How to Keep Track of Our Crumbling Empire? Let's Put Occupied Countries on Our Coins

There's likely some international law against issuing currency for another country. But we shouldn't let something like national sovereignty get in the way.

You've probably heard the old joke that Americans learn their world geography by having to locate where exactly a country is after we invade it. If only. College students -- I can tell you from some lecturing experience -- respond with blank stares when told about the U.S. military headquarters in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. And ask any dude on the street about Djibouti and you're likely to be told that it's a hip-hop song or one of those caffeine-booze drinks, not the dusty outpost in the Horn of Africa where a couple thousand U.S. Marines stand watch over vital sea lanes. Many of us might be able to pinpoint Colombia (it's south of Mexico, right?), but would be surprised to learn of the half-dozen U.S. bases there.

So how can Americans get a better sense of the far-flung garrisons of the U.S. empire past and present? One way, I thought recently, would be to issue specially designed quarters for all of the places our armies have ever occupied. It would be a lesson in history and geography -- right in our pockets.

If you're like me (and admit it, many of you are), then you've developed a real fondness for the U.S. Mint's 50 State Quarters effort. According to the Mint, the specialty quarters -- five new state coins every year for a decade -- were one of the most popular numismatic programs in history. One survey found that some 130 million people collected the quarters. For most people, quarter collecting was just a hobby. But the program has had a real educational benefit as teachers use the coins as part of their lesson plans. Now students' lunch money offers the fun fact that both Ohio and North Carolina like to claim ownership of the Wright Brothers.

Inevitably, the Mint ran out of states. And so last year -- in the numismatist's version of chasing the dragon -- the Mint began issuing quarters for U.S. territories. Now we've got a coin with Duke Ellington (for the District of Colombia) and one for the Northern Marianas Islands (bet you didn't know we had a commonwealth in the far Western Pacific). The Mint's next plan is to issue a quarter for a national park, monument or battlefield in every state. That's nice. But also redundant: After all, we already have quarters with Yosemite (California) and the Grand Canyon (Arizona).

It seems to me the Mint could find some more inventive designs -- and continue its success in public education -- by beginning to issue quarters for our former territories. Why stop with our present colonies? Why not also have coins for our past ones? The Mint could start at the present with Iraq and Afghanistan and then work backward through the history of U.S. military occupations big and small.

One of the great pleasures of the state quarters has been watching how the states chose to define themselves. Sometimes the statement in the design was obvious -- Wisconsin's dairy cow, South Dakota's Mount Rushmore. Often the design reflected some mythical time: bison for Kansas and North Dakota, horse pasture for Kentucky. I liked the few instances of irony, like when New Hampshire's Old Man in the Mountain collapsed not long after the coin was minted, or how socialist Helen Keller ended up representing arch-conservative Alabama.

I think it would be great to see the national identities that would come through on a series of occupation coins. For starters, I'm sure there would be some fun anti-imperialist similarities. In place of Delaware's horseback Caesar Rodney and Massachusetts' Minuteman we could have, perhaps, a lanky Augusto Sandino for Nicaragua (occupied 1912-1933) or the Viet Cong on the Ho Chi Minh trail for Vietnam (1960-1975). Maybe, like Colorado, Afghanistan (2001-present) would go for mountains, the snow-capped Hindu Kush. I'm sure some nations might play up their signature exports. Cuba (1898-1902) could be represented by sugar cane and tobacco, Honduras (1924-1925) by bananas.

I suppose there's some international law against issuing currency for another country. But to keep with the imperial spirit of occupation coins, we shouldn't let something like national sovereignty get in the way. Plus, we barely own the dollar anyway -- that would be our credit merchants in Japan and China. I think a lotus flower for Japan (1945 -1952) would make for a lovely coin.

If the Mint were to issue occupation coins, it would hopefully give Americans a fresh sense of our shared history with other countries. Just like Florida, the Philippines (1898-1910) might choose to go with a design featuring Spanish galleons. A baseball bat and maybe some palm trees would be perfect for the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). Who knows, maybe some kid (or big kid) with a hankering for coin collecting might see the words L'Union Fait La Force and hear an echo of E pluribus unum -- and then decide to go look up Haiti (1915-1934 and 1994) on the map.

Jason Mark is a casual coin collector and editor of the environmental quarterly Earth Island Journal.