Sometimes it takes something drastic

A few days ago I was watching my stalwart and headstrong three-year-old son as he was playing near the edge of our front porch, a front porch that drops off at least two feet on one side.

“Come away from the edge,” I said. “Or you’ll mess around and hurt yourself.”

Sure enough, the little blonde-haired and blue-eyed darling stumbles and falls off. Uninjured, thankfully, but hurt just enough to make him whimper and maybe take his father’s counsel a little more serious. Maybe.

As I sit down to write my weekly column, on this the 70th anniversary of the sneak-attack by the Empire of Japan on Pearl Harbor Naval Base, the one thing I thought about was the importance of learning from one’s experiences, especially when they include some manner of tragedy.

One added twist to the pain of learning things the “hard way” is when one learns after the fact how such calamity might have been avoided.

Leading up to that “day that will live in infamy,” American military tacticians knew an attack on Pearl Harbor by carrier aircraft was possible, and they believed Japan might well expand its war eventually.

Among the many pieces in the puzzle was an intercepted coded Imperial Navy radio transmission, indicating an enemy fleet in the vicinity. Yet this crucial information was missed, ignored, and unheeded because it didn’t fit the prevailing mindset of the time.

However, the imaginative insight was incomplete and they underestimated Imperial Japan’s imagination and audacity. Terribly so.

Of course, after the Pearl Harbor attack  the U.S. built a defense establishment designed to prevent another Pearl Harbor.

The United States spent trillions of dollars spying on potential perpetrators of a surprise attack, building a security establishment to deter or defeat it, and engineering equipment to fulfill those missions.

Despite these measures and renewed emphasis, only a few decades later my own generation was shocked and appalled by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

These sorts of surprises can and will occur but the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and wisdom is known by her children.

An array of anchored battleships snug together in a narrow harbor is a nice photo op, not common sense and a violent organization that announces it has declared war on Western Civilization is no mere cultural problem.

To those for whom this is familiar territory, it is worth revisiting. For those, like myself, who are younger than 70, it is perhaps worth a closer look.

I do not feel that the “greatest generation” was necessarily better or braver than other generations. But I would dare say that more of them seemed imbued with a sense of duty that I fear is woefully lacking among my own peers.

A nation’s collective historical memory is not fixed. Lessons that seem crucial at one point can be ignored at another. Memory, even of the most unforgettable events, is unstable and can be transformed by new circumstances.

No doubt this is as true for Dec. 7, 2011 as it was for Dec. 7, 1941 and so it goes onward into the future.

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