Sunday, December 07, 2003

Echoes of the Day of Infamy...
Sixty-two years ago today, the United States was propelled into World War II by a sneak attack upon it's naval base at Pearl Harbor. Once again we pause to remember the dead, over 2,000 young lives sacrificed at the outset of a war that would eventually kill millions, and this is as it should be. Loss of life, whether accidental or by design, should always be remembered. We would be less than human if we didn't take the time to remember those that have passed, regardless of circumstances.

I'm sure the web will full of requiems for the Pearl Harbor dead --- things like this lend themselves to constant reflection about how they came to pass, what came to pass and how such tragedies can be prevented in the future. Some of these blogs and such will be full of fury for what many consider a "cowardly act" and others will try to stress understanding, for both sides, in an effort to promote some "can't-we-just-all-get-along" philosophy.

Many will draw paralells between the events of sixty-two years ago and our own day, and while such things are always useful, they tend to be quite superficial as well. People will point to the nature of the attacks, the unpreparedness of the victims and the government, and the anguish and agony of the survivors and their loved ones. I will draw some parallels here too, but I hope that perhaps I might break some new ground for my readers, maybe make them think about stuff they never thought of before. I certainly will not take any credit for what I write here because it has all been written before in other places. Perhaps I just might put a different perspective on it.

I'm a student of history. By that I mean the continuing saga of mankind, warts and all. I'm not one of those that studies Patton's campaigns, for example, from the American point of view and then call himself "informed". The other side has a tale to tell too. Both sides will exaggerate, of course, but in the final event, the side that was victorious will have their point of view held up as the sole version of truth --- with all the dubious spin put upon it in order to justify the actions of an individual, a tribe or a government.

Sixty-two years ago Japan found itself in a very unusual position --- it had emerged from a self-imposed exile to find that it was a backwards nation and society compared to the world as a whole, or at least the parts of the world that counted at the time: Europe and America. Looking across the Sea of Japan at a China, once the paramount example of civilization in Asia, the Japanese could see that if they were unable to defend their islands, their people and their way of life, they would become the next China, a rotting carcass being piced apart by foreign vultures. Japan changed itself from an insular, island people living in a feudal society into a world power litterally overnight. It did so by embracing the very methods and technology that it had first dreaded and found distasteful, or at least it adopted the technical and physical aspects that it believed were necessary to create a world power --- a strong army, a first-rate fleet, humming factories and overseas colonies.

It had to do this, however, with no indigenous raw materials such as were available in Europe or America. The only way Japan could get these things was by diplomacy or outright conquest. Conquest appealed more to the natural instincts of the Japanese warrior ethos, and thus, became their means of achieving modernity. Every impulse, every diplomatic initiative, every economic policy was tied to the idea of Japanese domination of land, resources and, ultimately, other people. Nothing was done within the Japan of 1900-1945 that was not subordinated to the belief that Japan was a great nation and could be greater still, and following the example of the Europeans, that Japan was destined to dominate all it came into contact with. It thought in these terms as an extention of national survival. When that survival was threatened by an embargo of oil and raw materials by Europe and the United States, the Japanese reacted with what they thought was perfect rationality, but which in hindsight, turned out not to be so great.

And it happened this way because Japan had only superficially absorbed Western culture. It took the icons and left behind the most important things; freedom, consentual covernment and the notion of the worth of every individual. Yes, Japan held elections, and people were well-fed and educated, but this was a facade, a veneer, if you will. Beneath it all, Japanese culture was still rigorous, stratified and dominated by the few. Japan paid for that inability to absorb the lessons of what it sought to emulate with two atomic explosions and millions of dead.

In today's world, a similar situation exists between the Western world and the nations under the sway of Islam. Arabs and Muslims the world over see the West as an example to be copied, to be embraced. They love the things that we take for granted: hospitals, television, airline etravel, running water, plentiful food. The problem they have with Westerners and western culture, much as the Japanese did, is that Western culture comes with things attached to it that they are not prepared for or misunderstand. As a result, atempts at modernization typically fail or maybe just achieve enough of a change to make it look like something one could charitably call "Western" or "modern". Islam too is another of those rigidly stratified societies that does not believe in the uniqueness and worth of the individual, does not take the questioning of it's authority or beliefs all that well, and which also has a long history of a warrior tradition.

Islam seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the Japanese. In the end, Japan was leveled, devestated and ultimately occupied by those she made no effort to truly understand, but whose ways they wanted so desperately to achieve for themselves. Today, American soldiers occupy Iraq, Afghanistan and are working around the clock to prevent Pearl Harbor episdes like the ones in New York or Washington, D.C. Part of this will be done with military force, just as it was done in 1941-45. Most of it will be accomplished by personal contacts between Americans and Iraqis or the Birtish and the Afghans. People thrust into a situation where they must live side-by-side, co-operate for the common good, often rub off on each other. In the end, it was just such contact that turned Japan into a true democracy and kept Germany from unleashing another war of holocaust in Europe. It will happen again in the Middle East.

This is the most important paralell we can draw from Pearl Harbor --- in the end, nations may clash, ideologies may collide, but human beings ultimately dictate the outcome after the shooting stops, and they do so on a one-to-one level that diplomacy and government can never emulate. It is a form of contact that transcends religion and ideology. The simple expression of a common humanity.

I salute the memory of those that died sixty-two years ago, both American and Japanese. You died fighting for your respective countries and for the things that you believed in. However, I applaud the fruits of the last fifty-eight years of friendship whose seeds were planted in blood.

I would love to see the same thing happen with Islam, I just pray that millions don't have to die before it happens.

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