Note: This was my op-ed for Pearl Harbor Day.
“Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!”
-Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional”
This last week saw the 72nd anniversary of the “Day that will live in infamy,” the attack by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.
Now the Empire of Japan is no more, and the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association disbanded in Dec. 2011, the 70th anniversary of the attack.
This year the occasion was marked by commemorative ceremonies and media profiles of some of the pitifully few survivors who remembered first-hand the day that plunged the United States into global total war.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a conflict that ripped Europe apart and remade the world order for almost a generation – until the next war remade it again.
After the “war to end all wars,” in Woodrow Wilson’s unfortunate phrase, French Marshall Ferdinand Foch remarked, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”
He was off by only a year.
Since the end of WWII the United States has fought only limited wars on confined battlegrounds in faraway places. We have never again mobilized civilian society to accept personal sacrifices of comfort. The number of families who have had to endure devastating losses is far fewer, and the experience of such loss now tends to isolate rather than unite them with their neighbors.
Subsequent wars and military actions have never had the same level of popular support. And until 9/11 we had never been attacked on our own soil again.
We do have veterans and we do honor them on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but they are very few compared to the WWII generation. The number of veterans in congress is at the lowest level since WWII.
Perhaps this is not a bad thing. The atom bomb that ended the war with Japan made war unthinkable, or so we like to believe. We did manage to get through two generations of the Cold War armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons that were never used.
And yet I wonder, and sometimes I worry.
We live in a time when people have come to believe that war is an aberration, an interruption of the normal state of peace and prosperity.
Even a cursory knowledge of history shows that just isn’t so. This prolonged period of relative peace and extraordinary prosperity was won for us by men who knew it was not normal or inevitable.
That it had to be painstakingly built and vigilantly guarded.
Until now we seem to believe this state of things is eternal, when the lesson of history, repeated again and again, is that bad times always return.
On occasions such as this I think of Lee Harris and his book, “Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.”
Harris opened his essay, “The subject of this book is forgetfulness.”
“Forgetfulness occurs when those who have been long accustomed to civilized order can no longer remember a time in which they had to wonder whether their crops would grow to maturity without being stolen or whether their children would be sold into slavery by a victorious foe. Even then it is necessary for the parents, and even grandparents to have forgotten as well, so that there is not living link between the tranquility of the present generation and those dismal periods in which the world behaved very much in accordance with the rules governing Thomas Hobbe’s state of nature, where human life was “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.” When parents have forgotten what that world was like, they can hardly be expected to teach their children how it was or what one had to do in order to survive in it.”