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Pearl Harbor Myth Poses Dangers

by Ira Chernus on Dec 3, 2001

Ira Chernus

Just a week after the terrorist attack on the United States, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice insisted that “this isn’t Pearl Harbor.” Despite her disclaimer, millions have used the story of Dec. 7, 1941, to interpret the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

The story of a nation aroused to fight on until the enemy is utterly vanquished has become our shared myth. But its appeal is as dangerous as it is irresistible. Clinging to it now promises only an endless cycle of conflict.

Myth appeals to us because it lifts us out of history. That’s why myth is dangerous: though it may hold kernels of historical truth, it denies the reality of history. It gives us a satisfying eternal sameness: Sept. 11 = Dec. 7. With this false equation, the complex history of United States – Muslim relations may be too easily forgotten, just as the history of United States – Japanese relations was too often forgotten.

According to the myth, America was asleep on Dec. 7, 1941, as the Japanese launched their sunrise attack on the U.S. fleet. The nation lay tucked between clean white sheets early on the Lord’s day, the same as it ever was: naive and innocent, isolated from the world.

That myth obscures much of the decades-long struggle leading up to World War II. From the 1890s, the United States claimed a right to keep an “open door” for its products and merchants throughout east Asia and the Pacific. Japan resisted. It saw nothing wrong in wanting to dominate its own region economically, just as the United States dominated Latin America. If that history is ignored, the Japanese would seem to have no possible rational motive for their attack. Their desire to destroy the U.S. Navy came, like their airplanes, out of the blue.

In the same way, the Pearl Harbor myth now masks the reality of the Sept. 11 attackers. It makes them seem to be wholly irrational, with no possible motive. In fact, the murderers were, like us, products of a specific history that led up to their deed. That history can never excuse or justify murder. Neither can that history be erased by retelling myths.

Myth is also dangerous because it merges realities. The Pearl Harbor myth largely erased the differences between Japan and the other World War II foe, Germany. The two came to be seen as a single irrational, totalitarian force bent on world domination. The war became a simple tale of good against evil.

This German-Japanese foe was widely depicted as the devil incarnate. Once German and Japanese actions were transformed into acts of Satan, we had no reason to ask about the historical causes or motives of those actions. In myth and folklore, the devil does evil because it is his nature; he can do nothing else. Today, the Pearl Harbor myth encourages us to view some Muslims as agents of the devil, doing evil for evil’s sake, as if their own history and the world’s history had nothing to do with it.

Of course, Muslims have their own myths. Some depict an Islam creatively struggling to adapt to a globalizing world dominated by Western money and culture. Others tell of Islam defending itself, trying to repel the devil in the form of secular Western values. In the fog of myth, it can be impossible even to hear, much less to appreciate, the other side’s motives. So neither side is likely to consider measures that might ease the conflict.

The attackers of Sept. 11 and their supporters are something new on the stage of history. They committed an absolutely evil act. But they are not fascists, Nazis or devils. As long as the Pearl Harbor myth shapes our response to them, though, we will see them as those mythic demons of the past.

Then our policies will be responses to images of fantasy, not to a real historical situation. We will not be able to grapple creatively with a challenging new reality. There will be no hope of new approaches that might mitigate the evil and the threat it brings. There will be only the images of old devils to fight and conquer. And every fight will spawn a new round of enemies.

The Pearl Harbor myth tells of a final and complete victory over the enemy. In an era of terrorist threat, clinging to such a myth may perpetuate the historical conflict that spawned the problem in the first place, insuring that there will be no final victory. It helps make the words of Vice President Cheney a self-fulfilling prophecy: “There’s not going to be an end date when we’re going to say, `There, it’s all over with’.”

Unending war is not what we are supposed to celebrate on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.


Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a writer for History News Service.