Without Amnesia or Vengeance

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 03, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston--We are getting ready to celebrate the golden anniversary of a dark day and images of the past are already oozing up like oil from the hulk of the USS Arizona.

The Movietone news shots of Zeros and subs and ships in flames are out of storage. There are interviews with survivors. A grandfather remembers a friend who died on the deck beside him and cries as if he were 19 and not 69. The elders who were at home tell about the day the world exploded into their America-first living rooms. Where were you when you heard?

It looks like December 7, 1991, is going to be a day to relive the infamy.

But there are other snapshots as well for this 50th anniversary. At Pearl Harbor, a former Navy aircraft mechanic who survived the attack guides visitors around the memorial. These people come from Tokyo as well as Toledo. ''It was a long time ago,'' he tells a reporter. ''Too long for hate to linger.''

On the mainland, those who remember the war and their grandchildren watch the reruns of this grim ''opening day'' on Japanese-made television sets with Japanese-made cars in the garage. And while some grumble -- ''who won the war?'' -- few think of the Japanese as enemies.

As an American born too late for such memories, I hear all sorts of mixed messages in this orgy of history. Those that resonate most in our world are about the moral costs of both forgetting and remembering the past. History is alive, not just in the Pacific, but in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and everywhere people wrangle over wrongs.

Remember ''Remember Pearl Harbor?'' The price of forgetting any searing moment is the fear that we'll do some injustice to innocent lives that were lost or forever changed. Making bygones into bygones can weaken the claim victims have on our collective sympathy. One cataclysm settles back into what we call historic perspective . . . that endless sequence of cataclysms.

But remembering with an intensity that remains undiminished over time and generations, destines people to live in the past. We become the curators of our ancestors' grievances. What was the George Santayana line? ''Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'' Well, those who remember too well are also condemned to repeat it. To be stuck in feuds far more ancient than the Hatfields and McCoys.

Serbs and Croats are murdering each other, calling up ancient hostilities from as long ago as 800 years. In the rest of Eastern Europe where history itself was occupied by the Soviets, ethnic hostilities have re-emerged, dangling their roots. And those are modern memories compared to the biblical datelines over land disputes in the Middle East.

There is no excuse for sending the past down the memory hole. The final assault of the Holocaust is the ''revisionist'' denial of the Holocaust. Even a Toyota-driving American is uneasy hearing that the young Japanese know more about Hiroshima than about Pearl Harbor. But how do any of us acknowledge the past and honor it without being trapped in it?

Carol Gluck, a historian at Columbia University, makes the case for three Rs: remembrance, reflection and responsibility. ''We don't want to transmit all the burdens of the past,'' she says. ''We're not looking for a constant open wound. What we need is remembrance for those who died and the 'day that will live in infamy.' We need reflection for understanding how it really happened. We need to take responsibility for the past and therefore the present and future.''

This is especially true on this anniversary. In all likelihood, this president will be the last to have fought in World War II. Pearl Harbor is a becoming a geriatric memory now, on its way to history.

It may be the veterans who pass the best message about history to the next generations. Like the guide on the Arizona, most of them have passed through the fourth R, reconciliation.

In the past half-century the Japanese and the Americans, separately and together, have filled a new memory bank. Not always an easy task, but without amnesia or vengeance. So this week, we remember Pearl Harbor, but in its proper place: the past.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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