Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Ruminations 98: Brief Reflections on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day

AP file photo 1941 (available HERE)

As time passes, what was for the Nation a personal and deeply felt event, one that changed the course of American history, or at least the narrative of the nation and its self conception,  becomes  more an more a historical moment.  That historical moment in turn, becomes the object of narrative rewriting (if the event is to retain meaning in the historical resent) or otherwise recede in the national memory into what eventually will be a footnote used to torment students of history by teachers obsessed by dates and events.

Sometimes, and for a little while, the political branches of the general government will be moved to legislate an importance to such events. And in the process will also seek to legislate its meaning. So it was that as the generation that lived through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in the then fairly new territory of the Hawaiian Islands began to age and die in increasing numbers, Congress sought to legislate memory by enacting Public Law 103-308, as amended, designating December 7 of each year as “National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.” Much more advanced in its progress toward the hidden recesses of history has been the 8 December attack on facilities in the US territory of the Philippines on 8 December 1941 initiated within hours of the strike on Pearl Harbor and launched the invasion of the territory by Imperial ground troops (a remembrance here).

The text of the "National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.” is worth reading from time to time and on no better day than this:
Public Law 103-308 103d Congress 36 USC 169. Joint Resolution Designating December 7 of each year as "National Pearl Harbor Remembrance

Aug. 23, 1994 Day".

[H.J. Res. 131] Whereas, on December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Air Force attacked units of the armed forces of the United States stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Whereas more than 2,000 citizens of the United States were killed and more than 1,000 citizens of the United States were wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor; Whereas the attack on Pearl Harbor marked the entry of the United States into World War II; Whereas the veterans of World War II and all other people of the United States commemorate December 7 in remembrance of the attack on Pearl Harbor; and Whereas commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor will instill in all people of the United States a greater understanding and appreciation of the selfless sacrifice of the individuals who served in the armed forces of the United States during World War II: Now, therefore, be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That December 7 of each year is designated as "National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day" and the President is authorized and requested— (1) to issue annually a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities; and (2) to urge all Federal agencies, and interested organizations, groups, and individuals, to fly the flag of the United States at halfstaff each December 7 in honor of the individuals who died as a result of their service at Pearl Harbor. Approved August 23, 1994.
Presidents have duly produced the required proclamation in the years since. They do not vary much within the terms of an administration.  The 2020 Proclamation of Mr. Trump may be accessed here; compare the text of the 2012 Proclamation of mr. Obama HERE. Governors will usually then order flags flown at half staff (example here), and perhaps increasingly muted commemorations are held as the pool of those wil direct memories shrinks and their memories as well. Generally they follow the language of the Proclamation and explain it to suit the year, though usually in marginally different ways.  But then, in how many different ways may one proclaim a day of remembrance for the dead during the course of an event that formally brought the United States into war with the Japanese Empire and thereafter with the German Reich? To what ends a reduction of the event to a (well deserved) commemoration of individual sacrifice quite precisely contextualized within history?

Perhaps a way to think about the answer to these questions  depends on the utility of key moments in history to those who manage the construction and reconstruction of national identity, national purpose, and national senses of one's place i the world and in relation to others. The Japanese Imperial attacks on Pearl Harbor, as part of its half century long effort to construct its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere then blocked by the Americans, has been overtaken by events.  Japan is now a key American ally and a key partner in the development of economic and cultural globalization. The American war to reconstruct its own sense of its national volk has produced a refocus from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the incarceration of Japanese citizens and residents by the Americans after  that start of the war. And Americans  have cultivated a quite distinct and self critical view (or rather a war among its elites respecting the view) of militarism and imperialism especially after 11 September 2001. New forms of co-prosperity have been put forward since 1945; and these new models of co-prosperity keep coming to suit the times and the reach of those states with the power not just to conceive of new forms of such shared prosperity but of the ideological principles and power relations necessary to give them effect.
And yet, despite the fairy wooden and increasingly detached motions of memory practices with increasingly less enthusiasm by Americans to honor their own history and their own historical choices (however flawed they may appear to their descendants, and thus judged, used strategically for modern internal battles for the national soul), there are others  who continue to invest the Great Japanese War of the Pcific with increasing rather than decreasing meaning.  It is to that  movement--to the re invigoration of the "meaning" of the defeat of the Greater East Asia Co-Propserity Sphere, and the contemporary contests for its replacement with a different foundation for East Asian Co-Prosperity centered elsewhere and under a distinctly different ideological basis, that perhaps ought to be worth the moment of contemplation that the commemorations of 7 December 1941 were designed to foster.
But that will not happen. And the opportunity to consider the cyclidity of history and the repetition of patterns of long term movements in the region--as well as their effects in the world, will be missed: certainly by the Trump Administration, quite likely by the incoming Biden Administration, and yet not by the administrations of those other national victims of that Japanese experiment in global economic and political control.  As Americans continue their journey to the innermost regions of a national soul now in construction, others may now be (quite vocally and publicly) drawing a different and more aggressively outwardly projected, set of lessons that may one day soon be put to the test.  

To those who died on that day, and in the years that followed, the nation rightly salutes you and acknowledges that supreme sacrifice in defense of the nation. May you find peace everlasting, and may your loved ones find solace  in the great good that emerged through so much pain.

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