Why We Still Need to Remember Pearl Harbor

The price of freedom, peace, and prosperity is an authentic posture of eternal vigilance.

It was a neighborhood Fourth of July BBQ, 2011. I had recently returned from my third combat deployment in Afghanistan. I was enjoying a cold beer and swapping war stories with a fellow Marine and Vietnam veteran. Listening quietly was Patrick — a successful 30-something sales executive for a Silicon Valley tech firm. After our stories were played out, Patrick chimed in: “Although I didn’t serve,” he said, “I have great respect for those who did.” It sounded gratuitous. I looked at Patrick and it occurred to me that he must have been college-aged during 9/11. Indeed, he said he graduated in 2001. My curiosity piqued, I asked why he didn’t serve. Without blushing, he said: “It never occurred to me.”

Tuesday is the 80th commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I am thinking of Patrick. He is an object lesson for why we still need to “remember Pearl Harbor.”

It was Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when — after months of secret planning and false diplomacy — Japanese naval and air forces “suddenly and deliberately” attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Just before 8 a.m., the onslaught began. By 10 a.m., it was over.

The damage was devastating: 20 naval vessels were destroyed or damaged, including five battleships sunk outright; more than 300 aircraft were destroyed; airfields and dry docks were damaged; and most tragically, 2,404 Americans were killed and another 1,000 wounded. It was the deadliest attack on American soil in U.S. history until 9/11.

Yet it was the American response to this “unprovoked and dastardly” surprise attack that is the lasting legacy of Pearl Harbor. All Americans felt the tragedy and burned with righteous anger. A nation bitterly divided by the prospect of another war was instantly united in its resolve. In his address to a joint session of Congress the next day, President Franklin Roosevelt expressed the fury and determination of the American people:

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory …  We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us … With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

“Remember Pearl Harbor” became the mantra — the nation’s call to arms and action. For the young men of that generation, it was irresistible. Their country faced a difficult job and the responsibility fell to them to get it done. They felt a sincere sense of duty. They felt honor-bound to serve — to get into the fight and deliver the victory that Roosevelt prophetically declared. In the days and weeks after the attack, hundreds of thousands of patriotic American men enlisted in the armed forces. The volunteer surge was so great that enlistments had to be limited to preserve the industrial workforce.

One of those young Pearl Harbor volunteers I knew personally — Joe Roediger. I knew Joe when he was an old man. After church on Sunday, we would have breakfast together. The day after Pearl Harbor, Joe went with his brother to the recruiting station. The line stretched around the block. Alas, Joe failed the entrance physical because he was color blind. Undeterred, he returned the next day, again with his brother, and this time was classified fit for military service. Joe had not overnight gained color vision, but he had devised hand signals that his brother flashed to him to pass the eye exam. With a gleam in his eye, Joe described how the Navy doctor approving his paperwork recognized him from the day before: “Son, I think you’re probably just as color blind today as you were yesterday, but if you want to join the Marines that bad, I won’t stop you.” It’s a humorous anecdote but representative: Joe, his brother, and those Pearl Harbor volunteers indeed wanted to serve “that bad”; their patriotism was such that the thought of not serving never occurred to them.

This all brings me back to Patrick and the lesson he represents. 9/11 was his generation’s Pearl Harbor — an “unprovoked and dastardly” surprise attack in which 2,996 of his fellow citizens were murdered and for which his country went to war to avenge the treachery and bring the perpetrators to justice. And yet, in stark contrast to Joe, the thought of serving never occurred to Patrick — no patriotic ethos stirred his soul to action, no spirit of civic duty or sense of honor rattled his conscience. He was content to thank others for their service while he prospered in his career in Silicon Valley.

If Joe is representative of the Pearl Harbor generation, Patrick is representative of the 9/11 generation. He represents an increasingly dominant type I grew up with, went to college with, and worked alongside in Corporate America. Though they are the privileged beneficiaries of the blessings of American citizenship and though they have enjoyed the bounty of American peace and prosperity, the traditional patriotic ethic of military service that dates back to the “Minute Men” of the Revolution and is exemplified by the Pearl Harbor generation is lost on them. America is their oyster — they enjoy the freedom to pursue their dreams of success — but they recognize no corresponding civic duty to serve the country that has so richly blessed them.

“Remember Pearl Harbor — Keep American Alert” was the motto of the Pearl Harbor veterans. That generation learned the hard way the lesson that the price of freedom, peace, and prosperity is an authentic posture of eternal vigilance. It’s a lesson this generation forgets at our peril. Until some future millennium when we see the end of war, it will be necessary for men and women to take up their responsibilities as citizens and answer the call of duty to serve and sacrifice for their country — as Joe and his generation did. And we thank God that it “occurred” to them.

Peter Jennings served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. His military service includes three combat tours in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghan wars in which he earned the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor. He is now an Associate Professor of Management, Economics, and Business Administration at Hillsdale College.