Lesson taught at Pearl Harbor hasn't sunk in

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 03, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

My father was shooting pool when the war started. My mother was sitting in an apartment in the Bronx with her mother and her 12-year-old brother, and everybody asked, ''What's Pearl Harbor?''

''Sure,'' I say to my mother, making a little joke 50 years after the fact, ''a Pearl Schwartz, you might have known. But who knew a Pearl Harbor?''

My mother's memory is jarred. Actually, she says, there was a Pearl Schwartz in her apartment building. But, a Pearl Harbor? No, half a century ago they didn't know such a place existed until the moment that dreadful news came over the radio.

Everybody says it was America's last moment of innocence, but I think everybody's got it wrong. It was that generation's last moment of innocence, but not America's. Generations are entitled to their innocence, but nations with memories have to know better, or else everybody winds up paying the price.

When the news about Pearl Harbor arrived, my father was standing in a pool hall with his friend Bernie Mayer. The next morning, my father signed up for the Air Force and Bernie joined the Marines. Barely out of adolescence, my father flew bombing runs over German cities with strange sounding names and Bernie fought in jungles that had no names.

The loss of innocence was theirs, but surely not America's. Hadn't the nation fought a war only a heartbeat of history earlier? Have you forgotten yet? the poet Siegfried Sassoon asked at the close of World War I. Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

But the nations of the world had forgotten. It's what they do while everybody's looking the other way. Forgotten, as Sassoon put it in ''Aftermath:''

. . . The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench

And of dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, ''Is it all going to happen again?

For Americans, it began happening again at Pearl Harbor. Was innocence lost? At Thanksgiving dinner last week, some of us sat around the table and asked our elders where they were when they heard the news.

''I was playing touch football in Druid Hill Park,'' Jacob Gitomer said. He was 22 then. ''We were down by the No. 2 diamond, and somebody had his car radio playing nearby and the door was open, and we heard them cut in with the announcement.

''The thing is,'' he said, ''everybody figured it'd be over in three weeks. Guys were saying, 'The Japanese? They live in cardboard houses. We'll knock 'em off easily.''

In their youth, they were entitled to their innocence. But, 50 years later, as the newspapers and the television networks remind us this week, the nation itself was pathetically unprepared for war -- and the world was blind to its consequences.

We look at the old photographs now, and the grainy newsreels, and find uncomfortable emotional chords being touched. Loved ones were lost back there in an instant of treachery. Remember Pearl Harbor, the nation cried as it went off to war, and 50 years later, we still do.

But what about the larger lessons? Are we still claiming to be innocents about war? The American politicians cry peace while selling arms to five-sixths of the nations of the world. The American president watches the fall of communism but proposes a five-year military budget that, in constant dollars, would be 25 percent higher than 20 years ago, when we simultaneously fought a hot war in Vietnam and a cold war with the Russians.

Pearl Harbor brings out our national bitterness: Not only over the events of 50 years ago, but of today's economic warfare. Everybody says Japan lost the military war but won the economic war.

Can we still be innocent about that? The Japanese poured money into the rebuilding of their communities. America built missile systems and bombs while communities fell apart. And even now, with peace breaking out among the former cold warmongers, the preparations for war -- ours, somebody else's, it really doesn't matter to us as long as somebody's willing to pay for the arms -- the preparations go on, and so does the dying of American communities.

That's the real lesson to remember from Pearl Harbor: War doesn't work. Nobody really wins.

In ''Palm Sunday,'' Kurt Vonnegut wrote, ''Entire nations love to blow the hell out of other nations, and then come like angels and pass out glass eyes and artificial limbs and Hershey bars and all that, to rebuild everything, to get everything going again.''

But why not cut out the middle man, which is war itself? We were taken by surprise 50 years ago, but we couldn't claim to be innocents when we'd just come out of another war. We talk of peace now, but where is our innocence when we pass out bombs before we pass out the glass eyes?

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