Sunday, December 8, 2013


Today is the anniversary of the date on which President Roosevelt asked the U.S. Congress to declare war against The Empire of Japan. In short order, Germany and Italy declared war on us and we reciprocated.

World War II was my first fascination in history. I wasn't much younger than my son is now when I first started reading heavily about it. At that time, I would find the Pacific war far more interesting than the European. I found the stories of combat more interesting than the stories of diplomacy, economics, and popular culture. I've matured, and am a bit more inclusive as to what parts of the story merit my attention. 

One clear memory of my youthful fascination I have, however, is that I really dwelled on battles and events near the end of the war, such as Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and D-Day. Perhaps it's because the instruments of war were more interesting (my favorite planes included the F4U and the B-17G). I think the bigger reason was that the outcomes didn't seem as much in doubt if I read about events in 1944 and 1945. 

A few years ago I had the chance to watch Ken Burns' The War from beginning to end. It's a masterful documentary, though I don't savor it the way I do his The Civil War. A particularly chilling part of that miniseries, however, discusses the mood of the country in the earliest months of that war, and there is a wonderful interview in it of a woman who wondered why we weren't doing anything to help the poor boys stranded on Bataan. The simple answer: there wasn't a thing we could do. 

One of the many things that sets our military apart from others today is that we have the power to go anywhere. We can insert battalions of highly trained troops anywhere in the world within 36 hours. And if someone would threaten us the way Japan did in 1945, well, they wouldn't even dare to threaten in that way. We have vulnerabilities now; the era since 9/11/2001 leaves no doubt as to that. But the threats to us aren't existential. 

In that winter of 1941/42 victory was anything but certain. It's hard to fathom that as a citizen of the world's sole superpower. Seventy-two years ago, the American people had fear to believe their way of life was truly in danger and they lived in a fog of war, with no social media to help them make sense of events, and even a government who was keeping some of the more pessimistic developments under wraps so that we wouldn't lose any hope. 

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