All's fair in love
Every year, toward the end of the fall
semester, a professor of Japanese history at UC Berkeley would
enter his classroom with a wry smile on his face. “It’s
entirely fitting,” he would say, “that we’re discussing
the Pacific War today, on December 7.” And the students
would look at one another knowingly. As the years went by,
however, the understanding exchange of glances became less
frequent, until a generation of students arrived that found
little significance in the phrase “Pearl Harbor.”
No more. Hollywood producer Jerry
Bruckheimer has seen to it that every American past
kindergarten age knows that Japanese forces conducted a sneak
attack on U.S. troops stationed in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.
Every American knows because of a Disney
summer blockbuster starring Ben Affleck, looking
supernaturally handsome in his well-tailored uniform, and
English actress Kate Beckinsale, looking wholesome and
This three-hour romance cannot diminish the
sacrifice of the 2,403 Americans at Pearl. If anything, by
detailing the deaths of these servicemen and women,
Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay have given them new life
when they were about to vanish from popular memory.
And despite Asian-American fears, it’s
hard to imagine that the film’s ever-so-respectful treatment
of the Japanese will inspire much in the way of anti-Asian
activity. If there’s a sin here, it’s one of omission. We’re
left with the impression that — aside from the heroic Cuba
Gooding Jr. — the United States in 1941 was rather lily
white. The war in the Pacific, “Pearl Harbor” suggests,
was fought over oil, without a racist overtone to be heard on
Nevertheless, a dangerous dishonesty
threatens to diminish these 2,043 deaths, perpetuating the
myth of the victimless conflict so expertly developed during
the Gulf War. The United States was unique among the major
powers in World War II in its lack of physical and civilian
damage. But it dealt out destruction with the worst of them.
In fact, the stakes may have been higher, as this country and
Japan battled for the throne of the new, postcolonial imperium.
Pearl Harbor: The Movie takes the easy way
out. The Japanese attack on December 7 struck nearly no
civilians; Doolittle’s counterattack claimed a few
noncombatants, but the targets of the B-25 bombers were mainly
munitions factories and other military facilities. That’s
where the action ends, in Bruckheimer-Bay’s version.
In reality, that’s where it began. It
ended, for Japan, in a series of fireballs that — despite
present-day lore — were only minimally nuclear.
We bombed the hell out of Tokyo and most of
the rest of the archipelago.
Listen to Japan observer Edward
Seidensticker: “The incendiary raids began in March .
The most dreadful of them, on the night of March 9–10, did
very much what the fires after the earthquake [of 1923] had
done: destroyed the Low City [where artisans and blue-collar
workers lived]. Waves of bombers came in for two and a half
hours from just past midnight. The planners of the raids had
hit upon what may have been the urban concentration most
hospitable to fires in the whole world, and they had hit upon
the proper season….
“Some two-fifths of the city went up in
flames.... Between seventy and eighty thousand people are
believed to have died that night.” The death toll in
Nagasaki from the atomic bomb was 70,000; 140,000 in
Listen to historian John W. Dower: “On
August 10, the day after the Nagasaki bomb,… the Japanese
government made clear it intended to surrender…. While this
was taking place, General Henry H. Arnold, one of the major
planners of the U.S. bombing strategy, was desperately
attempting to arrange ‘as big a finale as possible’ to end
the war. It was his dream to hit Tokyo with a final
1,000-plane air raid — and on the night of August 14 he
succeeded in collecting such a force and sending it against
the already devastated capital city. A total of 1,014 aircraft
— 828 B-29 bombers and 186 fighter escorts — bombed Tokyo
without a single loss. President Truman announced Japan’s
unconditional surrender before all of them had returned to
The movie posters all over town, showing a
squadron of alien aircraft swooping past kids playing
baseball, suggest that the attack on Pearl Harbor brought an
end to American innocence. If so, we learned fast.
Garcia, Mexicans to reconquer the United States?