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“Remember Pearl Harbor!” and forget all else

How a cult of American militarism continues to mobilize our society toward warmongering and imperialism.

Pete Doktor

As a so-called Generation X veteran, I have come to understand the iconic and reactionary slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor!” not as simply a generic, nostalgic saying, as much as an American jingle that preaches a general predisposition for self-victimhood, universal distrust, vengefulness and the ceaseless posture of a war hawk in need of routine feeding. December 7, the date that Imperial Japan targeted threatening U.S. military bases in the colony of Hawaiʻi in 1941, has been immortalized by many Americans as a singular reason to perpetrate ceaseless militarism.

To be clear, “militarism” does not refer to a reasonable right to self-defense of one’s borders against actual hostile invasions. Rather, militarism is the exploitation of war for purposes other than self-defense. The U.S. has a rich history of warring for economic, political and cultural agendas—and has often justified warmongering with political proverbs like the one we’re encouraged to recite each anniversary of the “Day of Infamy.” This slogan, and others like it, will be used to reinforce historical amnesia and modern myths on the occasion of the 75th Anniversary of the attack this year.

As the November 30, 1941, Hilo Herald Tribune headline “Japan May Strike Over Weekend” reminds us, the so-called “surprise” attack of what is now commonly known as “Pearl Harbor” near Honolulu was not without some warning or provocation. This is not to say that the murderous, strategic attack by the Imperial Japanese fleet could ever be considered justified, let alone just. But declassified documents confirm what has been understood for some time: the intention of Imperial Japan to retaliate against overseas U.S. expansion of military forces in the Pacific was known to the FDR administration before the attack occurred. While the exact date, time and location may not have been known, decrypted communications exposed internal Japanese reactions in response to an economic war and oil embargo pushed by the Roosevelt administration against the competing Asian industrial power.

Lest we forget that fascist Japan may have previously been an ally of the U.S.—sharing in the spoils of WWI—but when the formidable Japanese Empire began to compete with Western empires scrambling for resources and overseas markets, which included the overthrow of aboriginal peoples and sovereign nations, as was the case with the Hawaiian Kingdom, the “Allies of Imperialism” suddenly condemned Imperial Japan’s participation in the very same carving-up of the Asia-Pacific hemisphere that Western powers had already been engaged in themselves for more than a century. 

Diary entries by Secretary of War Henry Stimson suggest that the United States may have intended for the Japanese military to make the first attack in order to manipulate U.S. public support for entry into WWII at a time when many United States citizens were wary of entry into another bloody, global conflict. Nevertheless, many still want to believe that the U.S. was simply a victim of unprovoked foreign military aggression and sabotage, and we continue to cultivate and then use this perception of American victimhood to justify combat operations to this day. This mythology has fed an ongoing national paranoia that threat to the nation is omnipresent and inevitable. For some, the specter of Pearl Harbor justifies knee-jerk, self-destructive “preemptive strikes” and vengeance, derailing genuine law, justice, conflict resolution and human security.

The war cry “Remember Pearl Harbor!” is as powerful as ever. It has enabled a faith-based disposition toward the sanctification of war, something I personally experienced as a naïve, misled teen who dutifully volunteered for military service after swallowing the sales pitch that I was defending U.S. constitutional principles and borders. The uncritical, trivial American public education I was provided with at the time never enlightened me of the historical reality that we have invaded, and will likely continue invading, other sovereign nations over resources and in the name of national security when, in reality, these conflicts are schemed and executed for the material enrichment of a handful of powerful oligarchs. War fervor continues to intoxicate the masses with a license for ignorance that results in a lethal arrogance—ultimately enabling the delusional amnesia that grips the U.S.

“Remember Pearl Harbor!” has come to be unconsciously understood as “Forget Puʻuloa!” Puʻuloa is a reference to one of the indigenous names for Pearl Harbor. A name that was lost when the sovereign nation of Hawaiʻi was illegally overthrown in a conspiracy by American industrialists, backed by U.S. Marines. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” demands that we forget Puʻuloa—and the roughly 820,725 acres of additional land (a fifth of the total land in Hawaiʻi) that was stolen at bayonet-point and remains occupied to this day by the American government.

“Remember Pearl Harbor!” means giving license to look the other way when the U.S. government exploits tragic incidents like the attack on the USS Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, 9/11 and more, for military expansion. It means forgiving the manipulation of its citizens into celebrating and—quite literally—paying for, in taxes and blood, the vicious cycle of war. It has emboldened the U.S. empire to create a shrine for the glorification of militarism at the USS Arizona Memorial at Puʻuloa, where millions come to worship imperialism and martyr the unfortunate Naval enlistees that tragically perished, while minimizing—if not altogether ignoring—the fact that civilians increasingly suffer disproportionately more than military personnel in the wars of today. 

“Remember Pearl Harbor!” is not a relic from the past, but America’s own “Banzai!” alive and well in the 21st century. While the U.S. ritualizes and Romanticizes the 75th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, it conveniently forgets that foreign military occupation still continues in colonies like Okinawa, now 70 years after that war supposedly ended, and ironically made possible through the continued treatment of Okinawa as a colony by right-wing politicians in Japan. Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 is no different than what happened in Ryūkyū (“Okinawa”), Hawaiʻi, the Philippines and, more recently, in Iraq. And incidents like these will continue to happen so long as Americans are caught up in catch phrases like “Remember Pearl Harbor!”

As First Nation peoples throughout the Americas and beyond, in places like Standing Rock, Mauna Kea and Henoko, rise up to defend from destruction the motherland that has sustained all our ancestors for millennia, the ruling oligarchy of America flexes its military-industrial-communications-policy complex to capitalize on an American mythology of justified violence, from Guam to Guantanamo, to invent receipts on stolen goods after the fact. We must challenge the recycled, overly simplistic narrative of “good guys vs. bad guys,” American victimhood and American self-righteousness if we have any hope of moving human society past the point of endless war and destruction.