Seventy-six years ago today, a sleeping giant was awoken.
It was a clear, beautiful Sunday morning on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Civilians and military personnel alike shuffled to church, nursed an ailing hangover from the night before, or reported for duty on one of the dozens of war vessels anchored in Pearl Harbor. The island, just west of Honolulu, must have felt like an oasis far removed from the daily troubles of the American mainland. For many it was paradise. That soon changed.
With almost no warning over 400 Japanese fighter pilots buzzed the harbor unleashing a hellstorm of bullets and bombs on the unsuspecting American soldiers. Over the next few hours these navy men endured punishing attack after punishing attack while doing everything in their power to inflict as much damage on the Japanese aggressors as possible. When the fighting finally ceased, the destruction was catastrophic. Over three hundred U.S. aircraft were damaged or destroyed while they just sat on the runways around Pearl Harbor. Over twelve ships had sustained significant damage, while another six were completely sunk. The human cost was enormous as well, with over 2,300 killed and another 1,100 wounded.
Our collective sense of security as a nation was shattered in just a few hours. For many, if not most, Americans the attack came as a complete shock. Never could we imagine a foreign nation hitting us so suddenly and so violently. Relations with Japan had been strained for a decade, resulting in a slow yet inevitable path to war. However, the scenario that we experienced had seemed too fantastical, too incredibly unlikely, for it to actually play out in real life. While Americans reflect on the sacrifice and loss on December 7th, 1941, we should also recognize the lessons we can learn from this tragedy.
In 2017 we sit in a precariously similar situation to America in 1941. Though we are keenly aware of the threat of terrorist attacks from radicalized small groups, a substantial attack on our nation, like the one we experienced with Pearl Harbor, does not exist in our collective consciousness. Having endured the last seventy years without experiencing another attack from abroad, which included the vast majority of World War II and the ensuing, constant threat of conflict that accompanied the Cold War, we believe ourselves to be insulated from any such conflict. This sense of invincibility, of permanent security, is built on a paper foundation.
“I still believe us to be that sleeping giant in the 21st century, capable of responding with unrelenting might that would annihilate any enemy.”
In the years leading up to Pearl Harbor there were many telltale signs of the coming conflict. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. In the following years they continued their geographic expansion throughout China and Southeast Asia. There were constant incidents when Japan directly provoked American forces in the Pacific, including the “accidental” attack of the USS Panay. Japan’s aggressive actions and rapid military expansion set off alarms for US leaders, causing implementations of certain policies to weaken Japan, such as imposing an oil embargo. While this all took place, Americans in general saw Japan as something to keep an eye on, and nothing more. That obviously changed when the first bombs fell.
In the last several decades we have watched North Korea take a similarly perilous path toward conflict. They have constantly engaged in provocative behavior and engaged in brinksmanship at regular intervals. Pearl Harbor is an event we never want to see repeated, but it’s one we should be prepared for. For a nation to carry out an attack of such magnitude requires two things: means and motivation. North Korea may be the only nation on the planet with both.
In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor many boldly stated that the Japanese had awakened a sleeping giant. I still believe us to be that sleeping giant in the 21st century, capable of responding with unrelenting might that would annihilate any enemy. But we must be vigilant in our monitoring of the actions of North Korea, and be prepared as a society to do what must be done in the eventuality that war does come. This is not just the responsibility of our leaders, but of the people as well.
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