Remembering Pearl Harbor

guest post by John Bodnar

Americans will soon be reminded again of the significance of December 7, 1941. For the past seventy-two years, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been recalled not only as the event that pushed America into World War II, but as a personal milestone for many who were alive on that date. Most Americans would never forget where they were when they heard about the raid on the Hawaiian naval base. Ever since the war, thousands of tourists have traveled to the site of the battle and stood above the decaying hulk of the USS Arizona, where the remains of American sailors still rest.

Pearl Harbor was evoked again in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. On the sixtieth anniversary of the Japanese attack—just months after the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York—President George W. Bush proclaimed that September 11, 2001 would now stand alongside December 7, 1941 as a moment in which “our way of life was brutally and suddenly attacked.” The chief executive urged citizens to remember the sacrifices of the “greatest generation who defeated tyranny” as they embarked upon another struggle to “defend freedom” and “secure civilization.” In 1991, on the occasion of Pearl Harbor’s fiftieth anniversary, the president’s father, a World War II vet, used the memory of Pearl Harbor as an event that justified the nation’s need to remain vigilant against any form of aggression that might threaten the homeland. In both instances, spectacularly violent incidents were used to quickly mobilize sentiments for war.

The fact that Pearl Harbor has become entangled in our times with the American war against terrorism raises a number of questions about the way citizens understand both the world war of the 1940s and the struggles of our age. One obvious controversy has broken out regarding the American intrusion into Iraq. Pearl Harbor evoked widespread anger in the United States. Many men volunteered for the service as a form of retaliation for what the Japanese did. Americans could not identify a particular nation as a perpetrator in 2001, only a terrorist organization. Part of their response, however, did single out the potential damage Iraq might inflict on the American homeland. Thus, to the extent Pearl Harbor was invoked to justify American military action, the attack on Iraq revised the historical image by making an American war campaign preemptive rather than reactive.

I have seen another significant difference between our understanding of World War II and the global struggle against terrorism. In looking at the outpouring of memoirs by American soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been struck by the celebration of American heroism, a narrative strategy that has been widely accepted by the public. Books on expert snipers in Iraq and Navy SEAL teams carrying out daring raids—including the killing of Osama bin Laden—have captivated American audiences and attained best seller status. In many ways, these stories have continued the revival of the warrior hero in American culture that begun in the 1990s with the celebration of the “Greatest Generation.” All of this has come, in part, as a response to the more sordid legacy of Vietnam.

The commemoration of the War on Terror through the heroic exploits of special forces is powerful, but really at odds with the way many GIs wrote about their experiences in the immediate aftermath of  World War II. Certainly there was pride and heroism in the public discussion of the war in the 1940s—before it was known as a “Good War.” Yet the most prominent literary achievements of that era by veterans were stories that raised many questions about the war such as its legacy of extreme violence. This was the point of Norman Mailer’s great World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead. And the monumental trilogy of the war authored by James Jones was filled with references to the inequality and brutality he saw in the military itself.  Notably Jones began his famous series with a narrative set at Pearl Harbor—From Here to Eternity. Even Audie Murphy’s memoir, To Hell and Back, failed to present a celebration of American fighters. In his account  of the battles against the Germans,  he stressed the feeling that the men felt they were in a state of constant peril and, that while some fought bravely, others fought only because they sensed they had no other choice.

We cannot know how the War on Terror will be recalled decades from now. Yet, there may be a pattern at work currently that is the reverse of the “Good War.” That contest became more mythical over time. Perhaps the heroic tales of American forces today will seem less resonant in the time to come.

bodnarJohn Bodnar is the Chancellor’s Professor of History and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University. He is author or editor of a number of books, including The “Good War” in American Memory and Blue-Collar Hollywood: Liberalism, Democracy, and Working People in American Film, both published by Johns Hopkins.