Reprise Post: Sunday Morning at the End of the World

(A repeat post from 2007, from my original milblog, on the anniversary of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor)

“Life in the wide world goes on much as it has these past age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of hobbits… for which I am very thankful.” – Gandalf, from “The Fellowship of the Ring”

There are some things that are so obvious that 20-20 hind-sight is not required, and Sunday, December 7th 1941 is one of them. The events of a couple of hours in the skies over a tiny Pacific Island previously known more as a tourist destination and a source for sugar and pineapples created a rift across the American consciousness, an abrupt demarcation between “then” and “now”. Very much like the effect of 9-11, a snap of a cosmically huge cracker into two pieces; you could look across to the other half of the cracker, and see that on either side of the chasm everything appeared to look just the same… but in your heart, you knew that things were not the same, and would never be quite the same again.

It was a smaller world, that America of seven decades ago, a very local, insular and insulated world, and one which moved comparatively slowly. Only the wealthiest or most adventurous traveled widely. Those who did travel did so by train, or passenger steamship in varying degrees of luxury. Passenger air travel was in its infancy, an exotic and expensive curiosity, as was television – a fancy futuristic gadget displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair. People got their news from newspapers and movie news reels, from weekly magazines like “Life” and “The Saturday Evening Post”, and from the radio. Telephones were large clumsy black objects, nine out of ten on a party line, if you had one at all in your home. Urgent news came by telegram, a little slip of paper delivered by a bicycle messenger.

There was a war on, in that year of 1941; a war that been brewing for years before it finally burst into the open. Europe had been at war and China… poor fractured China, had been racked and wrecked by warlords, civil war and the Japanese for most of a decade. To Americans, it was all very tragic… but it was happening somewhere else. America of 1941 was built on a century and a half of immigration by people who had consciously chosen to leave the old world with its resentments and quarrels behind. The consensus among most ordinary working Americans was that it was none of our business and best to keep out of it. A bill to draft military-age men had just barely been passed, the standing regular Army and Navy were insular little worlds all their own. The catastrophe of our own Civil War was just passing out of living memory, but recollection of World War I remained quite vivid, along with the conviction that we had been suckered into participation against our best interests. Asia’s quarrels and Europe’s quarrels were nothing to do with Americans and there was an ocean – which took better than a week to cross by ship – between us and the belligerent parties anyway.

And then one Sunday morning, under a tropical blue sky, all those happy assumptions went up in showers of smoke, explosions and flame. We may not have had an interest in the quarrels of others… but those quarrels definitely had an interest in us. And we were reminded again, those of us who had forgotten or chosen to put that knowledge to one side, that the world is with us always.

A long while ago, I read an essay about the day after Pearl Harbor – can’t remember where, or by whom – but one of the memories recorded was from a person who had lived on or near the big Navaho Reservation, in the Southwest. On the morning of Monday, December 8th, 1941 – so this person recalled – every able-bodied male on the reservation over the age of seventeen showed up at their local post offices, carrying a gun and wanting to volunteer for the war… a war that had chosen them.

4 thoughts on “Reprise Post: Sunday Morning at the End of the World”

  1. So let’s compare the social relevance two important dates, December 7th and 9/11. My parents did not experience Pearl Harbor, but I and all my peers were aware of its significance due to its cultural staying power. Keep in mind John Belushi’s great line in Animal House “Was It over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Everybody got the joke nearly 40 years after the fact, both the characters in the movie who were too young to have experienced that as well as the young people in the audience at the theater.

    Is there the same cultural resonance with 9/11? In many ways it is as culturally distant for those under 25 Pearl Harbor even though it was only 22 years ago compared to Pearl’s 82. To put it another way, we are as historically distant from Pearl Harbor as the battle’s participants were from the Civil War yet kids today feel less connection today to an even that is younger than my truck

    Why? It’s a generational thing but not because of the passage of time, but because of how to communicate that event to future generations. As David mentioned, Pearl Harbor represents not only that abrupt demarcation between then and now, but also the beginning of a great crusade against evil that ended in total victory and that reaffirmed our sense of moral standing. I find the WW II Memorial in DC with its 56 soaring pillars to be a perfect representation of that.

    9/11? We have memorials for it, but we no longer memorialize it the same way. This year Joe Biden could not even bother to visit one of the sites as he was “out of town” like it was missing his kid’s soccer game, priorities man. Why the difference? I think it’s in part because unlike Pearl, 9/11 did not lead to any soaring achievements. Biden wanted out of Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of 9/11 so he could declare victory and instead we reenacted the Fall of Saigon.

    I think another reason why is the corrupt age in which we live. To memorialize 9/11 it to cement a certain image of ourselves within a certain place of time. We were attacked in the American homeland by a group of barbarians who despised our way of life and killed thousands of innocent people. For many of our betters, especially in the media and academia, that is unacceptable. I don’t mean because of the atrocity but rather because it makes us the one that suffers and in today’s post-modern world of power relations, Americans must always be the aggressor and never the victim. We can see that sentiment now in Israel where feminist groups refuse to condemn the massive sexual violence committed on 10/7. Just the wrong sort of people you see

    It was a good thing they got those 9/11 memorials built when they did, not sure if they would have gotten built quite the same way now.

  2. Regarding the Navajos…..

    When passing through the towns just off the Navajo Nation or White Mountain Apache you tend to see alot of military decals on various vehicles. Seems like more Marine ones in Winslow or Gallup for the Navajos and Army for the Apaches in Show Low but there are some stories there if any aspiring history graduate students need a dissertation topic

  3. We can see that sentiment now in Israel where feminist groups refuse to condemn the massive sexual violence committed on 10/7. Just the wrong sort of people you see…

    Back in 2000, some Lebanese-Australian young men went on a gang rape spree. They attacked six women and girls over 3 1/2 weeks. They were caught, and convicted after a lengthy trial during which Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen was subjected to a torrent of insults and threats from the defendants’ families and cronies.

    Cunneen later spoke about the trial at a women’s law conference – where she was viciously attacked for “racist prosecution”.

  4. Sgt Mom: ISTR reading a passage by an anthropologist who was allowed to observe a Navajo sweat lodge ceremony. Each participant stood up, recounted his ancestry and his life achievements, and finished with the words “Combat veteran!” He said he had never seen such pride in the US armed forces.

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