In order to sustain civilization, a nation needs to remember itself over time. That requires a collective memory. Memorial Day is a significant holiday because it asks us as Americans to reflect, mourn, and celebrate as one. Like the Gettysburg Address, Memorial Day compels us to consider why it is reasonable that the young, who have everything to look forward to, can with good reason give their lives for their country.
Unfortunately, America is a nation that has come close to losing its mind. For the purpose of noting the importance of recollection for civilization, a far better film than the eagerly awaited Pearl Harbor would be Memento, a dark, beguiling tale that warns of the chaos of the post-modern mentality. One readily forgets much of Pearl Harbor even before the credits roll. This is not Saving Private Ryan, or Tora, Tora, Tora! for that matter.
Perhaps the most politically relevant memory that the audience may recover from Pearl Harbor is Franklin Delano Roosevelt's insistence that the United States find a swift means of retaliating against the Japanese homeland for its treacherous attack. FDR prevailed over his bureaucrat-generals, who declare impossible what the president wisely knew to be politically mandatory. The political success of Col. Jimmy Doolittle's 1942 raid on Tokyo resounds today in the debate over the supposedly "unproven" ballistic missile defense. The lesson of the lack of preparedness is implicit in the movie plot, albeit not elaborated. The best single volume for this vital purpose remains Roberta Wohlstetter's Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision.
But rather than ponder the implications for national defense, critics raise the multicultural banner. Various Japanese-Americans and their sympathizers have voiced fears that the movie could arouse anti-Asian sentiment, even violence. The Japanese are portrayed in the same way as Indians, even with a tom-tom musical accompaniment. Without baring buck teeth, they appear to be going to war for no better reason than asserting the superiority of chopsticks over knives and forks. Their strafing victims include drowning sailors, nurses, and the wounded. Of course, just as there are good Indians, there are good Japanese: a doctor and interpreter balance a treacherous dentist-spy.
The political and academic left has exploited the relocation and treatment of West Coast ethnic Japanese during World War II. The relocation was poorly understood then and continues to be today. Latter-day critics ignore ethnic Japanese support for Imperial Japan's savage war in China and what that might reasonably imply for Japan's success against America. The question of divided ethnic Japanese loyalty awaits its definitive study. But University of Hawaii historian John J. Stephan is well underway to producing this account. He has already written the thought-provoking Hawaii Under the Rising Sun: Japan's Plans for Conquest After Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor recollections do trouble Japanese Americans (besides the ways they trouble other Americans). My mother and her sister were out fishing on Commencement Bay, off Tacoma, Washington on December 7, 1941. When they returned after a luckless day they were greeted at the pier with a gruff, "You Japs bombed Pearl Harbor." They knew that they, along with the rest of the country, were in for hard times, as relocation proved to be.
As my parents have conveyed their memories to me, I would convey mine:
- Sailing into Pearl Harbor on the U.S.S. Enterprise, with the silent crew dressed in whites, lining the flight deck, while passing the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
- Studying the Doolittle Raiders trophy case at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where a silver cup of each flyer is turned upside down as time takes its toll.
- Hearing an Air Force mother comfort her frightened child after an air show jet boomed overhead: "Don't be afraid, that's the sound of freedom."
Pearl Harbor, the history, teaches us not to fear the burdens of freedom. Pearl Harbor, the film, would teach us that our diversity is a strength. Not quite so. Diversity is a challenge. Our strength lies, rather, in our common love of freedom and the insistence that everybody have it. But freedom also imposes conditions, often harsh, on those who would cherish it. That duty is what civilized nations forget and their statesmen are continually obliged to etch into the national memory.