Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's probably a good thing Pearl Harbor is fading into history

On this 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, there seems to be a great deal of hand-wringing that the event is soon to no longer be part of our collective living memory. Today's New York Times story is pretty typical of the angst:
The fact that this moment was inevitable has made this no less a difficult year for the survivors, some of whom are concerned that the event that defined their lives will soon be just another chapter in a history book, with no one left to go to schools and Rotary Club luncheons to offer a firsthand testimony of that day. As it is, speaking engagements by survivors like Mr. Kerr — who said he would miss church services on Sunday to commemorate the attack — can be discouraging affairs.

“I was talking in a school two years ago, and I was being introduced by a male teacher, and he said, ‘Mr. Kerr will be talking about Pearl Harbor,’ ” said Mr. Kerr. “And one of these little girls said, ‘Pearl Harbor? Who is she?’

“Can you imagine?” he said.
Well, yeah, I can imagine. I don't have any idea how old this girl was, but it's entirely conceivable—even probable—that Pearl Harbor took place before her grandparents were born. This isn't just history to today's elemetary school students: It's ancient history. Put it this way: If you were in elementary school 30 years ago—as I was—how much did you know and understand about World War I? I was a kid when this "Cheers" episode came out, and I remember being astonished as a child that there were any veterans of that war left.

This isn't a call to let Pearl Harbor slip from our collective memories. "Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed etc." But it's probably not a bad thing to let that memory become a little less urgent. There are plenty of cultures around the globe which harbor grudges from wars and battles that took place centuries upon centuries ago—those memories have remained urgent, often with the result that those cultures have a hard time moving into the future: They're too busy clinging to the past. There are still people who hate the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor. What a wasted, useless emotion.

And there are some folks who use their observance of the anniversary as a kind of "more American than thou" proclamation, a cudgel against those who don't keep the flame burning quite as bright. I guess I don't have much patience for that.

The longer our country and culture survive, the more battles we'll have under our belt. They'll be and seem incredibly life-shattering at the time. But we can remember them without living with them as part of our present, and we probably should: It's probably healthiest that we eventually let the old battles go. I salute the survivors of Pearl Harbor, but it's not a sin to let the memory fade, just a bit, as they fade away.

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