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Pearl Harbor Bumping Down

each year, a little more in betrayal of our promises

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 07, 2005.

In an otherwise prosaic (and rather nauseating) poem called For the Fallen, offered the second month of the First World War, Lawrence Binyon reached near Barber Adagio-hood with this quatrain:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This is near perfect phrasing and marriage of word, emotion, and cadence. It manages to capture remembrances of To an Athlete Dying Young, a very popular poem by A.E. Houseman in those years and later, but its mournful topic of young, very young soldiers dead at a time of war is handled with restrained dignity. It embraces the distance and discomfort between soldier and civilian, the living and the dead, and the obligation the survivors have to be grateful without demanding it. We will remember them, it suggests, because we just will, is all. We can’t help it.

It could be Sophocles and it is better than anything Tennyson or other much more skillful poets ever managed to write on the topic, and as such these words are often read at military funerals, public and private, and it hangs in memory as firmly as the eerie but still pitch perfect melody of Butterfield’s Lullaby, which we call Taps. And it’s probably read more in the United States than in Britain; we tend to absorb and usurp things we like and forget their origin and meaning. After all, Dixie is a more popular song than other Civil War entries.

Binyon’s words are being invoked a lot today, December 7th, because – for benefit of University of Colorado History Majors – today is Pearl Harbor Day.

Pearl Harbor has been bumped down. September 11, 2001 killed more people and, in contrast with the Japanese dawn attack on a military base, it killed mostly civilians. Pearl Harbor is no longer the worst attack on the United States. Further, because our fleet was in a dangerous area and a state of near war had existed for a while, the fact that we were so utterly unprepared is mostly now seen as an embarrassment more than a tragedy, which implies forces beyond our control made it happen. Further yet, although few think the United States was guilty of maneuvering Japan into a war of aggression, given their history in China, and its military government, we don’t look as terrific in accurate hindsight as movies and stories in the 1950’s made us feel about the heroes of WWII.

And worse – inevitably - we have forgotten them. I’m nearly sixty, and I recall hearing about relatives dead in the war, knew war widows, was proud of my father and my uncle because in their mid thirties with three and two children respectively at the time of the attack, they had enlisted and served in the Philippines. So that stuff is hard wired in me from personal experience. But WWII today is as meaningful and as emotionally gripping as Argincourt or Salamis to most Americans. We not only have forgotten them, we’ve forgotten it. We move on. After all, we entered WWII because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, but I’d bet most high-schoolers and younger don't know that.

After all, why we entered the First World War is already forgotten as the last vet passes. Can you answer it? If your answer does not include the words Mexico and Zimmerman, you’re wrong.

Every weekday on the News Hour, they show in silence photos of American dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are being fought for different reasons. Virtually every one of those kids looks twelve to me. You know people, family at the funerals and watching are promising to recall these very young people, always.

And it bothers me that we, by which I mean myself, might decades hence not remember them at all, and we’re all they have. I have trouble these days recalling classmates dead in Vietnam. I recall faces but sometimes can’t match the name. Or see the name and can’t recall whether it was college or high school I knew him. We promised we’d remember them. But, sometimes we cannot. Is it worse to pretend to recall if you honestly cannot? Soldiers, we are told, feel guilty about surviving when their friends did not. Can even they recall with surety? Civvies like me, who managed to avoid combat, should feel at least that moral obligation: to recall, toast, and honor the dead of service.

But today, during another war, the anchor of the U.S.S. Oklahoma, sunk at Pearl, lies rusting on a road side in Oklahoma City while they get around to repairing a memorial. It understandably galls naval vets of Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma capsized, and many of the hundreds of eventual dead aboard suffocated in the dark while people tried to burn through plate amour and get them out, listening to them pound on the bulkheads. That anchor on the roadside must grate like a cleric emoting for the ages at a vet's funeral:

At the setting of the sun.......and again in the morning…..

Something, something….. Anyway, let's pray.