IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The wrong metaphor

Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 are being linked in a historical shotgun marriage that is does little to help Americans understand either event, writes MSNBC’s Michael Moran.

Sixty years ago, scores of Americans died in an underhanded attack that caught this powerful nation with its pants down. This fact does not diminish the heroism of those who died at Pearl Harbor nor those who fought to avenge it. But the attack was not the bolt from the blue it is too often remembered as today. It followed a decade of tension with Japan in the Pacific and occurred more than two years after Hitler launched World War II in Europe. By 1941, the United States should have been at war already. Pearl Harbor never should have happened. And the similarities between Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 end right there.

ON THE 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, there’s nothing an armchair general would like to do more than pen a rousing essay drawing parallels between the events of Dec. 7, 1941 and the horrible attacks of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington. All the elements of a good yarn are there: sound and fury, the news peg, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the very superficial coincidence that both attacks caught this nation napping. The analogy has the added benefit of a happy ending, at least if you are an American. The good guys win, so to speak, then they rebuild, enlighten and befriend their vanquished foes and everyone lives happily ever after - except for the Commies.

Luckily, history, and my readers, hold me to higher standards. Fact is, the analogy between what happened on Sept. 11 and what happened in Hawaii 60 years ago is deeply flawed. It is nothing less than the difference between war and terrorism, between an empire’s lust for territory versus a madman’s lust for blood. Pearl Harbor was not the Sept. 11 of the 20th century. Pearl Harbor was an attack by one military force on another, one giant empire on another. Beyond the banal fact that “we should have seen it coming,” there’s not a lot to learn from the similarities. In fact, it is the differences that matter today.


It is tremendously important that the United States understands these differences. In 1941, Japan made the tremendous mistake of dragging an isolationist United States into a war it was quite happy to ignore. Europe already had been overrun by Hitler, and much of China and all of Korea were ruled by Japan. The enemy was a cast of villains torn right from the pages of Hollywood: the megalomaniacal Hitler, the brutal buffoon Mussolini and the power-hungry Tojo. Yet the American mood, mindful of the slaughter of World War I, was “it’s not our fight.”

After Pearl Harbor, of course, the nation rose as one. A depressed economy sputtered into gear and boomed for decades. Scrap metal, automobile tires, ships, aircraft, entire industries, were commandeered for the war effort, along with fathers, sons and ultimately mothers, too.

This was total war. Men lined up to join the service. Women donated their silk stockings to be turned into parachutes. People painted their windows black to become invisible during air raids. Submarines torpedoed American ships within sight of the Eastern seaboard. Ration cards made meat, milk, fresh vegetables and whiskey scarce on the homefront. Baseball was suspended. There was no escaping it: America was at war.


Is America today “at war?” All the television stations and news sites say so. Yet there is no executive order commandeering strategic industries. There is no draft, nor are there long lines of young men at military recruitment centers. There was no dramatic declaration of war, nor is there a nation, necessarily, to declare war against.

In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt told America to prepare itself for battle against the force of evil and intolerance and to expect deprivations on the homefront. In 2001, President Bush vowed to fight those same forces, then took to the airwaves to urge people to take their vacations and enjoy life for the sake of the economy.

And what of the enemy? As in the 1940s, the enemy is indeed evil. But where does he live? Certainly not in a chancellery or an imperial palace. Perhaps a cave in Afghanistan? A university dorm in Hamburg? A grass hut in Java? Or maybe in a condominium down the street from you? How do we fight this enemy?

Defeating Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini (and even, later, Stalin and his successors) was more straightforward. Once defeated on the battlefield, they lost their appeal, even to their own supporters. Do fanatical Nazis or Communists or Shinto fascists lurk in desert camps awaiting their chance to hijack an airliner? Are there schools indoctrinating a new generation of children with the idea that it is a honor to die for the emperor, or that only the “vanguard of the proletariat” can truly look after their interests? Even in China, that idea is laughed at these days. These old enemies — even communism, which persists in a demoralized, decaying form — were completely different. They offer very little guide to a war against stateless zealots.


Despite all these differences, it is understandable that a part of the American soul yearns for this comparison. All the great sacrifices made during World War II, and all the victories American armies and navies piled up in their four years of fighting, make that period a natural safe harbor in confusing times. We fought the good fight, and by and large, fought it because we were attacked first.

That is the case today as well, but the water is far more muddy. It is not quite accurate to compare the isolationist America of the 1930s with the hyper-interventionism of the 1990s. Nor can you pretend that America’s cultural influence on the rest of the planet circa 1941 amounted to a hill of beans compared with the combined throw-weight of the 21st century’s most potent weapons: Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue and Wall Street. The fact is, Pearl Harbor needs no updates to be properly understood, and an attack on American military forces on a tropical island that was then not even a state is radically different from the slaughter of thousands of civilians in this nation’s two most important cities. Honor and remember the victims of both, to be sure. But lumping them together in a historical shotgun marriage diminishes what is unique and important about both tragedies.