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Finding meaning in Pearl Harbor as attack slips from collective memory

Eric Cunningham

The approaching anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will be greeted by an American public that is quickly losing its collective memory of that fateful event. As those with living experience of the day that would “live in infamy” pass steadily away – according to the Veterans Administration, fewer than 900,000 of the 16 million World War II veterans remain, and are dying at a rate of roughly 500 a day – our collective sense of immediate contact with the war will soon disappear.

To put it in time-perspective, in another 75 years, Dec. 7, 1941, will be as distant from the awareness of Americans as Dec. 7, 1866, is to us today. For those of us who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century – even aging-Gen Xers like myself – World War II has always provided the deep contours of our historical and political formation as Americans. It is clear, in 2016, that this shared experience is giving way to a new American reality. Some other term than “postwar” will soon have to stand in as the generally accepted marker of an era that colors the experience of successive generations of Americans. Perhaps that term is “global,” although the forces opposing globalism have already taken their stand and they have demonstrated uncompromising power.

World War II stands, both chronologically and conceptually, as the central event of the 20th century. As it unfolded, by stages in Europe and China, and with the shocking suddenness of Pearl Harbor in the Pacific, it appeared that what was taking place was something of a closing act of the First World War, which itself was supposed to be the closing act of the 19th century. When I studied World War II in college and graduate school, it was generally argued that the world that had suffered “the war to end all wars” apparently still had some unfinished business to attend to regarding imperialism, international trade, and ethnic self-determination.

From this standpoint, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a highly fitting event in a war that had such an odd mix of rational and emotional causes. A Japanese nation burdened with second-class racial status in President Woodrow Wilson’s new world order, and threatened by the maritime expansion of the not-so-free-and-equal trading practices of the victorious empires of the Great War, adopted a posture akin to religious fundamentalism in the worship of its emperor, and set out to carve out its own economic and cultural empire.

When a severe shortage of oil got in the way of these aspirations, Japan’s elites hit upon a plan to knock the British, Americans and Dutch out of the war in one campaign, and seize the “Southern Resource Area” of the Indonesian oil fields for its own uses. Only in the 20th century could a military comprised of fatalistic, emperor-worshiping, neo-samurai plunge headlong into the romance of a self-destructive war over something as mundane as petroleum.

When looking at World War II from the perspective of seven decades, I have to wonder if the interpretation of this war as the delayed finale of World War I is the best one available. It seems to me that World War II might be better understood as the opening act of what we have come to call today a “Global War on Terror.” Japan’s attack on the West, carried out in the West’s colonies of Asia and the Pacific, was at least as much a religious resistance to modernity as it was an attempt to achieve material dominance in the modern world. Again, a fatalistic, seemingly suicidal army driven to self-annihilation by dreams of pleasing its gods – yet using modern weapons to do so –resonates as closely with the aims of jihadism as it does with aims of simple nationalist post-colonialism.

The attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor may indeed resemble the attacks by al-Qaida on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2011, but it falls to us – for the sake of our future – to understand this connection in a much deeper sense than was presented to us in the outrage of the aftermath of 9/11. Rather than view either or both acts merely as vindictive crimes perpetrated by vicious fundamentalists who were jealous of our freedom, we would do well to consider the larger historical contexts in which we find ourselves, although this is always as much a matter of speculation as it is of reading the record of the past.

If I may speculate a little, I would guess that given current trends, we may be reading in 75 years textbooks that tell us that the real victor of World War II was China, and that Japan’s brave and altogether justified attack on the imperial outposts of the western imperialists opened the way for China’s eventual dominance of the Pacific hemisphere. Euro-centric historians, having long been eclipsed by the historiography of the new western caliphate, will have few counter-assertions to make. I do not believe this would be a good reality, but it is not an implausible one, again, given current trends.

As Pearl Harbor Day approaches this year, I think it is safe to say that it will be greeted by a nation that has never been more dubious about the validity of the American dream, or divided in its assumptions about what that dream actually means. As a patriotic American (and to be sure as a historian who hopes my own grandchildren will have a history to study) I sincerely hope that we, as a nation, will continue to dwell on, or perhaps recapture, the spirit of what this day means to our historical experience on the most human of levels. We do not have enough information to know what empires are actually on the ascent, or on the wane, or whether either of the factions of a perpetually self-enlarging class of world rulers or their perpetually furious rebel-opponents have our best interests at heart.

We know what courage is and we know what self-sacrifice is. We know that we ought to respond to tragedy and ghastly surprises with good humor and grace, and we know that deferring our own satisfaction for the sake of our neighbors is a categorically good thing. In a world now drowning in self-empowerment, self-idolatry, and self-victimization, perhaps we can learn something of use from the examples of those millions of brave Americans who responded to the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor by putting their “selves” on hold for the duration of the war, and left us with a world in which to flourish. May their memory be everlasting.

Eric Cunningham is a Gonzaga University history professor. A specialist in modern Japanese intellectual history, he received a master’s degree in modern Japanese literature from the University of Oregon in 1999, and a doctorate in history from the UO in 2004. He is the author of “Hallucinating the End of History: Nishida, Zen, and the Psychedelic Eschaton,” and “Zen Past and Present.” Cunningham lectures and writes on Japanese history, film, spirituality, anthroposophy, and society.

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