shirt bothered me—it cavalierly dismissed the cost of war. Perhaps further on the heels of another recent post graphically reviewing the causalities of World War II it struck a raw nerve.

Now in fairness, graphic t-shirts are not always philosophical, eloquent or fair; it could just be a t-shirt. True to form though, it made a statement and provoked a reaction as I looked deeper:

Those of the Lost Generation fought in World War I and those of Tom Brokaw’s coined Greatest Generation fought in World War II. As the last survivors of World War II perish from old-age, are we slowly losing this perspective, context?

Then we will lose those from the Korean War (the Silent Generation) and those who fought in Vietnam—also called the War of Southeast Asia. (This included both the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomer Generation.) These servicemembers have different memories of war for they serviced but lacked the popular support and focus found in previous American military conflicts. The clarity of the lessons learned is more muddied.

In a world of rapid communication, instant gratification and seemingly short-attention spans marked more by sensationalism than fact, how do we remember and lessen the chance of repeating these lessons when we lose the physical human link to the past?

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