The danger of forgetting our ‘Day of Infamy’

I was nine years old the last time our nation fired a shot while openly declaring war with another nation. And while we have certainly spent the majority of the last few decades fighting abroad and sacrificing the lives of our young men and women in places like Kuwait, Qatar, Baghdad and Syria, the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 are the closest that many of my generation have come to experiencing war first-hand.

As a child, I was only peripherally aware of the Vietnam War and even less so of the Korean War, which ended before I was born. Yet, as the last shot was being fired in Vietnam, I already knew what Pearl Harbor was.

I knew how, on Dec. 7, 1941, a quiet Sunday morning was transformed into a fiery nightmare by Japanese planes that claimed the lives of more than 2,400 servicemen.

I knew about the USS Arizona, and how in less than nine minutes more than 1,000 men became entombed in the wreckage that now rests like a shadow below the harbor’s surface.

I also knew it was a morning filled with as many acts of heroism and sacrifice as there were moments of the horrific. Over the years, images in text books, commemorative issues from publications like Time magazine and stories captured in movies impressed upon me the virtues of valor. 

At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, those images and the stories that surface each year — much like the slowly recurring “black tears” of oil that still bubble to the surface from the USS Arizona — serve as a reminder of the ultimate price demanded by a world at war.

In an age when many of our youth entertain themselves with gaming systems that center around killing enemies with everything from grenades and knives to sniper fire and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), lessons learned from the sacrifices of the past are in danger of becoming diluted by pre-packaged valor and conditioned gaming responses.

Admittedly, my friends and I spent countless summer days of our youth as soldiers rescuing our platoon and driving the Nazis out of our backyards. The difference between then and now is that, as kids, we were drawing from those text books, commemorative magazine articles and movies that dug such deep grooves in our memories.

Without knowing it, we were reinforcing our own understanding of war based on what we knew of history — and in particular the sacrifices made by soldiers at places like Pearl Harbor and the beaches of Normandy.

Today, the knowledge of those sacrifices — and the lessons learned from them — aren’t digging nearly as deep a groove in the minds of our children as they once did.

As they say, history forgotten is a history bound to repeat itself.

Unless we take the time to ensure that each generation understands what our “Day of Infamy” truly means, the black tears slowly surfacing from the USS Arizona will be for more than the servicemen who came to rest within it.