Sixty-four years ago today, just before 8 AM on a Sunday morning, waves of Japanese fighters and bombers executed the devastating sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that left the United States Pacific Fleet decimated. President Roosevelt and the Congress declared war on Japan the next day. Three days later, on December 11th, Germany declared war on the United States.
Though it was probably only a matter of time before the U.S. entered the war in a role beyond Lend-Lease, the attack on Pearl Harbor certainly accelerated the timetable. For 90 minutes nearly 400 Japanese planes, bearing in infamous Red Sun insignia, wreaked havoc on the imposing vessels of war that floated listlessly on Battleship Row, tied to their moorings. In total, 11 war ships were sunk, including five battleships. The Zeros, as the Japanese fighters were known, also destroyed or damaged nearly 400 U.S. planes, most still on the ground, having been grouped close together to prevent sabotage, but which made them easy prey for the attackers. The cost in lives was even more terrible; over 3,500 casualties, with over 2,000 killed. Half of those killed in action in the raid lost their lives when the battleship Arizona was sunk. That ship rests to this day where it went down. Oil still oozes out from the hull even after over sixty of sitting in the silt of the harbor.
There is a memorial that floats above its rusty hull, honoring those that were killed on that horrible day.
That horrible day that thrust the United States into a war that would last four more long years and would be fought not only on the high seas and tropical atolls of the Pacific, but the deserts of North Africa, the mountains of Italy, the beaches and bocage of France, and eventually to Germany. The mostly citizen soldiers, who came from farms and factories, bled and died to preserve freedoms not only for their own countrymen, but for those who they had never met and who didn’t even speak the same language. They lived in horrible conditions, whether the cold and snow of Bastogne or the hot black sand beaches of Iwo Jima, and still found the strength to fight and defeat the fascist and totalitarian regimes that threatened to literally take over the world.
Today our soldiers are once again involved in a life and death struggle. In Iraq and Afghanistan, they are battling those who again seek to destroy our way of life. While the risks to the soldier on the ground is the same as it was in 1941, the way of knowing how or when it might occur is very different. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise and it devastated the country. But after that, you knew who the enemy was. When the Marines were to capture an island, the ones holding it were identified by the uniform that they wore. In the wars our men (and women) are currently fighting, no such luxury exists. The enemy is unseen. He (or she) wears blue jeans and a sweater. Or a robe and a headscarf. Just like everybody else in Baghdad or Kabul. They hide bombs in boxes or piles of trash on the side of the street; busy streets where normal citizens are trying to conduct normal business. They jump out from alley’s and fire RPG’s only to melt into the crowds and vanish. They send their bombers into public places: weddings, clubs, marketplaces, their sole purpose to kill as many people, soldiers or civilians, as possible. They kidnap those who have come to help rebuild these countries and hold them for ransom and cut their heads off on video if they’re demands aren’t met. In that respect they are not so unlike the enemies our Greatest Generation faced over a half-century ago.
This is what is facing our armed forces today. As we sit in our heated homes, eating our hot food, complaining about how bad the traffic was on the way to our job, where we probably won’t experience the possibility of being killed, they are sleeping in the sand, eating an MRE, waiting to go out on the next patrol where at any moment the traffic jam they are in could turn deadly. Think about this the next time you feel like complaining.
No matter where you stand politically on this war, our boys (and girls) are there now. Nothing is going to change that. They need to be there until the job is done. That job being the preparing of the Iraqi security forces to be able to provide some adequate level of security. Until then, they will stay and do what they have been doing; train the Iraqis, rebuild the country, and kill terrorists. Some will make mistakes. Some already have. They are human beings in a chaotic place. But the majority are doing their jobs and deserve the respect and support of all the American people. After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt did not set a timetable for when American troops would be withdrawn from the war. He didn’t alert the world that after a certain date, we would leave regardless of the state of the theater they were deployed to. To have done so would have been absurd. At this stage in the current war it would be equally absurd. We all want to the troops to come home, to come home soon. But to come home without victory, without leaving Iraq at a place where it can adequately secure itself would do near irremediable damage. The American soldier deserves better than that.
These humble words are not meant to be a political soapbox. They are meant simply to highlight that which our soldiers have had to endure and what they are still enduring. George Orwell said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Even if you don’t believe that the war in Iraq is a worthy application of such violence, it certainly was in 1941 and you can bet it will continue to be as long as mankind walks this earth.
So pray for those rough men who are tracking down the terrorists. Pray that they can come home soon. Write them letters. Find a veteran, from Iraq or Afghanistan or Iwo Jima or Normandy or Korea or Vietnam. Thank them. In the special features of the DVD Gunner Palace the filmmaker did a follow up interview with one of the soldiers he followed in Iraq after they both had returned to the States. When asked what his friends ask him about Iraq he said they always asked him if it was like the movies. Then he added, almost as an after thought, “They never say thank you.” If you know any veterans, make sure that you’re not the reason they could make a statement like that.