Seventy-five years ago this morning, the story of the Greatest Generation began, molded in the searing heat of a sneak attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The men of that generation – and more than a few women – had little idea until that morning what would be demanded of them over the coming years or how crucial to the survival of democracy their sacrifices would be.
They met what turned out to be the towering challenge of the 20th century, but on Dec. 7, 1941, no one knew what would happen in 1945. They didn’t know what would happen on Dec. 8. It was a terrifying time in America as a reluctant, isolationist country was dragged into a war it didn’t want – first against Japan and only days later, against Germany and Italy – but which was, in the end, necessary.
The attack lasted just 90 minutes. The American military was caught by surprise and when it was over, a total of 2,403 people were killed, the vast majority of them sailors, though soldiers, airmen, Marines and civilians also perished. So terrible and consequential was the attack that its anniversary is still observed 7½ decades later, even though few of its survivors remain alive.
Those brave veterans, as well as those for whom the attack wrought wrenching, life-altering changes, need to be remembered, no less today than in the years that immediately followed. Indeed, as we become increasingly distant from that day, and first-hand memories are swallowed by time, we become at greater risk of forgetting the painful lessons learned as a consequence of the war that it brought to American shores.
Preparedness is one such lesson, of course, and the danger there is not so much lack of preparation, but wrong preparation. The risks today are less from state actors but from organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS. But even aggressive nations need to be countered, though in a different way from decades ago. If we are to honor those who died 75 years ago, a part of that task is ensuring that their sacrifice continues to feed a determination to remain alert and aware.
A virulent strain of nationalism also fed the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as Nazi Germany’s subjugation of Europe. Nationalism is rising again in 2016, as countries around the world, including the United States, adopt a me-first approach to their role in a shrinking world.
The interconnectedness that has characterized international trade and relations has helped keep the world mainly safe since World War II ended. As nations become more absorbed in their own problems, it is important to remember that self-absorption can lead to misunderstanding and, with it, miscalculation. Japan miscalculated badly on Dec. 7, 1941.
Later this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will join President Obama. Abe will become the first Japanese leader to visit Pearl Harbor since the attack. The journey and the appearance are worthwhile, especially now. The world should take note.
It is, of course, important to remember the attack that occurred 75 years ago – in a different century, a different millennium and, in many ways, a different country. But remembrance, alone, isn’t enough. To honor those who died, many of whose remains are entombed in the USS Arizona, still resting below the waters of Pearl Harbor, we must not only have learned the hard lessons of that day, but understand that those lessons need to be relearned as time passes and memory fades.