National Security & Defense

How to Remember Pearl Harbor Day

The battleship USS Arizona burns after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. (US Navy/Naval History and Heritage Command/Handout via Reuters )
The only effective mitigation against being surprised as we were on December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001, is to be the surpriser and not the surprisee.

Seventy-ninth anniversaries of any event rarely merit front-page coverage. Memory fades, survivors and eyewitnesses leave the scene, and new days of remembrance are instated. Cover it again on the big round-number anniversaries — next year perhaps.

So too with today’s 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the U.S. into World War II. It is no longer a fixture in the emotional, civic, and political calendar. For decades, into the 1990s, it was rare to pick up a newspaper on December 7 and not see the iconic USS Arizona in flames and sinking on the front page. No longer.

Ironically, about the time December 7 started to slip from active civic memory and observation, Congress introduced it into law as an official day of remembrance in 1994.

Through the first four decades after the event, it was hard to remember a Pearl Harbor Day not begun with thoughts of or lessons from the attack. My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Brantley, told us one December 7th of being a little girl at Pearl and lying under the kitchen table in her home on the hills above the harbor — seeing the faces of Japanese pilots through the windows as they raced by on their bombing runs just a few hundred feet above the home.

We have 9/11 now — a raw and contemporary day of national tragedy to observe. The World War II generation is passing on, and our civic culture, such as it is, focuses on different issues.

Pearl Harbor Day is still worth serious reflection though, and not just to mourn the loss of the 2,403 souls killed that day, or to salute the courage of those who persevered and fought through the attack. In addition, our constant and annual refrain on Pearl Harbor Day should be to remind ourselves that surprise attacks are an endemic feature of national security, and it will continue to happen to the U.S. repeatedly if we do not adopt a posture and set of policies that mitigate these attacks’ worst effects.

For a military historian, the only surprising feature of surprise attacks is that anybody is surprised by their frequency. Almost every major event of World War II before Pearl Harbor was a surprise in some fashion: Consider the Japanese incursion into Manchuria; Hitler’s invasions of Poland, France, the Balkans, and Russia; the British destruction of the Italian Mediterranean fleet at Taranto; and many more.

After Pearl, the Japanese continued to surprise elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific theater — sometimes by surprise tactics and methods, as in their previously unimaginable landward-side invasion of the British redoubt at Singapore.

The allies swung quickly into the surprise-attack line of work, effectively shocking the Axis with the landings in North Africa almost a year after Pearl Harbor, and then again in Sicily and on mainland Italy in 1943. Remarkably, after knowing the cross-channel invasion blow would fall in northeast France, the Germans were still caught off guard by the Normandy landings on D-Day. The Americans were surprised in return by the German offensive a few months later in the Battle of the Bulge.

The pattern was ever thus and continues so. The U.S. was surprised in the Korean War (twice) and surprised the North Koreans in return with the landings at Inchon. The Tet offensive surprised us in Vietnam. Israel seemed to have perfected strategically decisive surprise attacks with the Six-Day War of 1967 but was surprised in return during the Yom Kippur War six years later.

I was an Army lieutenant patrolling the border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia in November 1989, when we witnessed the slow-motion surprise of the Iron Curtain collapse. A year later, I was in Saudi Arabia preparing to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had surprised the world with his invasion of Kuwait. Our cavalry regiment surprised the Iraqi Republican Guard by coming out of an unexpected corner of the desert — despite their forces’ being prepared and awaiting our advance for weeks.

A surprise attack on the homeland and civilians is a different order of surprise attack, of course. Before we let it fade into the history books and out of civic practice, Pearl Harbor Day is a chance to formally reflect on this phenomenon of surprise and what can be done about it.

First, we must consciously autocorrect our inclination (especially Americans) to think that if we are done with surprise attacks then they must be done with us. As Michael Howard’s brilliant treatise War and the Liberal Conscience shows, liberal societies such as ours want to believe that the last attack or the last war was . . . just that. The liberal mind (in the classic, not political definition) believes, with a kind of innocent hubris, that peace and commerce are the natural conditions of mankind. The world is flat; countries with McDonald’s don’t invade one another; power politics and surprise attacks are a thing of our barbaric past. Until they are not.

Warnings, even of the most prescient sort, do not work against this mindset. In 1999, I served as a scholar on a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission that issued a report on the likely nature of future security challenges. Our first point in a lengthy analysis was stated thus: “The greatest threat to the United States in the future is the use of catastrophic terrorism against our homeland and our military superiority will not protect us.” The effort garnered maybe 50 short mentions in the national media in the summer of 1999. In contrast, that summer there were over 500 stories about shark attacks at American beaches. This was, after all, the height of post–Cold War peace and the go-go economic years. Nobody had time for a bunch of national-security Cassandras at the Dow 36,000 party.

Second, we must realize that preventing surprise attacks is not a matter of addressing “intelligence failures.” There are always intelligence failures, process issues, and human failings (they were legion at Pearl Harbor) that are culprits in such an attack. To our credit, we investigate and correct them with rigor. But that does not prevent the next one. The bomber will always get through, Stanley Baldwin reminded us.

Intelligence work and even good predictive analysis are important, no doubt. But far too often this fails to detect or help arrest the next surprise. As Lawrence Freedman pointed out in his recent book, The Future of War: A History, we have a miserable track record of predicting the next conflict. But it always comes. And it is different from what we thought.

Finally, and most importantly, as a matter of policy we must recognize that the only effective mitigation against being disastrously surprised as we were on December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001, is to be the surpriser and not the surprisee. Not in the literal sense exactly, but rather in terms of America’s overall strategy and strategic posture.

That posture should be one oriented on the initiative of action (both diplomatic and military), on shaping events with constant activity and ideas, on being positioned forward, of being intellectually if not strategically on the offensive. This is not a call for invasions everywhere, but rather a strategic state of mind. A great power must be on the front foot, not the back. As a rule, for great powers, a passive posture invites attacks.

We are not in that forward-leaning frame of mind right now. Both presidential candidates had a dovish attitude toward American military deployments and commitments, using similar language about deployments and missions abroad. One would end the “forever wars” and the other would conclude the “endless wars.”

This is not a strategy, but rather a sentiment. One that has stayed with us from the time of the draftee military — a World War II sentiment, if you will — and the times when we mobilized on all levels nationally to fight big wars, including the Cold War. But we now have a very small and professional all-volunteer force. Nobody needs to go back to the farm or the factory to get the economy moving and return to normal.

The troops I spent time with over the past few years in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Southern Philippines, and elsewhere are triple volunteers in some ways for these deployments. They like to play “away games,” so to speak. Their work is done in these places — they exercise their craft and their profession there. They are not seeking to end these deployments if the national-security interest calls for keeping some pattern of them going. Great powers do not have walls, oceans, allies, international organizations, or NGOs behind which to retreat.

Over the past dozen years, our leaders have done a poor job preparing the American public to understand that phenomenon and the relatively low cost of having a high impact/low footprint set of deployments around the world — and sometimes the need for high impact/high footprint deployment.

An offensive posture in the world, even principally diplomatic in nature, is the best tonic against tragic surprises. And then, when we are surprised (and we will be), robust resiliency on the back end. We have much work to do as a nation — especially in the areas of cyber and infrastructure vulnerability.

How best to honor the memory of the fallen at Pearl Harbor 79 years ago today? By reducing the chances of future Pearl Harbors and 9/11’s through being prepared intellectually, culturally, and strategically.

John Hillen, a former assistant secretary of state, is the James C. Wheat Professor in Leadership at Hampden-Sydney College’s Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest, and a member of the NR, Inc. Board of Directors.


The Latest