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COLUMN LEFT/ GEORGE BLACK : Remembering Pearl Harbor: Where's That? : The media blitz does little to advance our understanding of the Pacific contest, then or now.

December 01, 1991|GEORGE BLACK | George Black is a contributing editor to the Nation

The 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor bears down on us like a runaway truck. And, sadly, an occasion for reflection has become an exercise in media excess. Mixing years of ingrained emotions with contemporary prejudices about Japan, all those commemorative videos and magazine specials make it harder than ever to conduct a useful debate about the era that began on Dec. 7, 1941, or to pay honest homage to those who died in its inferno.

Pearl Harbor is the constant undertow in Americans' roiling anxiety about Japan's conquest of the modern U.S. economy. Examples abound: Why else would the New York Times devote a large chunk of its front page, a fortnight before the anniversary, to something so trivial as alterations to the script of "Mr. Baseball," produced by the Matsushita-owned Universal Pictures and starring Tom Selleck as an aging New York Yankees slugger who makes a new career in Japan?

Pearl Harbor is weighed down with something we call "memory": images of the oily smoke rising from Battleship Row, and the recollections of survivors, old men now, in veterans' caps and Hawaiian shirts, of where they were at 7:50 on the fateful morning. The very name still sparks ugly political fights, with the cry of "Remember Pearl Harbor" routinely used as a stick to beat liberal critics of the Gulf War or higher defense spending.

Yet it's doubtful that all the sound and fury about the anniversary does much to advance our understanding of the contest in the Pacific, then or now. Like Munich or Vietnam, Pearl Harbor is now less a place than a state of mind, to be found in the American psyche rather than in the pages of an atlas. "Pearl Harbor--where's that?" John Garfield asks on hearing of the attack in the 1945 movie "Pride of the Marines." His sweetheart doesn't know: "I was never any good at geography." His pal chimes in: "Pearl Harbor--oh, it's down the Jersey Coast, near Atlantic City someplace."

If Americans in the 48 states were ignorant about the location of Pearl Harbor, they were also kept in the dark about what happened there. Military censors seized all film of the attack, fearful of demoralizing the public and intent on ferreting out evidence of sabotage by the large resident Japanese-American community (It turned out there was none.) The next day, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his famous "date which will live in infamy" speech to Congress, the soldiers on guard outside the Capitol refused to admit the Chinese ambassador. "No Japs in here, mister," they told him.

In the absence of any public celluloid record of the raid, director John Ford volunteered his services to the Office of War Information to make a film for official distribution. The result, "December Seventh," won a 1943 Academy Award--after censors had cut out anything that smacked of historical context and replaced it with images of American heroism. For many, Americans, Ford's skillfully staged reenactment is still what comes to mind when they "remember" Pearl Harbor.

Even after three decades of statehood, it's questionable whether Hawaii, as a real place, means much more to Americans now than it did to John Ford's drowsy, complacent Uncle Sam: surfers and lovers on Waikiki beach; pretty women in hula skirts who drape flowers round your neck on the airport Tarmac; terrific pineapples.

Europeans, who by December, 1941, had lived through the fall of Paris and the London blitz, still find it somewhat odd that the United States should treat the attack on Pearl Harbor as a unique episode in the annals of war--even granted that it was unprovoked. One need only think of the horrors perpetrated by the Japanese Empire on other Pacific residents.

Why commemorate Pearl Harbor but not the U.S. bases in the Philippines, to which Japanese aircraft laid waste four hours later? After Pearl Harbor--2,500 miles from the California coast--the U.S. mainland was spared the obscenities of war. But for Filipinos, things only got worse. The Japanese slaughtered 100,000 civilians as they fought to hold Manila. As Dwight Eisenhower later remarked, Warsaw was the only city to suffer worse devastation. (For obvious reasons, Ike passed over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

I am not sure that memory is the right word for what takes place when Pearl Harbor is invoked. Do we truly "remember" Pearl Harbor any more than our grandparents "remembered" the Maine, or theirs the Alamo? Like the Maine and the Alamo, Pearl Harbor is shorthand for the enduring myth of American exceptionalism and innocence--the very thing that Pearl Harbor supposedly killed off. John Garfield's question, in fact, remains as relevant today as it was half a century ago: "Pearl Harbor--where's that?"

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