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Historical Infamy and the Ruthlessness of Time

December 7, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor: a date which, according to the president at the time, would live forever in infamy.  But, as this article points out, 70 years is enough time to turn personally experienced terror into the abstract facts of the history book.  I know it's the way of the world, but I find this deeply saddening.

Pearl Harbor happened decades before I was born, so I guess that in some sense I'm part of the problem.  But it depresses me when I read about a veteran going to give a talk at a school, only to hear the kids ask their teacher, "Who's Pearl Harbor?"  It was always inevitable—because time is a ruthless bastard—that the Survivors' Association would eventually disintegrate.  But... crap.  That's just painful to me.  

I don't have a direct connection to a Pearl Harbor veteran, so I don't claim any special privilege in the way I think about the Second World War.  But I'm a sentimental person, and I believe in the importance of remembering history, so it hits me hard to read about this transition.  Throughout my lifetime—so far—the events of December 7, 1941 have always resided within human memory.  But not for much longer.  The single most significant event in the lives of these veterans has been surpassed by the passage of time, relegated to history books, next to Napoleon and the Roman Empire.  

70 years is a full human lifetime.  People born on the day of Pearl Harbor are now well past retirement age.  WWII vets are of my grandparents' generation.  I suppose carrying the flag for two successive generations is the most we could ask of anybody. 

Younger generations are not immune.  Someday, decades from now, the last person who personally witnessed 9/11 will pass away.  That will be a little different, though, because 9/11 happened in a world of mass media.  Vastly more people have memories of watching those events unfold on television than were actually there.  Things like Pearl Harbor are different, because they belonged to a different time and a different world.

I think about these veterans—and not just these veterans, but all veterans, of all wars—and wonder how it would feel to see the sacrifices and struggles that defined my life to become successively less meaningful, less immediate, to people of each passing year.  Because time, as I've said, is one ruthless bastard.

I guess I'm in a particularly sentimental mood, because this piece about the decline of Kodak also made me pensive.  My parents had a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera; I'm sure just about all of the photos from my childhood were taken with an Instamatic.  I remember those old plastic flash cubes (though, gosh, I haven't thought about those things in years).  I remember being fascinated by those things, and wondering how something so small could explode with so much light without burning the house down or hurting people.  I remember the whine of the camera, and the smell after the flashbulb went off. 

I'm not a Luddite (well, okay, I do suck at social networking, but let's ignore that for the moment).  I don't use a film camera any longer, and I'm quite happy with my digital camera.  I take many more photos than I used to, and of a quality I never could have achieved before.  Technology is a very good thing.  But people of my parents' generation would have said many of the same things about the innovations that made Kodak cameras a feature in every home. 

The passage of time is relentless.  Each tick of the clock pushes us away from the past, and each tock pulls us into the future.


Brochure Printing December 8, 2011 at 1:19 am
The Pearl Harbor incident is one of the most memorable that happened over the history of the Pacific region. Actually, it's my favorite topic during our History subject way back in high school. I also enjoyed it movie adaptation released some time ago. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If not with this, I almost forgot that its been 70 years. - Dylan
Tom Porter December 8, 2011 at 7:40 am
One particular sub-set of veteran's angst I have seen deals with people who worked on classified programs years ago: While visiting the National Cryptologic Museum near Ft. Meade, MD it was interesting to talk to the docents (all retired NSA professionals) and watch them shake their heads as they talked about programs from the Viet-Nam era that they would have been jailed for discussing thirty years ago. I have talked with people regarding earlier programs back in WWII that still would not discuss their work because of the security lectures they once received. It must be a head-exploding exercise to see the details of a program you once worked on discussed in the press when you had once been warned that keeping it secret was a life and death priority. "Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, but he'll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day."
Steve Halter December 8, 2011 at 8:27 am
As Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This seems a truism and the definition of "past" seems to descend to yesterday sometimes. I've always had somewhat conflicted feelings about Dec. 7 "living in infamy" as it also happens to be my birthday and so it always seemed a fairly pleasant day to me--just that particular Dec. 7, 70 years ago was a nasty one and should be remembered as so. The relentless grind of technology--forward ever faster is an interesting effect. The other day we were discussing a video some of the older nieces & nephews had made 15 years ago or so (they did their own Love Shack.) One of our grand nieces (6 years old) asked why they hadn't just put it on You Tube. Just like the Wizard of Oz, it sometimes seems like things really were in black and white.
John Murphy December 8, 2011 at 9:23 am
I think that there's something to be said for forgetfulness, though. The world would be a poorer place if we still bore a grudge against Japan for Pearl Harbor, and unfortunately part of the reason the US doesn't bear a grudge is that so many people have forgotten it. Those parts of the world with long memories never seem to get much benefit out of it. I remember my visit to Greece some years back, and their anger at Turkey is still palpable. They went through a lot under their occupation, and I would never tell them that they ought to forget it... but they might be happier if they did anyway. Ideally, people would know their history and just not attach much emotion to it. But I think that forgetfulness might be the runner up. Kodak's decline is sad, I agree. I remember them fondly from my own childhood. If it makes you feel any better, though, a bunch of enthusiasts purchased one of Polaroid's old factories in the Netherlands and have been working to revive those cameras, and are selling film again. If Kodak goes under, maybe a similar group will do the same.
Ian December 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dylan. I confess to knowing far less than I should about the events surrounding Pearl Harbor, but in some strange way it still fascinates me. I'm glad I'm not the only one. Tom, I'm extremely envious of your visit to the National Cryptological Museum. I've read about it in little bits and pieces, and it sounds like an amazing place to visit. I'll be the docents are VERY interesting people to talk to. Great quote-- do you know the source? It makes me think about the importance of talking to people who were there to witness history first-hand. So many of the people my age are now finding great regret that we didn't interview our grandparents. Steve, I'm positive that your birth was not a day of infamy. But I imagine it must have been a little strange to have your birthday associated with a dark day in history since the day you were born. I'll take your birthday as proof that good things can happen on Pearl Harbor Day Steve Halter Day. (I once met a woman whose birthday was on September 11. I feel for those people, too.) You raise really good points, John. I completely agree that perhaps the best thing would be if we could remember our history, even honor it, without attaching destructive emotions to it. You're entirely right-- the passage of time works in our favor this way, for it is far better to be friends and allies than dire enemies. (That's really cool about the camera enthusiasts in the Netherlands!)
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