I noticed on the kitchen calendar this morning that tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day here in the States. This isn’t a federal holiday — nothing closes — but there will be stories aplenty in the media about the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. In a speech to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the bombing of Pearl Harbor “a date which will live in infamy.” The following day the USA declared war on Japan and entered WW2.
Pearl Harbor was certainly a devastating attack: 2,403 citizens were killed at the naval station in Honolulu and many more were wounded; two battleships were sunk; five more battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and a minelayer were damaged; and 188 aircraft were destroyed and 159 damaged. The attack came without warning and without a declaration of war.
I’m not disparaging the loss of life, or the importance of veterans and military sacrifice in general (there are plenty of veterans in my own family, including a nephew who served in the Royal Navy). But, it always surprises me a little that so much fuss is made of one event in what was, for the rest of the world, a six-year long war punctuated with appalling acts of destruction and suffering. Which got me to thinking about the ways in which the USA has experienced war differently from Europe.
European War Memories
Like most baby boomers, I grew up on stories of the Second World War — not just a father who fought across the sands of northern Africa and up into Italy, and a grandfather who served all across Asia, but civilian stories, too. A mother who worked in the army records office and slept in air raid shelters or under the kitchen table; an aunt who served in the Land Army; younger aunts and uncles evacuated from London during the blitz. My generation grew up on memories of the sound of buzz bombs (the German V1 flying bombs) and the terror when the sound stopped because that meant the bomb was plunging toward earth. Stories of rationing and hardship; and of glee, when one of the women at the army office got ahold of an old parachute, which meant they could share out yards and yards of silk that could be made into clothes. And further back, one of my grandmothers remembered hiding under her kitchen table as a teenager in 1914-18, when German zeppelins made bombing runs over London in the First World War.
The immediacy of this war was even more intense, of course, for continental Europe. An American friend of mine did her graduate studies at the University of Leuven in Belgium. She told me that there’s a plaque on the wall of the Leuven Library, commemorating how it had been rebuilt after the Second World War with the help of funds from the UN. Just below it is another, more battered plaque that describes how the old library was rebuilt after the First World War with the help of funds from the League of Nations. Behind these two plaques is an achingly painful story of repeated waves of destruction and suffering.
America is Still Young
But, for Americans, the Second World War (along with the wars in Korea and Vietnam) was something that happened far away — yes, it impacted the people back home, but no-one here was bombed. Aside, that is, from Pearl Harbor. Which perhaps explains why it still holds such a place in the American collective psyche. It certainly helps explain the profound impact of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Partly this is a young country phenomenon. America is still creating its collective memory of nation-building and the country’s place in the world. There’s plenty more that could be said about more recent conflicts; about the (American) Civil War; about the collective amnesia surrounding the 17th and 18th century invasion and genocide that underpin the creation of the United States. But in terms of attacks on the USA from outside, the stories are rare.
If the UK were to designate days of major military attacks in history, the calendar would be chock full — where would you stop? Of course, Brits do remember and remark on things like the Battle of Hastings (October 1066 if you’re wondering), and in Leicester there are still people who put white roses on the stone in Leicester Cathedral that commemorates the death of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. But not to the extent that the dates are routinely printed on a nondescript calendar.
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor so the commemoration ceremony in Hawai’i will get even more attention than usual, and there will be smaller events at VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls across the country. And I’m sure more than one TV channel will be broadcasting “From Here to Eternity.”