Yesterday were were all supposed to pause and “remember” the bombing of Pearl Harbor, even though most of us weren’t alive then and therefore can’t actually remember it.
Of course we should be aware of important historic events. But why is it always a matter of dates and photos and survivor accounts without context? And why must we genuflect only to certain dates? December 7, September 11, July 4?
We perform our obeisances to the horrors and tragedies of December 7, 1941, then go about our business. How many of us ever even learned that the very next day (just 10 hours later, actually) the Japanese not only bombed but invaded the Philippines, which were then an American possession scheduled for independence?
The December 8 invasion led to three months of hell for the mixed Filipino-American defenders under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. When the battle was lost and MacArthur fled to Australia, some 75,000 men, already sick and starving, had to face the horrors of the Bataan Death March.
You military history buffs know that. The rest of us? Maybe we’ve heard in general about the atrocities of the death march (though I’ll bet not one in a thousand even knows the march took place in the Philippines). Maybe the older folk can quote MacArthur’s famous “I shall return” — and know that he kept that promise.
But even that’s beside the point. Ordinary folk can’t be expected to memorize every date and deed of a vast war. And why should they? What I’m really asking (and of course it’s a rhetorical question) is why we’re encouraged to forever repeat a few dates and recall a few images — while totally ignoring the context that gives meaning to the events.
How many people even have the foggiest reason why Japan and the U.S. went to war? How many school teachers discuss what Roosevelt did or didn’t know in advance? How many college seminars analyse whether Allied leaders wanted war or not and what steps they took to either prepare for it, strive to prevent it, or (depending on your viewpoint) provoke it?
From beginning to end, what do we really know, besides a handful of dates and a few images from the media or the movies?
Nobody remembers the date Japan invaded the Philippines? So what? you might say. And you’ be right. But what supposedly literate and well educated adult, these days, knows thing one about something even bigger at the end of World War II — what Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin wrought at Yalta? And the results of the Yalta conference were history that many of us lived with for decades.
Ah, but I rant uselessly. Of course people don’t know or care about such things. It’s all just dead history. Besides, all that context is much, much harder (and much less conducive to mindless state worship) than marking December 7 or June 6 or VE or VJ Day on the calendar. Far easier (and more politically correct) to recall that on December 7 somebody (“Was it the Nazis?”) blew up some ships and killed some Americans. Or that on some date … um maybe it was in August, somebody (“Probably the Nazis did that, too”) dropped an atomic bomb someplace.
What I really hate and dread is 70 years from now (when, thank heaven, I won’t be here to rant about it), our childrens’ children will be “remembering” September 11, 2001 in the same way we “remember” Pearl Harbor.
They’ll know all about the collapsing buildings and the airplanes flown by some vague enemy (maybe by then that’ll be the Nazis, too; who knows?). They’ll probably be treated to annual re-showings of photos of plummeting businessmen.
They’ll “remember” 9-11 to the sound of anthems and the flap of windblown flags. But they won’t know a thing about what motivated those enemies or how government stood by ready and eager to use the tragedy of that day as an excuse to accelerate its theft of lifetimes worth of freedom.