Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Date Which Fades From Memory

Seventy years later and so few remain who woke to that tropical Sunday morning in the Territory of Hawaii, prepared for just another leisurely day in the sunshine. As men drowsily stirred, splashed faces with water, and stood in line for chow or assembled for the morning colors, most did not realize that their destiny was about to be writ in blood and cordite and shrapnel and smoke. On that morning, the subtle hints of the pending attack could not rouse a sleeping giant to readiness. A submarine being sunk, a large radar blip, the drone of planes where they did not normally assemble... it was not enough.

As bands struck up the anthems and flags were drawn to poles to be raised, the long, isolationist idyll of America was shattered by the snarling of aircraft engines, the howl of diving planes, the staccato bursts of machine gun and cannon fire, and the body-flexing crump of explosions as bombs and torpedoes found their mark. The seemingly invincible United States, "master" of two oceans, was caught napping in its island paradise. Ships were torn apart and capsized. Planes were wrecked. Buildings and men and women immolated, wreathed in fire. The Japanese nation, dismissed by many as near-sighted toy-makers, has pulled off a stunning coup, catching America flat-footed and wrecking the powerful United States Navy within the confines of its own "safe" harbor.

The seminal moment for America had arrived, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt anointed it as a "date which will live in infamy." Though it certainly lived as such for many decades, it could be said to be on life support now, seventy years after the fact, when so many of the nation's peacetime warriors who fought back that day and lived to tell the tale, have now left us.

While there is no point in belaboring the past, no valor in finger-pointing, and no use in weaving conspiracies that do nothing to change the moment, there is value in remembering the moments that changed the course of American history, and none is greater than Pearl Harbor Day. The world we lived in, still vast and distant, was at war, and we, Americans, were content to hide behind our oceans and remain aloof, not unlike the child who covers their ears and spouts sounds in order to not hear the admonishments of parents. As others fought and died for their freedom and liberty, and as a systematic campaign of extermination was beginning to take place, we turned away. FDR, still trying to wrestle the nation back to health after The Great Depression, saw the way the wind was blowing, knew the time would draw near when the conflict would reach our shores, and did whatever little he could to prepare.

It was not enough.

Sunday, December 7th, 1941, our complacency, our self-interest, our smug belief in our invincibility, all were dashed upon the ground, as a people we though inferior showed us that they could outwit us and play our game better than we could. The hubris our nation has dragged with us through every generation, labeling certain groups as "inferior," "incapable," "unintelligent," and the like, caught up with us, as it still does even to this day. Our dismissiveness, our egotistical belief in the certitude of our actions and history, our inability to recognize our own foibles and flaws... it was all laid bare that day. We were dragged, bodily, into war, and while we won it eventually, it was won more with the truncheon and the bludgeon than the scalpel and the surgeon's skill. Our massive resources and industrial power allowed us to create a war machine of phenomenal size and scope, which substituted raw power for precision. Perhaps it was just the way of things at the time, for we have certainly honed our power since. But the underlying flaws remain.

Which brings us to a date which, while infamous, is now more relic that resource. History does not forget the day so many died in defense of a nation, but that nation forgets too easily, even where heroes of the day are still in our midst. Even the holidays, Memorial Day and Veteran's Day, where we are expected to honor our warriors living and dead, do not receive the attention they are due. This date and the events thereon, should have created a stern enough warning to remain vigilant and prepared, for attacks that can come at any time, and from any place. But no... as the dust settles, and the years pass, the lessons so many shed blood to punctuate become faded pages in the book of our history. September 11th, 2001 was a not-so-subtle reminder of what happens when we refuse to pay attention to the world in which we live and take the threats to our liberty seriously.

So, before you blithely go about your business today, take a moment to cast your mind back to a quiet Sunday morning in a sleepy island chain, when America awoke to the shrieks of the dying and the roar of destruction. Remember those who stood their ground that day and paid the ultimate price, and remember their colleagues who survived the day, only to lose so many good comrades to the scourge that was Japanese aggression. Remember a day when, bloodied by the foe, we remained unbroken. Let this date, December 7th, 1941, continue to live in infamy.

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