AFTER 50 YEARS, you would think there wouldn't be much left to say about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It started a terrible war, Japan suffered, we suffered, and it ended. Now we buy their cars and TV sets and eat sushi; and they dress like us, listen to rock music, and eat our fast foods.
But it's an anniversary, although I don't see why the passage of 50 years is any more significant than 48 or 51. So now we're getting Pearl Harbor specials on TV, in newspapers and magazines.
And the same questions are going to be asked over and over again: Should Japan apologize for the sneak attack? Should we apologize for nuking civilians in two of their cities?
Some will say yes to both questions. Many will say yes, the Japanese should apologize because they started it, and no, we shouldn't because we won it.
I've considered the issues and have decided that I'm not sure.
If the Japanese want to apologize, that's OK. It was, after all, a sneak attack and not very sportsmanlike.
On the other hand, war is the most foul of human activities. The idea is to kill other human beings. And once the killing begins, there is little sportsmanship involved.
So does it really matter how Japan got it going? There are no rules requiring a kickoff or a jump ball; an umpire to say start shooting; or both armies to come out of their corner at the bell. One side or both sides start killing and the terrible game is on.
Actually, the Japanese would have been stupid to do it any other way. Our government knew we might be attacked. Yet, we gathered much of our Pacific fleet in one harbor like sitting ducks. It looked almost like an invitation, and some historians believe it was.
If that was the case, we really couldn't expect the Japanese to send us a diplomatic note saying: "Excuse us, please, we want to get this long-anticipated war under way, as you do. However, you have all those ships in Pearl Harbor. If you leave them there, we will be forced to bomb them on a quiet Sunday morning. Then everyone will say we are sneaky. We would rather not bear this stigma. Please disperse ships so we can get the show on the road in a fair and equitable manner. Thank you very much."
If you believe they should have done that, then you sleep with the front door unlocked and the ignition keys in the car.
As for the second question -- should we say we're sorry for nuking civilians? -- President Bush was asked by reporters and he gave a flat no. There will be no apology.
His is the basic American position: We didn't start the war, they did, so we have no reason to to apologize for how we chose to end it.
And if we hadn't nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it might have been necessary to invade Japan. Had the Japanese defended their own country as fiercely as they did those tiny Pacific islands, an invasion could have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Japanese.
So, that argument goes, by dropping The Bomb, Harry Truman saved more lives than he took. Because a member of my family would almost certainly have been hitting the beach at Japan, I can't fault Truman for possibly saving his life.
But there are historians who now say that we might have accomplished the same ends by dropping one atomic bomb on an uninhabited mountain top or in a harbor to let the Japanese know what we could do if they didn't surrender. If we had done that, they say, the Japanese would have folded, we would have won, and the lives of thousands of innocent civilians -- women and kids -- wouldn't have been snuffed out.
We'll never know because it didn't happen that way. And in the year 2041, if anybody is still around, they might still be arguing that point. And we still won't know.
So I would just as soon take a pass on any further Pearl Harbor observances. Just as I will skip the anniversary of the sneak attack that began the Korean War. And the stupidity that led to World War I. And any anniversary connected with the Vietnam war, the Gulf war, and the mini-wars in Granada and Panama. And I'll skip reading "Scarlett" because I'd rather not think about the Civil War.
What Pearl Harbor tells us is the same thing that all of the other great and small conflicts have told us: that Man, the most advanced creature on this planet, with his incredible brain, his devotion to so many wonderful religions, his capacity for goodness and greatness, is basically a jerk.
Not being a jerk means never having to say you're sorry.
And as John Wayne would say, that'll be the day.