Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese air and sea attack on the United States at its bases around Pearl Harbor. The day continues to fulfill President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prophecy that it will “live in infamy” to Americans, and indeed to others around the world. Over 2,400 Americans died in the one-sided two hour battle, the first of some 419,000 who would perish before the war ended four years later.
Hundreds of survivors attended today’s observance at Pearl Harbor, according to news accounts. They honored the friends they lost seventy-five years ago for the dedication and valor they showed on the last day of their lives. War calls upon human beings to offer all they have to give – their talents, their freedom, and their very lives – on behalf of others. They offer it all for their nation, they offer it all for their families, and they offer it all for those beside them.
There is a greatness in that. It calls for the best.
Here in Hawai’i, however, I find it easier to see the price of that greatness. The commitment and the dedication and the valor (which can be found on both sides of the battle) preserve a nation, but also imperil its values. Martial law was imposed on the Territory of Hawai’i within hours, and would not be lifted until 1944. American citizens were detained and imprisoned without criminal charge or conviction. Military courts suspended the writ of habeaus corpus. In fear for their liberty, people buried or burned possessions that linked them to Japan: records, photographs, mementos.
The infamy of Pearl Harbor has company, lots of company: The Bataan Death March. The horrors of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The firebombing of London. The abduction and rape of thousands of women by Japanese soldiers. The murders of millions of military prisoners, gay men, Romani, and Jews in German death camps.
Lest we assume a virtue that is unwarranted, however, the infamy of Pearl Harbor has plenty of Allied company: The savage campaign on the Eastern Front. The firestorm of Dresden. More firestorms in too many Japanese cities to list. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Over 60 million people died in the fires of World War II.
We may, and should, honor the best. We dare not ignore the worst.
As 94-year-old World War II veteran Kenzo Kanemoto told Hawai’i News Now, “If you win, you still lose a lot.”
Let Pearl Harbor Day be one we honor for its summons to peace, for its warnings of the costs of war. Let it stand for the infamy of war itself, and its crushing weight upon humanity. Let it shine as a beacon for peace.
Photo credit: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=668001