What Should We Remember?

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that precipitated U. S. entry into World War II. The median age of the American veterans of that war is now over 90 and there are fewer of them alive every year—fewer than 1.5 million as of last count. Soon there will be no Americans who remember that war let alone took part in it.

In commemoration of the day I’ve been seeing newspaper editorials, op-eds, and blog posts urging us to remember the lessons of that day. What are they? I’m sincere: what are they?

I think it’s reasonable to remember and honor the sacrifices that our parents and grandparents made for their country. That may be the only lesson worth remembering: the number of Americans who stood up and were willing to die for something larger than themselves.

The country that they fought to defend no longer exists and, frankly, many of us today would not consider it worth defending. Consider the lives of women, African Americans, and homosexuals in that country. There was no problem of the homeless—they were beaten up by the police and dropped off at the edge of town. Children with mental or physical defects were institutionalized. Healthcare was inexpensive but it was also ineffective. Jobs were scarce and life was hard for people without jobs.

If we had fought the Japanese and Germans the way we have fought radical Islamists, we’d probably still be fighting them. I’m not suggesting that we should have. The honest truth is that we weren’t fighting Japanese militarists or the Nazis. We were fighting the Japanese and the Germans. If we fought violent radical Islamists the same way we fought the Japanese and Germans, we would be at war with nearly a billion people and there would already have been hundreds of millions of innocents killed.

So, are there lessons to be learned from Pearl Harbor? And what are they?

56 comments… add one
  • Just a note: I think America was worth defending. The alternatives were much worse. I’m painting a picture here.

  • Well, it is my father’s birthday. 1911.

  • He didn’t go to war. He built barracks in stateside.

  • michael reynolds

    We shouldn’t underestimate potential foes.

    We shouldn’t become addicted to outdated military solutions like the battleship.

    There should be no blue laws in defense: Sunday counts.

    And geopolitics is a game never ends and can take strange, unexpected turns. You force the Japanese to open their markets, you happily use them to limit Russian moves and to protect the flank of your own expansion, then you end up in a world war against Japan and Germany with Russia on your side. And once that’s done, promptly turn Japan once again into a bulwark against Russia. Plus Toyotas.

  • I’ve already told the story of my dad’s futile efforts at getting into World War II.

  • Michael:

    All reasonable things to consider. If anything, I’d say we’ve overlearned the lesson of not underestimating potential foes. It’s the dirty little secret of U. S. intelligence that they systematically overstated Soviet strength over a period of nearly fifty years. I strongly suspect we’re doing the same WRT China now.

    We need a superpower foe to justify our present military and China’s the only real candidate.

    Both underestimating and overestimating have their costs. I also think that some of the things in your list are only appreciable in hindsight. Are some of the things we’re relying on now obsolete? Almost unquestionably but we won’t know for sure until they actually fail.

  • michael reynolds

    Yeah, we definitely overlearned the “be prepared” thing. We’re prepared for a full-scale naval war at the moment. Not quite sure whose shit we’re supposed to blow up, but by God we’re ready for them.

    As for out-of-date hardware, yeah, that can difficult. That’s the lesson you end up learning when you send your cavalry against their machine guns. Still, we could probably figure out that we won’t be needing all that many anti-tank weapons, for example.

  • PD Shaw

    I’m embarrassed I forgot. I usually put the flag out, and I don’t think I even saw a reference in the newspaper this a.m.

    I think the lesson is that if you take sides in a war, in this case the war between China and Japan, the other side will treat you as the enemy, no matter how well you try to disguise it. There is also probably a lesson about the abuses of the anti-war movement that emerged following WWI.

  • Andy

    My Dad turned 17 three months after Pearl Harbor and he convinced his mother to sign a waiver to allow him to join the Navy. He saw a lot of combat in the Pacific as a bombardier and radioman. We still don’t know the full details of what happened and why, but he had a breakdown near the end of the war and spent several months in a veterans mental hospital in Florida. The war continued to effect him for many years though by the time I came around he had pretty much mellowed out.

    He’s still alive and doing pretty well considering his age, though his short-term memory is bad and getting worse. I am a bit sad that I haven’t yet been able to hear or record all his war remembrances.

    For me today was a pretty normal work day. I work on a military base and every year there is some kind of commemoration and the flags are, of course, flown at half staff.

  • PD Shaw

    Andy, you may want to think about asking your dad (and your mom if she’s still alive) to do a video interview for his grandchildren. I don’t know if talking about this kind of stuff is comfortable for you or him, but sometimes when you set yourself to a task like that, something not quite for the moment but for the children, it takes you some places you might not expect.

  • There’s also the StoryCorps project. I’m glad my sister talked my mom into recording one. That was almost exactly seven years ago when she was still hale. It’s hosted on this site if you’re interested.

  • Andy

    I tried, but my Dad never really wanted to talk about it. Or, rather, there were things he wouldn’t talk about. I never knew, for example, about the hospital until I was in my mid-20’s, but he told me about life on an aircraft carrier and flying in the planes he was assigned to and the types of missions they did. He didn’t – and doesn’t – talk about the people he knew though. I think a lot of his buddies didn’t make it back. After a while I didn’t want to press the issue and then I moved away, had kids, etc. and saw him much less often. Every once in a while he’d tell me a little something. I have the outlines of a couple of the “bad” stories. I plan to try again over the holidays since I’m going home for a few days. Plus, all the siblings will be together.

  • On my mother’s side, my uncle Dave was a Marine at Guadalcanal. He suffered from PTSD the rest of his life. A handsome man, too.

    My mother’s sister was faithful. I have more than one reason to go to Houston. She is suffering from dementia.

    She should be near 90.

  • Sh worked payroll at NASA for years.

  • I only saw the man once or twice.

  • A nervous family all round.

  • Yes, you can be “liberal” and have family values.

  • Ivy League stuff.

  • Sugar, we run garden clubs and thus, we run your town. Ask Brooke Astor.

  • Or Bunny Mellon.

  • Or Leona Helmsley.

  • Or Martha Stewart, for that matter.

  • There’s maybe Gloria Vanderbilt, or Liz Claiborne, or Donna Karan (my fave).

    Admit it. You do it for us. Otherwise you’d be sleeping in an SRO.

  • michael reynolds

    Guadalcanal was very tough from what I’ve read. I can imagine it would be very hard to put one’s head back together after that.

  • He never recovered. He spent almost all his time alone. He would dress and visit a bar once in a while. But as far as dealing with people on a daily basis…out of the question.

  • Dave, Dorothy, Donna and Debra. Why do people do that?

  • Now, my FIL was drafted. He married MIL in July and shipped in September. They didn’t see each other for 3 years.

    He was a telegrapher. Worked with the trains that followed Patton.

    She was faithful, too. I hear that the love letters were torrid. She won’t let us see them.

  • Poor guy was seasick all the way to Europe.

  • He looked like this:


    Girl could pick ’em.

  • I had that picture framed. The snotwads took that, too.

  • They’ll probably lose it along the way,

  • along with every other damned thing that was ever given them, including money.

  • Do you think I need work on anger management?

  • Grief counseling is for the birds. I need kendo.

  • They took this one, too:


    That was taken within a week of his return.

    The war matured him.

  • I found my Neiman-Marcus charge card when I finally hauled the elder’s ass out of my guest room.

  • Under my maiden name. I got it when I was 25 or so.

  • Wonder if it still works?

  • Found out this morning at coffee that a harpsichordist is playing at Trinity Episcopal every Friday at noon.

  • TastyBits

    If we had fought the Japanese and Germans the way we have fought radical Islamists, we’d probably still be fighting them. …

    By today’s standards, most of the people who fought in WW2 would be war criminals.

    Some were fighting for revenge, but most were just doing their job. It seems trite, but for a grunt, noble ideals are a luxury. Even fighting for your buddies is about not being a coward or letting them down.

    In the Marine Corps, your unit’s honor is more important than the country’s freedom. It is hard to explain, and few people actually get it. In today’s world, there is no shame, and living in a world without shame is difficult for some people.

    Semper Fi

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    Tanks are never going away. Since the horse was domesticated, cavalry has been part of a battle. Tanks are a continuation, and helicopters have allowed the cavalry to operate vertically. Tanks facilitate taking and holding ground, and this is how wars are won. All else is folly.

    I doubt the battleship is going anywhere. There is no cheaper or more efficient way to bombard coastal areas. (The coastal area extends inland further than the beaches.) They can blow up stuff faster and longer than missiles or bombs (air).

    Marines are not going away either. The sea is the only way to transport a large amount of men and goods, and Marines establish beachheads. Marines also float around the oceans waiting to break stuff. A MEU can deliver a battalion of battle ready Marines to any sh*thole necessary.

    History never ends, and large scale battles are never going away.

  • Sally was at the coffee shop this morning.

    Dr. Ball was saying that the women who rescued the dog in Joplin told him that if he ever got tired of her to bring her back to them.

    I said, “Hell if you will. If you ever get tired of this dog you give her to me.”

  • My other BIL is a respected veterinarian. She’ll get good care.

  • I still have a stainless steel mixing bowl that my father’s sister, Glenda (now deceased — Alzheimer’s, she stayed in the house after setting off a couple of bug bombs), gave me when I was setting up my first apartment at 19.

    It has high sides and a curved bottom. It’s perfect for whipping cream with a hand mixer.

  • I’m extremely conservative.

  • I took 100 (give or take) satsumas to Magnolia House today, where my mother-in-law lives. It’s about ten minutes away. That’s about become my limit.

    I used to drive in Dallas. An hour and a half to get across town, sometimes. That will take me to the Sunshine Bridge, where John Folse’s restaurant is.

    I’ll take another batch in a few days. I bought some Ace by-pass pruners which are a charm:


    My mother told me to look after my in-laws.

  • I took her this picture in a frame, too:


    She doesn’t quite remember that she was there.

  • I can go trough Snapfish and get prints of any picture for nearly whatever I want to pay. The one I took her was a 4″x6″. It cost 9 cents. And postage.

  • The frame was Dollar General. $2.

    She loved it.

  • A woman who keeps her jewels in a safe-deposit box.

  • If y’all don’t remember, we used to have five and dime stores. Woolworth’s is the one that comes to mind.

  • Tres niche.

  • I don’t know the combination to do the accent.

  • We never made it to Paris. He had been.

  • With his mother.

  • Such a mama’s boy. Girl told me so.

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