Thursday, December 07, 2006

Forgetting Pearl Harbor: the giant rolls over and goes back to sleep

Sixty-five years ago today Pearl Harbor was attacked.

That's long enough ago that only the elderly remember the day and its aftermath with any clarity. Several generations--including my own tiresome one, the baby boomers--have come up since then, and the world has indeed changed.

Prior to 9/11, the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941 was the closest thing America had to 9/11. The differences between the two were profound, however: at Pearl Harbor we knew the culprit. It was clearly and unequivocally an act of war by the nation of Japan, which was already at war in the Pacific. But it was, like 9/11, a sneak attack that killed roughly the same number of Americans--in the case of Pearl Harbor mostly (although not exclusively) those in the armed forces. And the Pearl Harbor attack, in the reported (but disputed) words of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, awakened the "sleeping giant" of the US and filled it with a "terrible resolve." This was also true of 9/11--for a little while.

In the case of Pearl Harbor, that resolve lasted the duration of the war, an all-out conflagration that required far more sacrifice of the US (and the world) in money, comfort, and the all-important cost of human lives. The scale of such a loss is not even remotely comparable to that of our present conflict--at least, so far.

In addition, the first years of World War II featured many losses and much peril. It was a different world, however, and failure was not an option.

This Manchester Union Leader editorial in honor of Pearl Harbor makes the point that:

one does not win a war by fighting it with timidness and half-measures. We are on the verge of proving our attackers of five years ago right -- if they kill enough of us, we will lose our will to win.

The important part of that quote is "timidness and half-measures." Yes, our casualties in this war have been light compared to those of WWII. And yes, mistakes were made in both wars--and always will be. But it is impossible to remain politically correct and successfully wage an asymmetrical war against an enemy that uses terrorist tactics. If you're going to try to do that, you may as well not try, because every single life sacrificed to that cause will have been as though it were wasted.

The tactics of World War II don't fit today's war. I'm not suggesting heavy bombardment of civilian populations, for example. I've already made it clear what I would have preferred--an occupation with more teeth and more direction, and a firmer and less-PC hand to control the chaos at the outset.

But tactics aren't the issue. The issue is will. And, in that respect as in many others, current generations don't compare to the one known as "The Greatest Generation."

What will it take to fill us with the "terrible resolve" necessary? Because I sense this giant is only too happy to go back to sleep.

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