BOSTON -- I am lying here in a post-adrenaline state of exhaustion, recovering from the visual attack of "Pearl Harbor." This is what it must be like to emerge from a dark, cold video-game parlor into the summer sun.
"Pearl Harbor" is not just proof that you can make war, make love and make money all at the same box office. It's "War is Hell" as presented by your military recruitment office. It's chaos and ruin filmed in such loving detail that the audience doesn't recoil.
By now, you know the seminal scene: a lazy Sunday morning of Dec. 7 filmed in its glorious peacetime normalcy. Boys are playing baseball, girls are dancing in angel costumes and a young wife is hanging out the laundry. Overhead, Japanese planes are flying to a rendezvous with destruction.
This is nothing if not a tale about America's loss of innocence, circa 1941. But "Pearl Harbor" is more than that. It's a conscious restoration of our innocence about war itself, circa 2001.
The Hawaiian outpost has long been the icon of our role as the good guys of the good war. It symbolizes the most unambiguous moment of war, the morning when we were victims, the day that "shall live in infamy," the time we were still a "sleeping giant."
The symbolism is so powerful that in February when an American sub accidentally rammed a Japanese fishing vessel in the same waters, the repeated demand for American apologies was greeted with jeers. Sure we'll apologize, said many writers to many newspapers, just as soon as the Japanese apologize for Pearl Harbor.
Almost 60 years later, many Japanese still have trouble dealing with World War II. As historian John Dower, who wrote "Embracing Defeat," says, "We remember Pearl Harbor and they remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
This spring, a Japanese school textbook written by nationalist historians created a huge flap in China and Korea. The revisionists make no mention of wartime atrocities.
This deplorable whitewash of history is only one of many textbooks available to high school students. But the internal Japanese debate over teaching World War II is reminiscent of arguments here over teaching Vietnam. The Japanese Committee to Create New History Textbooks argued that history should make children proud of their country. Haven't we heard that before?
In Japan, says Mr. Dower, conservatives talk about getting over the World War II syndrome the way American conservatives talk about getting over the Vietnam syndrome. Outside of politics, a powerful lobby of families of the 2 million Japanese servicemen who died in World War II insists that their husbands and fathers were culpable only of dying for their country. Isn't that familiar?
And is it a surprise that many Japanese believe that at least some atrocities were not the fault of the warrior but the war? Wasn't that our reaction to Bob Kerrey's memories?
It's said that the current attention to the Greatest Generation, to World War II, has as much to do with getting past Vietnam as with honoring our fathers. But sitting in a darkened theater, I sense dangers in getting "past" the ambiguity of wartime right and wrong, dangers in getting "over" an understanding of the essential brutality of combat. Dangers in retreating to a belief in the good war.
In "Pearl Harbor," filmmakers shot the Japanese attack from the ground and showed devastation and death. But they shot the heroic Doolittle raid on Tokyo from the air, overlooking the reality that civilians, even children, also were killed there. That doesn't make the raid wrong. It makes it war.
I am a child of World War II. The Japanese began it; we ended it. I believe deeply that it was a just war. Which is not the same as a good war.
So I remain uneasy when we cover the horrors of war with the heroics. Yes, this is just a movie. But in the midst of the action, high jinks and romance, the line that echoes the loudest was uttered in the opening scene. A World War I vet and father warns the two future pilots eager for their war: "I pray to God no one has to see the things I saw."
CORRECTION: In a recent column on polygamy, I said that if Utah wanted to stop the abuse, it should raise the age of marrying from 14. Well, Utah beat me to it. The legal age was recently upped to 16 with parental consent, or 15 if a judge rules that it's voluntary. That's just a little better.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.