Like June 6, December 7 has become a national day of remembrance, more by custom than by formal resolution of governors and presidents. The attack on Pearl Harbor marked our nation’s official entrance into WWII, the good war as Studs Terkel called it, and, with the stirring music of Victory at Sea ringing in our ears, we can be seduced into an inappropriate romanticizing of it. At least that was my experience as a young man in my mid twenties when I first visited Pearl Harbor in 1968.
Because of the people I was with, we were given a VIP tour aboard the admiral’s barge. Our small group spent a long time at the Arizona Memorial. One of us, much older than I, noted a name he recognized from his very small Minnesota hometown. He cried. I didn’t understand. I was a history buff and mesmerized by everything I saw. At the time, surrounded by the tropical beauty of Hawaii, it seemed more heroically romantic than tragic. Since then I’ve been back several times as an ordinary tourist. I think it’s a place everyone should visit if they have the chance, but not without also visiting Punchbowl, the National Cemetery of the Pacific.
The tens of thousands of grave markers in a parklike setting high above Honolulu do not honor romantic heroes. They mark the graves of ordinary young men, and some women, who had no intention of dying, who only wanted to survive to go home, who did not fully understand what it meant to kill another human being, who were probably scared out of their minds, but who, nevertheless, did what their country called on them to do. William Manchester wrote “Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War,” the record of his cathartic journey to visit the battle sites of the Pacific that had haunted his nightmares for decades following his service in the Marines. It’s a reminder to his readers that war should never be romanticized, sentimentalized, or trivialized. But neither should it or it’s lessons be forgotten.
We must remember, not to celebrate, but with a certain gravitas leading to renewed commitment to work harder for life than death, harder for justice than oppression, harder for peace than war.