There are a few dates in the American calendar that resonate beyond those reduced to three-day-weekend holiday status. Whatever your age, December 7th has the status of non-holiday importance. That's increasingly unusual in our society -- a day that's not an excuse to devour a feast or watch an overhyped sporting event or guzzle beer.
From our freeway-fed suburbia 75 years distant, there are a multiplicity of reasons to remember Pearl Harbor.
Inescapably, the US became THE global military superpower as a result of the conclusion of World War II. And that derives from very intentional choices made through the 1950s and renewed as recently as this year's expensive decision to renew the nuclear arsenal and call it a "deterrent." That's all a result of the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Deterrents. Readiness. Being prepared. Many euphemisms. Many meanings.
Members of a very special and esteemed group, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, spent years addressing school-age children and various community organizations. Despite advanced age, a few still do. For a number of those veterans, public speaking was only partly about making history live for others. There was always a specific emphasis. They would tell you, seemingly with one voice, that they came as spokesmen for their comrades who couldn't be there, comrades whose young lives had been ended, stolen, before they even knew they were in a war.
Those conveying their message on behalf of lost shipmates or Marines or soldiers or pilots made clear they were advocates for preparedness. They sought a common purpose, to assure that nothing like the blistering flames and crushing explosions and swirling, oily waters that trapped so many in sinking ships, nothing like what they experienced in the choking, billowing smoke of the surprise attack of December 7th, could ever befall America again.
Given our modern sensibilities, we will never fully understand their message. In our world of propagandized truthiness that we used to call lies -- lies told to lure us into Vietnam, lies told to justify invasion of Iraq, lies told to get us to support drone wars in Syria and Libya and in ill-defined places in Africa -- we are more apt to equate "readiness" and "preparedness" with the modern obfuscations of "forward force deployment" and "regime change" and the euphemism du jour that avoids saying "boots on the ground" but puts our military personnel in harm's way under less than honest premises.
Thus, the brinksmanship of the Cold War, the deadly errors of the Domino Theory, the sheer arrogance of replacing other country's governments, the incalculable "collateral damage" of civilian deaths, and far too much more, have evoked and ultimately exploited the blood of December 7th.
The brinksmanship of the Cold War, the deadly errors of the Domino Theory, the sheer arrogance of replacing other country's governments, the incalculable "collateral damage" of civilian deaths, and far too much more, have evoked and ultimately exploited the blood of December 7th.
It still manifests, still implores us, if we will only listen. William J. Astore recently wrote a thoughtful feature for L.A. Progressive. It ran November 23, 2016, examining the question of American military expenditures and power as necessary to make us "The Indispensable Nation." He is a retired US Air Force lieutenant colonel with a PhD in Modern History from the University of Oxford.
Dr./Col. Astore wastes no time asserting, "America’s heavy investment in weaponry and war-making, abetted by a mentality that celebrates 'global reach, global power,' is a strange way to define your nation as being 'indispensable.'"
Before Pearl Harbor, the US ranked 14th in the world as a military power, just behind Sweden.
Today, as Astore explains, "The U.S. military has roughly 800 bases worldwide. Its aircraft carriers are essentially mobile American bases, bristling with weapons and munitions. The U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year maintaining this military and empire, even as it continues to dominate the world’s arms trade."
And the US, both politically and militarily, got the bloomers in a bunch last month when Russia sailed the only aircraft carrier it has. That carrier is now off the coast of Syria, where we are ostensibly in a cooperative relationship to eliminate terrorists in Syria.
The mind struggles to grasp multiple extreme concepts. War encompasses everything. Incongruously, it hides the suffering by calling refugees "migrants" in an effort to keep everyone from smelling the burnt flesh. Contradicting the maimed bodies, more than any societal stimulus, war produces quantum leaps in medical technology. Enduring stories of individuals in extremis, performing at their best for their fellow humans, is inclusive of a pantheon of non-lethal heroes depicted in "war movies" and TV series like "M*A*S*H." The most recent landmark addition is "Hacksaw Ridge." It's a true story -- as true as any film interpretation of truth -- about a Conscious Objector who became one of the most heroic combat medics of World War II.
There are the insane incongruities at all levels. As when chickenhawk and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked, "Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war."
Still, war creates and feeds all forms of prejudice and bigotry, from the dehumanization necessary to slaughter one's enemies to the subjugation of black service members so that somebody else had it worse than you did.
Response to the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't limited to America becoming a juggernaut without peer. Power and fear operate in conjunction.
"The politics of fear led to the post-Pearl Harbor internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, yet not a single one of the interned was ever found to have any connection to the bombing. For them, simply being born Japanese-American was reason enough to be treated like criminals," wrote Sharon Kyle wrote in L.A. Progressive, on December 8, 2010.
Sharon's feature story focused on internment of non-combatants into our time. In it, she compares the experience of Mia Yamamoto, an American citizen born in one of those WWII internment camps for Japanese Americans, with the fear-based discrimination then being experienced by Muslims in America when she wrote the piece in 2010. Donald Trump and his emphatic talk of a ban on Muslims entering the country were still six years in the future.
Sharon wrote, "The politics of fear led to the post-9/11 detention or questioning of over 83,000 Muslims in America, within months of the 9/11 attacks. 13,000 of them were deported. Yet, not a single one of those detained was ever found to have any connection to 9/11 or terrorism."
Hussam Ayloush, an American Muslim profiled in the piece, "learned that simply being a Muslim in America was reason enough to be treated like a criminal."
Lest anyone find it unreasonable to conflate these aspects of 1941 with the ongoing aftermath of 2001, consider this: "When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the Ayloush family was as traumatized as any family in America. Yet, they too, were marked by their ethnicity," Sharon wrote.
Is it possible to read that and not visualize the Japanese American shop owners in Honolulu, terrified of what awaited them as the US Navy's antiaircraft shells unintentionally fell on the city the morning of December 7th?
We are still affected and effected by 9-11. We are not as aware of it, but the myriad ways December 7th still effects us is a key factor in everything about America's role and self image in the modern world.
Since the terrible day in Dallas in 1963, America has been obsessed with finding the hidden hand in everything that goes wrong. In 1972, there was a hidden hand that erased seventeen and a half minutes of tape that contained forever unknown facts about the Nixon administration's attempt to rig the electoral process. We are still in a time when any leader is beyond suspect, must've done something to elude scrutiny, and probably did something wrong.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt has not escaped allegations. The essential accusation is that he had full knowledge of the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he let it happen to force America's entry into the war. A number of writers have postulated that, or something similar. What all have in common is the absence of credible evidence to support it.
Professor Gordon W. Prange spent decades ferreting-out documents relating to US-Japanese relations of the period. That includes US and Japanese naval and diplomatic documents, President Roosevelt's personal communications, and much more. His landmark book, "At Dawn We Slept," was published posthumously. Nonetheless, Prange clearly wrote that he had made every effort to find general and specific evidence for a case against FDR, and the evidence simply was not there.
Moreover, L.A. Progressive published a fine piece by veteran journalist Sherwood Ross on December 7, 2008, titled, "Why Those Pearl Harbor 'Conspiracy' Theories Ain’t So."
Ross provides detail to verify numerous points. The essence of his feature story is:
"Indeed, the U.S. knew war was coming in the Pacific, but Washington did not know when or where Japan would strike. It is fair to say the U.S. was making diligent efforts... to prepare as rapidly as it could. [The fact that] U.S. carriers were not in Pearl Harbor on December 7th had nothing to do with getting them out of harm’s way because an attack was expected on that port... [It had...] everything to do with their ferrying fighter planes to reinforce unprepared U.S. Pacific outposts [including] as Wake Island.
"The idea that FDR, a former assistant secretary of the Navy in World War One, would have deliberately concealed knowledge of an imminent attack on a U.S. base, defies everything known about the character of the man, his lifelong love of ships, (see his childhood sketches on the wall at Hyde Park), and his visionary efforts to build shipyards to mass produce warships and to modernize the fleet upon taking office in 1933. In fact, FDR sparked the largest naval buildup in U.S. history from the time he took office, doubling naval personnel between 1939 and 1941 alone."
Beyond the thoroughly refuted proclivities to suspect "a Pearl Harbor conspiracy," it’s still easy, given today's political paradigms and their penchant for obfuscation, to characterize December 7th in ways not thought of before. For some, it's dismissible as just another of history’s darkest days. For others, it is the central reminder that we must stay vigilant to prevent a recurrence.
Plenty of military literature sees it in terms of the British surprise attack that sank the Italian navy at anchor at Taranto a year earlier, to keep modern ships out of Hitler's hands. Other things you can read portray Pearl Harbor as a unique singularity, usually to emphasize its treachery. There is no shortage of literature on December 7th, from meticulous investigations to the darkly poetic.
Three new books have arrived in time for this year's anniversary, and all are favorably reviewed here.
Before 9/11, Pearl Harbor had status in the national consciousness as the ultimate shock. It exceeded Benedict Arnold's betrayal because peace talks were ongoing. Since 9/11, our American tendency to believe our experience surpasses that of all others, in all of time, has ironically enabled more objective evaluation since 9/11 receives all the expressions of shock.
Now, the renewed focus of this 75th anniversary -- and the realization that anyone who lived through the attack is in their 90s or older -- means that Pearl Harbor has been retrieved from history's boneyard. It is reinvested with emotional and psychological form. Photos and first-person stories of lost shipmates who are forever 18 are connecting with us. Once again, the faces in those old black & white portraits are people with eyes that look back at us, their hopes and dreams and youthful energies rescued from the dust of the ancients.
On December 7, 2013, I wrote in L.A. Progressive:
If you’ve ever been to Pearl Harbor and seen the drops of fuel oil still rising to the surface from the battleship Arizona, it is as if the hundreds entombed there are reaching out to us, asking "Why?"
An entire fleet went to the bottom on that December 7th, 72 years ago today. The Arizona was one of only two ships not raised after the attack. When she exploded, her hull was shattered and her crew was killed.
Any day that memorializes warfare is tough for peace advocates. It’s tougher for those who lost and sacrificed, and for their loved ones.
Ironically, it is the damaged veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, two unpopular wars, and not the veterans of World War II, who have finally earned a plethora of help and services for their service.
Not even all World War II veterans have received their due, emotionally, financially, or in expressions of our gratitude. Those who served in the Merchant Marine are still waiting for basic veterans benefits, despite the fact they suffered casualty rates — combat deaths — on par with the crews of the B-17s.
The Greatest Generation quite literally saved the world from continued genocide and brutal repression that knew no bounds. But they were not, and are not, the only Americans who have served.
So, on this day, this December 7th of seventy-five years later, let us remember all of them, and seek to learn whatever elusive lessons we have missed to guarantee all humanity that no other young people will lie beneath the ocean in an exploded ship, or be pulverized inside an exploded building, or be left in a remote jungle, or lie in a pool of blood in a rocky desert.
Remember Pearl Harbor, for all it can teach us.