Remember Pearl Harbor, WWII GIs

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, denounced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as “a date that will live in infamy.”

Flags fly and various remembrances are held each a on Dec. 7, including gatherings of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

This year’s get-together will be the final one for the association, most of whose members are in their 90s. The group will disband on Dec. 31, according to news reports.

In the 70 years since Pearl Harbor, the United States has changed a great deal. The veterans who survived the attack on Dec. 7, 1941 represent a generation that was greatly characterized by love of country, respect for God, life and liberty, and the fortitude necessary to fight back from a devastating blind-side attack – at the cost of thousands of lives and incredible hardships in steaming jungles and brutal battle conditions across the Pacific, as well as the other arenas of World War II. They are the ones former TV newsman Tom Brokaw wrote about in a book aptly titled “The Greatest Generation.”

For a generation already hardened by the Great Depression, the attack and war that followed galvanized and transformed the United States into a world leader, though it took a while for Americans to shed the isolationist perspective they had developed after their experience in World War I and the economic troubles that followed. But once its men and women started battling their way past the Axis forces on multiple continents, the U.S. combined military strategy, diplomacy and economic policy to achieve victory against many odds.

It wasn’t easy. As anyone who lived or served during this time knows well, there were many defeats before the successes came.

The spirit showed by our GIs in World War II gave us a national identity that was responsible, largely innocent, generous, well-meaning, strong, pragmatic, the liberator of oppressed peoples.

The question is: How much of that is true of us today?

A lot has changed since 1941. The U.S. fought two major wars that we didn’t really win – in Korea and Vietnam. It has faced complex, difficult military challenges in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, particularly after the horrific Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

We emerged from World War II as the most powerful industrialized nation in the world. We’ve also been one of the most generous nations in the world – perhaps foolishly so, dishing out billions of dollars to other countries, some of which actually compete against us.

Character is an integral element in one’s personal identity and that of a nation. Multi-culturalism, education, the media, the replacement of religious identity with secularism, social trends such as the breakdown of the family unit, and many other factors have changed the broad character of America over the last 70 years. The “pick-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps” mentality that typified many of those GI’s in the Pacific and in Europe during World War II has been slowly replaced by more of a “what’s-in-it-for-me” approach to life for many. Instead of planting victory gardens, too many of us line up for food stamps when things get tough.

People probably weren’t saints before Pearl Harbor, either, but the number of reports we hear, daily, of today’s ongoing ethics scandals, blatant greed, private and public dishonesty, increasingly polarized leadership and a general decline of what used to be considered basic American character is unsettling. There are, thankfully, exceptions on individual and even corporate levels, but even the most hopeful among us must admit that America isn’t what it was 70 years ago, in many ways.

The men and women of the generation that responded to Pearl Harbor deserve our consideration – and thanks as well – on a number of levels.

If imperialistic and fascist forces had triumphed in World War II, the prospects for America would have been much dimmer over the last 70 years, to say the least. Thanks to the Americans who fought and won that war, we really have only ourselves to blame for any decline in our society.

The determination and focus evidenced by those who fought back after Pearl Harbor is a lesson to us. They did it with much overall intelligence, commitment and moral fortitude. They did what they had to – not because they particularly wanted to, but because it was right.

As a whole, they evidenced qualities we would do well to observe and emulate today: personal responsibility without excuses, frugality, loyalty, humility, hard work, bravery and level-headed common sense.

Think of what our world today would be like in America if we were committed, individually and corporately, to those values.

The generation of World War II is disappearing. The very fact that they still exist is a testament to their values. We would do well to watch and learn.